Lot 29
  • 29

North Netherlandish, first quarter 16th century

30,000 - 50,000 GBP
bidding is closed


  • Prayer nut with the Road to Calvary and the Crucifixion
  • boxwood, with gilt silver mounts, in an 18th-century silver case
  • North Netherlandish, first quarter 16th century

Catalogue Note

This small boxwood orb is decorated on the exterior with a regular network of drop-shaped recesses with quatrefoil piercings and a band of twisted branches that resemble a crown of thorns. When it is opened two intricate concave reliefs representing Christ on the road to Calvary and the Crucifixion are revealed. The two scenes, each less than 4 centimetres in diameter include no less than 27 men, 10 horses, 5 women, a bishop, a little boy, a castle and a camel. 

Such orbs were designed to be worn on a rosary or belt and could be used for private devotion when its wealthy owner travelled and are therefore known as rosary beads or prayer nuts. A fragrant substance might have been inserted behind the reliefs so that with help of the openwork on the outside, the prayer nut might have doubled as a pomander. More recently, however, it has been suggested by Scholten that this particular type of early 16th-century prayer nuts was reduced to such a small scale that it probably became impractical to use (op.cit. Bulletin, pp. 337-339). Rather than being of purely religious or talismanic use they might therefore be among the virtuoso carvings commissioned for the earliest cabinets of curiosities, made to be studied and marvelled at.

Netherlandish boxwood prayer nuts are almost exclusively found in the world's leading museums nowadays, including good examples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. nos. 17.190.473, 474a and 475), the Louvre (OA 5609), the Rijksmuseum (BK 1981-1 and 2010-16) and the British Museum (WB.235). Two examples in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (17.190.473) and the British Museum incorporate scenes based on the same models as the present example. A third nut with these scenes formerly in the Spitzer collection (op.cit.) has a similar inscription. The prominent presence of Saint Veronica and her veil in the present reliefs is unique and might therefore allude to the original owner’s profession, name or patron saint. The original silver case of the recently acquired prayer nut in the Rijksmuseum (op.cit. Bulletin, p. 334) has gilt floral mounts much like the ones mounted on the present nut.

E. Molinier, La Collection Spitzer. Antiquité, Moyen Age, Renaissance, Paris/ London, 1890-1892, vol. III, p. 258, no. 14, P. Williamson, Netherlandish sculpture 1450-1550, cat. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2002, pp. 107, 140-149; F. Scholten, 'A prayer-nut for François Du Puy', The Burlington Magazine, July, 2011, pp. 447-451; F. Scholten, 'A prayer nut in a silver housing by 'Adam Dirckz'', The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, 59, 2011, pp. 323-347