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A One-of-a-Kind 16th-Century Miniature Dutch Nativity Scene

Published on , by Marielle Brie
Auction on 27 January 2023 - 15:30 (CET) - Salle 2 - Hôtel Drouot - 75009

This tiny triptych from the collection of Charles Boucaud, a unique piece from the studio of Adam Dircksz, will attract a lot of attention due to its rarity and provenance.

Adam Dircksz and studio, Southern Netherlands, c. 1500-1530, miniature boxwood triptych... A One-of-a-Kind 16th-Century Miniature Dutch Nativity Scene

Adam Dircksz and studio, Southern Netherlands, c. 1500-1530, miniature boxwood triptych depicting the Adoration of the Magi surmounted by the Annunciation to the Shepherds between the Annunciation and Joseph’s Dream, h. 17 cm/6.69 in, w. 9.9 cm/3.89 in (open).
Estimate: €80,000/120,000

Teeming with life and finely carved details, this triptych resonates with a hypnotizing horror vacui. Dense, lavish ornamentation catches the eye and draws it to the central scene, divided into two separate tableaus. The various elements describe a schematic representation of Gothic architecture from the early 16th century, when this rare work was created. It belongs to the very small circle of devotional micro-sculptures created in the studio of Adam Dircksz, who was active between 1500 and 1530. The fact that very little is known about him does not detract from the virtuosity of each object created in his unique studio, which seems to have had no competitors in its field. Admired and collected since their creation, these micro-sculptures filled a niche market specific to the Netherlands in the early 16th century. While a few crowned heads received the stunning objects as gifts, most were commissioned by the aristocracy and the new, wealthy class of entrepreneurs who made their fortunes in trade and emerging industry, trying to outdo each other’s magnificence to solidify membership in the Dutch elite. The rare, precious works that came out of Adam Dircksz's studio were the quintessence of luxury at that time. Today, they are among the most sought-after marvels of medieval art. The dainty triptych is only 17 cm high and about 10 cm wide (6.69 x 3.89 in), including the base. A prime example of devotio moderna, it is entirely dedicated to meditation. The sumptuous scenes, rich details and remarkable precision will transport the lucky new owner into deep reflection where time disappears.

A Small Work for a Great Miracle
The Nativity scene is set in the central panel’s thin trilobed Gothic arches, bridging the period between the biblical and contemporary eras. The Virgin Mary presents her newborn child, standing on her heavy drapery, to the Three Wise Men (one of whom is missing) kneeling before him. The architecture builds a link to the next scene, where the divine angel announces the birth of Jesus to the dumbfounded shepherds. The readability is flawless, and the detail is amazing. Acanthus leaves measuring a few millimeters give the Flamboyant Gothic style rhythm, while the garments with angular folds attest to the Northern medieval dress of the period.

The panels on either side recall key moments leading up to the Messiah’s birth. On the left, the archangel Gabriel unrolls the divine message to Mary on a large phylactery. On the right, a dozing Joseph is guided by the dream that the Lord’s angel inspires in him: when he awakens, he will not drive away the Virgin, but remain by her side. Characteristic of Adam Dircksz's studio, the interiors are those of the 16th-century Netherlands, where wealthy houses had mullioned windows and tile floors. It is hard to grasp how the sculptor could have carved the plethora of exquisitely refined details in the triptych’s cramped, hard-to-reach spaces.


A Microcosm
The Art Gallery of Ontario, Metropolitan Museum of Art and Rijksmuseum have jointly carried out patient research to unlock the secret of how these miniature altarpieces, rosaries and prayer nuts were made. There are barely 100 in the world, distributed between major museums and private collections. All are in boxwood, a hard, dense species whose grain is easy to work in both directions. The wavy surface effects make up for the almost total lack of polychrome, making them virtuoso works of outstanding ingenuity. None of the objects are made from a single piece of wood, but with different parts that fit into each other inside a niche whose depth depends on whether it is a nut or a triptych. Each miniature corresponds to a plane of the scene and participated in the creation of an ensemble held together by tiny mortise and tenon joints, glue or dowels. This method gives the sculptor more room to work on the background motifs and the high or medium relief with very fine saw blades, knives or augers whose diameter ranges from 0.3 to 1 millimeter (0.01 and 0.04 in). In our shallow triptych, the Nativity and the Annunciation to the Shepherds form the first plane, inserted into a niche whose vault was carved beforehand. The Annunciation and Joseph’s Dream feature exquisitely carved figures and angels. Expert Laurence Fligny stresses the outstanding craftsmanship of this piece, where the delicate faces do not bear a trace of tools, but she also notes the unusual base, which, shaped like a vine branch, is unique in the known works of Adam Dircksz. Coiling around a torso column, might it be an evocation of Christ’s words according to the Gospel of Saint John—“I am the vine; you are the branches”—or the studio’s intense level of devotion?

Friday 27 January 2023 - 15:30 (CET) - Live
Salle 2 - Hôtel Drouot - 75009
Giquello & Associés
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