Sweating the Small Stuff


in Archive


I like little books. Actually, I like little things of all kinds, miniatures. But tiny books are a special delight. Northern Europe in the 15th and early 16th centuries was a good time for little books. I’m thinking in particular of the work of Simon Bening. He was the last great Flemish miniaturist. You can see one of his miniature Books of Hours at the Morgan Library right now in their “Flemish Illumination in the Era of Catherine of Cleves” exhibit.

In these days of the release of the iPad, it is amusing to think that the miniature book was, in a way, the first attempt to deal with the problem of books and portability. Books of Hours were devotional books containing daily prayers. Their smallness made them easier to carry around. As is so often the case, utility led to aesthetic and formal innovation. Miniature books became interesting and desirable in themselves. Artists like Bening got excited by the challenge of tinyness.

One of the pages of Bening’s Book of Hours on display at the Morgan shows the flight into Egypt. Mary and the infant Jesus ride a donkey while Joseph leads the way. As the curators of the exhibit note, “The miniature also attests to his attention to detail: note, to the right of the Virgin’s head, the tiny gold statue that has toppled from the column on the hill. The idol’s fall symbolizes the collapse of the old pagan world.”

The tiny statue is great, but it is not even the best part of the illustration. Deeper in the background, to the left of the fallen statue, is another party on horseback and, behind them, a tiny boat on the miniscule river. Not only did Bening depict the biblical story of the flight to Egypt, and include symbols of the fallen pagan world, he also managed to include the rest of the world, the mundane comings and goings of the individuals of the day, oblivious to the miraculous events in their midst.

It is almost as if the smaller the miniature, the more it can do. As the surface area for painterly depiction reduces, the need to capture an entirety grows. The miniaturist would collapse the universe into a point, because that is the only way to have everything. Smallness becomes bigness and vice versa. The fascination with miniature books is thus a close relative to the fascination with the idea that microscopic universes are to be found within the molecules of our own world, or the flip-side idea that our own universe is merely a sub-atomic particle drifting about in some macro-universe that is itself a sub-atomic particle and so on, and so on.

Such thoughts probably lead to madness if pursued too far. But that is the excitement of the miniature, the thrill of the tinyness that is, paradoxically, so close to the infinite, the absolute.

I do wonder what is happening on that little boat in the miniscule background of Simon Bening’s illustration of the flight into Egypt. The people on the boat don’t know that the Christ child — the manifestation of God become flesh on Earth — is strolling by on a donkey just a couple of hills away. They have their own worries. They are thinking about the currents on the river or wondering what to have for dinner. Maybe the owners of the boat are themselves reading tiny books to pass the time on a lazy afternoon. Maybe within their tiny books are pictures of tiny boats in the background scenes of the tiny illustrations to be found there. How far down could it go? It is impossible to know, which is why every miniature is, actually, a universal vastness. • 23 April 2010