A Renaissance miniature in wood and feathers

Pendant triptych with scenes of the Passion, 16th century, boxwood, feathers, gold, enamel, 4.4 x 4.4 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Additional resources

Read more about this object on The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website

Learn more about the expanding the renaissance initiative

Check out the Boxwood Project

Read more about New Spain

Read more about featherworks from New Spain

Learn more about Mexica featherwork

Expand renaissance initiative logo

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:06] We’re in the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the Spanish Court, and we’re looking at a tiny object. I can’t imagine how this was made by human hands. This is a pendant triptych. By pendant, we mean something that hung, likely on a chain of some sort. We can see the loop at the top. It’s a triptych in that when it was opened, it has three parts to it.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:27] This pendant triptych is actually showing scenes from the Passion, or the final hours in the life of Jesus. It is what is called a microcarving in that the carvings — here made of boxwood, which was native to the Mediterranean region — are done in miniature.

[0:45] Besides the boxwood, there’s another material that makes this object even more precious. That is that when it was made sometime in the first half of the 16th century, small pieces of iridescent feathers, likely hummingbird feathers, were glued in the background of the different scenes.

Dr. Harris: [1:03] We have this gold object that is embellished on the outside with enamel. But when it was opened it must have seemed miraculous, because you had this tiny carving, but [also] these brightly colored feathers behind it. You almost, I imagine, had the sense of looking at something almost heavenly, almost divine.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:24] Boxwood carving was popular in northern Europe in the late Middle Ages, and especially in the 16th century. But this object is most likely created in Mexico in the 16th century.

Dr. Harris: [1:36] We guess that because of the hummingbird feathers.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:39] This object really speaks to some of the monumental changes that are happening on a global scale in the 16th century as the result of European colonization.

Dr. Harris: [1:48] Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés goes to Mexico and conquers the Aztecs and other peoples in Mexico, and they saw this Indigenous artform of featherwork.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:00] And so with these transformations some things cease to exist or they are eradicated, but then some things continue and some things are modified.

[2:07] Feather-working continues after the Spanish conquest, but the subject matter is what transforms, so instead of it being subject matter that you would see prior to the Spanish conquest, we now have it in the service often of Catholic artwork.

Dr. Harris: [2:21] Feathers being an organic material, they haven’t survived very well.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:25] It’s very hard to see the remains of the iridescent feathers that would have been glued to the background of this microcarving.

Dr. Harris: [2:32] Yet, despite the lack of that vibrant background that used to be here, when we look at this, we can immediately recognize standard Christian subjects that appear in so many 16th-century works of art.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:46] In this traditional Passion narrative, we actually start on the right top of the triptych. It starts with the Agony in the Garden, where Christ has a vision of what’s going to happen to him. Below that, we have the Flagellation, where Christ is being whipped. Then we have Christ brought before Pontius Pilate. Then on the top left, we have Christ carrying the cross.

[3:07] Then in the center, which is where you have the largest of these microcarvings, we have the Crucifixion, and we see Jesus in the center flanked by the two thieves, and then individuals on the bottom, likely Mary and others, who are kneeling at the base of the cross.

Dr. Harris: [3:23] Despite their tiny, tiny size, we can read their gestures, their emotion.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:29] Now, this would have been a private devotional object. It’s a luxury object made of expensive materials. Jewelry was one way that people used to get around sumptuary laws, or laws that were put into place to restrict people from showing off their wealth in public.

Dr. Harris: [3:43] This is likely made in Mexico, and we know that feathers were often associated with sacrifice.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:50] Among the Nahua peoples of Central Mexico for instance — such as, say, the Aztecs, or the Mexica — feathers did have this association with sacrifice.

Dr. Harris: [3:59] Perhaps that’s the reason why we see feathers used in the background of this scene, there’s some transformation of meaning that occurs with the same medium.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:11] [It] would have made a natural parallel to the sacrifice of Jesus. Most likely the feathers glued here would have been done by an Indigenous artist whose name we don’t know any longer. Feathers were also luxury objects in Mesoamerica prior to the arrival of Europeans, so that this is in of itself a luxury object.

Dr. Harris: [4:29] It’s really interesting to think about all the different media that are coming together here, the boxwood, the featherwork, but also the different cultures.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:37] You have not only the many Indigenous artists who are already in the Americas, but you also have many different types of artists coming from Europe. So these itinerant artists coming from places like Spain, Flanders, and elsewhere who are crossing the Atlantic, who are then coming to places like New Spain and are training Indigenous artists in these European techniques.

[4:59] We don’t know whether or not this microcarving was done by a Flemish artist or an Indigenous artist or if it was a collaboration between a group of people, but what we can say is that there is this interesting combination of techniques and forms that are speaking to this globalized world in the 16th century.

[5:15] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank and Dr. Beth Harris, "A Renaissance miniature in wood and feathers," in Smarthistory, September 29, 2020, accessed July 21, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/a-renaissance-miniature-in-wood-and-feathers/.