Gilding History

Egyptian_Mask thGilding is not a new or modern craft.  In fact, as early as 2300 B.C.E. the Egyptians used gold leaf to adorn wood and metal, such as tombs, coffins, sarcophagi and other objects, of which many have been excavated. There are also Egyptian paintings that show goldsmiths making the leaf.  In fact, the way of thinning the metal has not changed that much since the Egyptian era, it is still largely done by hand.  These days, however, the gold is managed to beaten much thinner.  The Egyptians got it to about the thickness of today’s tin foil, today it is about 100 times thinner.

ChryselephantinethIn Ancient Greece, gold-leaf was used in the construction of Chryselephantine statues, which were made from carved wood overlaid with sheets of gold-leaf to represent clothes, armour, crowns or hair etc. The flesh parts of the statues were represented with carved ivory.  Precious stones were also embedded into the statues at detailed locations such as for the eyes or jewellery.  There are known examples of these from 2000 B.C.E. and the most famous of which is one of the seven wonders of the ancient world - namely the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, which stood 12 meters (43 foot) tall.

Unfortunately, due to the perishable nature of these items and inevitably greed for the precious materials used, most of these statues were destroyed in the annals history, although various marble copies of the originals have survived, as well as documented descriptions by classical scholars.  This has led to just a few of the chryselephantine sculptures being discovered.  The most prominent of these examples are from the archaic period (800-480 B.C.E.) and are fragments of burnt statues in Delphi.  They are thought to represent deities.

The Romans used gold-leaf in an architectural sense, gilding the ceilings of their palaces and temples.  This trend extended in the middle ages to churches and palaces throughout Europe, decorating the domes, vaults and architectural elements.  This has of course continued in some degree down to the modern day.

Also in the middle ages the Chinese developed the skill of gilding on porcelain, later to be adapted by European potters.

Today, gilding is used in a variety of ways.  Most well-known is that of the traditional aspect, namely picture frames and furniture.  But there are many other areas that have developed, in art, interior decoration, book-binding and the decoration of all manner of items.  Even food has not escaped, due to the edible nature of pure gold leaf!