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CHAPTER X

MICROSCOPIC OR MINIATURE WOOD SCULPTURE T^HERE is a series of undeniable works of art in

wood to which the term microscopic sculpture

is applicable in default of a better term under which to classify them. The boxwood carvings described in the preceding chapter would seem to form an intermediate class between these very minutely executed works and those which range from statuettes to life-size and even colossal dimensions. If, indeed, the use of a microscope is not absolutely necessary, it is at least an aid which is of considerable use for their appreciation, and they can well stand the test. These curious wood-carvings, on a minute scale, are all of the same character, and though nothing is certain, it is difficult not to imagine that the known examples—of which nearly every collection of importance contains a more or less elaborate specimen—must all be from the same workshop, perhaps even by the same hand. The beautiful examples bequeathed to the nation by Baron F. de Rothschild are so representative of the class that it would be quite sufficient to confine our attention entirely to them. More than one is unequalled elsewhere, and the collection is easy to inspect among the other beautiful surroundings in the Waddesdon room of the museum. Easy to inspect, but not to handle, these precious objects, for so fragile is their nature owing to the extreme tenuity to which some of the carved details have been reduced that it is doubtful if permission will ever again be given to do so for the purpose of photographing them. We are indebted, therefore, for our illustrations to the photographs previously taken for the official publications. Generally speaking, these minute carvings are very clever reductions of monumental Gothic work, or of the altarpieces which were themselves in the architectural style of the period. Even if original to some extent in arrangement, they follow, in common with work of greater proportions, the system, so usual in the minor arts, of copying from paintings, engravings, and sculpture generally. Chefs-d'oeuvre of technical skill in execution, they are in no way inferior to the altarpieces which have been described in previous chapters. No doubt the fashion was suggested in the first place by some simple ornamentation of the ordinary rosary bead. This became extended, and the beads were increased in size from an inch to three or more in diameter to admit even of figure work and scenes in perspective. These beads — paternosters, grains-de-chapelet, or, as the Germans term them, prayer-nuts—are no doubt the earliest in date. A further extension of the idea are the miniature altarpieces, tabernacles, memento mori, and other pious bibelots, of which there are charming examples in the Waddesdon and Wallace collections. In course of time the simply-carved beads were made to open on a hinge as a diptych, sometimes even as a polyptych, and were deeply and elaborately carved, within and without, with figures and episodes in sacred history in full relief. Often, again, these precious and fragile carvings were further enclosed in outer cases of delicate open work, and the two hemispheres divided by a thin metal plate engraved and enamelled: after the fashion, in fact, of a pomander box. Naturally, also, in response to the spirit of the time, the idea lent itself to all sorts of quaint conceits. We have the favourite memento mori subject repeated in numerous grotesque and terrifying and even repulsive ways. There are strings of grinning skulls and half-decayed heads, or the living head of fashionable beauty in conjunction with the representation of what it was fated to become after death. There was a similar fashion, of course, in the mediaeval ivories. Or again, as in this collection, a tiny coffin, with a ridged lid, which opens and discloses a skeleton with its attendant horrors, or a representation of the Last Judgment and the tortures of hell. A natural extension of the idea from the beads, in diptych or polyptych form, would have been the application to other devotional and even secular objects, always on the same minute scale, and always with the same exhibition of dexterity of handiwork and extreme carefulness of execution, with at the same time evidence of a master in art on a level with the most distinguished sculptors of his time. Doubtless this mixture of talent of such a varied kind must have had a considerable reputation, though all trace of the artist, or artists, has been lost.

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There is so much similarity in the technical execution of the fairly numerous examples of this microscopic sculpture which still exist, that it would seem evident that they must have been the work of one particular sculptor, or have proceeded from one particular workshop. It is hardly likely that the accomplishment could have been a common one, which astounds us by the apparent impracticability of detaching, without breaking, such details as the hairlike spears of the soldiers in the crucifixion scenes, the multitude of figures carved in the round and standing detached from the background in perspective landscapes (as in the larger retables), and the undercutting in almost inaccessible portions of the subject, always with the same precision and perfection of finish. Of course, as in the case of the well-known Chinese puzzle-balls, the problem would lose its charm if joins of any kind were permitted. There are two most important pieces in the Waddesdon collection: a miniature altarpiece on a richly-carved base ornamented with figures, and a very curious and elaborately contrived structure, mounted on a stand, which the official catalogue describes as a ' tabernacle.' We need not quarrel with this term, for it would be extremely difficult to find an alternative one which should be entirely satisfactory. As an example of this description of work, in which ingenuity and dexterity of handicraft are joined with design from the hand of a master, it is probably unique. It would not be easy to describe, in a few words, the subjects depicted on the central panel and wings of the retable, or the complicated construction and variety of figure work of the second piece. The illustrations here given must speak for themselves (Plates xx1x. and xxx.). In the centre of the altarpiece is the Crucifixion with the three crosses raised on high, the thieves on each side struggling with their bonds: beneath are a multitude of tiny figures, the holy women, priests, soldiers on foot and on horseback, and the people generally, in the manner of the Flemish and German primitives, and the altarpieces copied and adapted from their pictures. Analogies will, of course, present themselves to those who are familiar with these subjects, but the question, however attractive, is not one for which space can here be found. With a magnifying glass, and even without it, one can distinguish the expression of the features admirably portrayed, the minutiae of the costumes, the harness and accoutrements of the horses, the hairlike ropes binding the thieves, and the equally hairlike spears of the soldiers, completely detached, without any support from the background. One only of the latter shows any injury, being slightly bent, after four hundred years and more of existence. The wings of the triptych are, as usual, in low relief. Beneath, and enclosed with doors, is a

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