7 of the Met’s Tiniest Masterpieces

Abigail Cain
Dec 1, 2017 11:38PM

Statistics for the Metropolitan Museum of Art often number in the seven digits. Its building spans 2 million square feet in upper Manhattan; it played host to 6.7 million visitors last year; and its world-renowned collection includes some 2 million works. Faced with these numbers, it can be easy to forget that this New York institution also houses some of the world’s smallest art and artifacts. From a 19th-century necklace of miniature portraits to an ancient Egyptian scarab, here are seven of the Met’s tiniest works of art.

Skeleton Astride a Skull (late 18th–early 19th century)

1.5 x 1.1 x 1.4 in.

Rantei, Skeleton Astride a Skull, late 18th-early 19th century. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

This macabre miniature is part of a Japanese tradition that has its beginnings in 17th-century fashion. As men’s kimonos evolved, they no longer featured pockets in their sleeves. Instead, men began to carry their things in pouches hung from strings around their necks; they used small, carved objects to counterbalance the weight of their bags. These objects eventually became known as netsuke, and as time went on, they developed an elaborate vocabulary of religious subjects, literary characters, and mythological elements. Netsuke could even be funny—this particular example from the Met’s collection was intended to make light of human mortality.

Prayer Bead with the Adoration of the Magi and the Crucifixion (early 16th century)

Closed: 2.3 × 2.2 × 2.2 in

Prayer Bead with the Adoration of the Magi and the Crucifixion, early 16th century. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Armed with magnifying glasses cut from quartz, foot-powered lathes, and tiny chisels, saws, and drills, 15th- and 16th-century Dutch woodcarvers somehow managed to fashion impossibly intricate Biblical scenes out of boxwood. These prayer beads were often hinged, opening up to reveal scenes ranging from the legend of St. Jerome to the crucifixion. They are so detailed that it’s possible to make out single feathers on angel wings, buttons on coats, even grout lines between bricks.

Necklace Ornaments, Frogs (15th–early 16th century)

0.9 in.

Necklace Ornaments, Frogs, 15th-early 16th century. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Aztec nobility often adorned themselves with golden jewelry, using beads shaped like animals such as turtles or, in this case, frogs. Although each diminutive amphibian appears identical from a distance, a closer look reveals small variations—evidence that they were made using the lost-wax process, in which individual clay molds were broken after casting in order to free the object inside. It’s difficult to know if this particular work was the product of Aztec jewelry-makers themselves, or the Mixtec people of southern Mexico, revered for their skills in wax casting.

Watch (ca. 1645–48)

Diameter: 2.2 in.

Jacques Goullons, a master clockmaker working in Paris during the 17th century, has several intricately painted watches in the Met’s collection. This particular example was likely owned by King Louis XIV himself, due to the fine workmanship and precious materials—and, of course, the portrait of the young king on horseback featured on the interior of the top lid. Even finer brushwork can be found around the rim of the watch, which features six vignettes of a figure trekking through baroque landscapes.

Tip of a Pointer (1080–1150)

1 x 0.5 in.

Standing just an inch high, this golden, thimble-like object would likely have been attached to the end of a long pointer—a tool used by public speakers in the Byzantine era as they read a document aloud. Its intricate detailing is an exceptional example of cloisonné enameling, an ancient technique in which small strips of wire are attached to a larger object to form compartments that are filled with colorful enamel or other precious materials. These designs, in particular, bear a resemblance to those found in Byzantine illuminated manuscripts from the same period.

A Mother’s Pearls (1841)

Various sizes, from 1 x 0.9 in. to 1.75 x 1.6 in.

Thomas Seir Cummings, A Mother’s Pearls, 1841. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Thomas Seir Cummings was one of the most prolific (and best-trained) miniaturists in 19th-century America, even teaching the craft at the National Academy of Design in New York City for more than three decades. He put his talents to personal use in this gift for his wife, in which he linked tiny portraits of their nine children to form a one-of-a-kind statement piece. When Cummings exhibited the necklace in 1841, a critic for the New York Express dubbed it “a very good idea”—although no one else seemed to catch on. The object remains the only known example of miniatures combined in such a manner.

Scarabs and Seal Amulets (ca. 1479–1458 B.C.)

Various sizes, approx. 0.8 x 0.7 x 0.3 in.

Scarabs and Seal Amulets, ca. 1479-1458 B.C. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Between 1926 and 1927, the Met sent a team to excavate an ancient funerary temple in Egypt’s Western Thebes. In the end, they unearthed a cache of almost 300 scarabs and stamp-seals, the majority of which ended up in the collection of the New York museum. Carved to resemble a beetle on top, these miniscule artifacts can be flipped to reveal inscriptions underneath, which would have been pressed into clay to leave a lasting image. Many of these particular scarabs honor Hatshepsut, one of Egypt’s few female pharaohs, and list the many titles she held throughout her life.

Abigail Cain