Gilding History


Gilding 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 be beaten much thinner. The Egyptians got it to about the thickness of modern tin foil, and today gold leaf is beaten about 100 times thinner. 10,000 sheets would be about the width of 1 millimeter.

In 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 the inevitable greed for the precious materials used, most of these statues were destroyed in the annals of 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. This was accomplished in an assortment of ways, from decorating the domes, vaults of majestic buildings, to picking out architectural elements within the structure in order to convey the power, wealth and opulence of the owners. This has of course continued in some degree down to the modern day. Alongside the European developments, in the middle ages the Chinese were simultaneously developing the skill of gilding on porcelain, which would also be later adapted by European potters.

Today, gilding is still used in a variety of ways. Most well-known is that of the traditional aspect, namely picture frames and furniture, but one should not view gilding as limited to these areas. There are many other areas that have further developed, such as in art, interior decoration, book-binding and the transformation of all manner of items. Due to the edible nature of pure gold leaf, even food has not escaped, and having a piece of gold-leaf garnishing a fancy meal, or swimming within the confines of an alcoholic beverage is now quite the ordinary occurence.