I’m fascinated by some of the ‘miniatures’ in art, like the incredible details in manuscripts, or the shading and realism of a woodcut. Another astounding and often overlooked example of an artist working in miniature is the prayer nut.
Prayer nuts were all the rage in the 1500’s. Rosaries are a beaded loop meant to aid the devout in saying their prayers. In our culture we think of prayer beads in connection with Catholics and the Rosary. In reality many faiths use prayer beads.
A prayer nut is an additional larger bead that can be opened and contains carvings within to aid in personal devotions. Some prayer nuts are extremely intricate, containing 50 figures of more. Sizes range from the size of a walnut to that of a golf ball. Made from boxwood, the outside of the prayer nut is either covered in intricate geometric designs, or sometimes encased in fine metals.
The small balls open up to reveal scenes from the life of Christ, most often scenes of the crucifixion and passion week. Many also contain scenes of the nativity narrative. There are the two half spheres that artists had to work in, and then often additional panels that were opened to reveal the second half of the sphere. These panels provided additional room for carvings.
Within the sphere portion of the ball the carvings were done in high relief, meaning the figures are almost fully formed, although still connected to the wood of the background. In contrast, the carvings on the panels are generally a low relief, almost an etching of the story.
Words frequently circled the ball telling what stories were included in the sculptures.
While the prayer nuts were designed to aid the owner in their daily devotion, they were also a sign of wealth. Only the wealthy could afford such a luxurious item, and while professing piety and devotion, and owner was able to simultaneously display piety and wealth, a win-win.