Surveying the Use of Gold in Art

Art History

August 31, 2020

In contemporary culture, at the very mention of the word "gold" one immediately imagines wealth and prosperity primarily embodied in jewelry and other expensive commodities. Although this material is often used to enhance other products like cars, domestic appliances, and Christmas decoration, and can be rather kitschy, it still evokes the feeling of warmth, worthiness, and respect.

The proof for this claim is a plain fact that great human achievements are still most often rewarded with gold, in the form of gold trophies, medals, statues and other decorations (sportsman are usually awarded a gold medal, as well as the winners of the Nobel Prize, the Academy Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, etc.).

Culturally speaking, gold as a material has a very long history of the complex spiritual context attributed to it. Even the honorable ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle used the gold symbolism to describe what is now known as the golden mean in his ethics; such an approach was also used to underline divine principles of symmetry or harmony, best known in the arts as the golden ratio.

A long tradition of attributing gold to the wisdom of aging is kept in the form of marcation - for instance, the fiftieth wedding anniversary is golden; wedding rings are typically made of gold, a signifier of eternal vows before God (In Orthodox Christian wedding ceremonies, the weds are adorned with a golden crown during the ceremony); the most accomplished years in a person’s professional life are described as the golden years; the cultural, social and political peak of a civilization is referred to as a golden age.

But what about the use of gold in art? Let us briefly introduce you to the history of this metal and how it found itself part of many artworks throughout centuries.

Left Gold amulet in the form of Duamutef Right Christus Ravenna Mosaic
Left: Gold amulet in the form of Duamutef, Egypt, 2000-100 BCE. Image creative commons. / Right: 6th century mosaic of Jesus at Church San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy.Image creative commons.

Gold - The Ancient Symbol

The earliest gold artifacts discovered by archaeologists in the Eastern Mediterranean are dated between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. The precious metal was rare and usually found in rivers; it was too soft to transform it into tools, resistant to tarnishing, so the gold was used for precious totems and other holy objects.

Upon a closer look in the history of civilization, gold was mostly used in ancient Egypt since it was believed it had extraordinary, magical powers. Their mummified dead were buried with gold that was supposed to protect the person in the afterlife. Gold was expensive and rare, and due to these divine associations, it was reserved only for the royalty, mostly for the Pharaoh who was the representative of God on the Earth.

Outside of the Egyptian civilization, different temples and other structures of worship were embellished with gold, as a manifestation of respect and reverence. Furthermore, this metal signified not only godliness, but purity, prestige and wealth as well, so artworks made of gold gradually were used for various purposes; from the representation of piety to that of economic power and luxury.

The Christian Iconography has a significant role in the History of gold. This ever-fascinating material was associated both with holiness and evil in Christianity and Judaism. For example, the Golden Calf is a symbol of idolatry in the Book of Exodus, while in the Book of Genesis, Abraham was described as rich in gold and silver, while Moses was instructed to cover the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant with pure gold. The gold had a special purpose in the Byzantine iconography and was often used to accentuate the halos of Christ, Mary, and the Christian saints. Those religious paintings were executed in tempera and gold leaf, which was introduced for the first time and used in abundantly to mitigate the transcendent properties of heaven to the believer under the candlelight.

Left Inca female figure Right Deisis
Left: Female figurine, 1400–1533. Gold, 6 x 1.6 x 2.2 cm. Central Andes, Inca. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image creative commons./ Right: Deesis, Christ between Mary and John the Baptist, Crete, Late Byzantine, early 1500s, tempera and gold leaf on wood panel. Image creative commons.

The Story of the Gold Leaf

The gold leaf is gold that was hammered into thin sheets by gold beating, and "to layer a gold leaf to a surface" means to gild it, a technique still used today. The traditional water gilding is the most difficult and remained practically unchanged for centuries and is still done manually.

Gold leaf was traditionally the most popular as gilding material for decoration of art - the picture frames that used to hold or decorate paintings, small objects (including jewelry) and paper art. It was used in arts without a gilding process as well. During the European Bronze Age, it was used to decorate objects like amulets by folding it tightly over, while the Classical group of gold lunulae (necklace) was very thin, especially in the center, and so they can be classified as gold leaf.

In Ancient Rome, this technique was used to decorate vessels and mosaics, while large compositions with the golden background were introduced in later Early Christian art, and they were used for Eastern icons and Western panel paintings until the late Middle Ages. On the other hand, gold leaf is also used in Buddhist art for the decoration of statues and other adoration symbols.

It was also used in jewelry in various periods, and for a long time, gold leaf was an integral component of architecture due to the aesthetics and because of gold's non-reactive properties.

Left Gistav Klimt - Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer Right Andy Warhol - Gold Marilyn Monroe
Left: Gustav Klimt - Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Oil, silver and gold on canvas, 140 × 140 cm (55.1 × 55.1 ″). Collection Neue Galerie New York. Image creative commons / Right: Andy Warhol - Gold Marilyn Monroe, 1962. Silkscreen ink, 2.11 m x 1.45 m. Image via Flickr.

The Use of Gold in Art History

During the Renaissance, old was used more simplistically due to the overall focus on the human figure in the painting, and the spatial harmony of the different elements in architecture. In the meantime, the empires started growing, and Baroque, the new phenomenon which was developed within the Catholic Church and at the European courts, brought gold back in all of its glory - the best example is the artistic production made in Versailles, mostly the one commissioned by the Louis XIV.

The styles that followed into the 18th century were not that dependent on using gold, especially Neoclassicism and Romanticism. However, the artist who resurrected gold in the late 19th century and focused much on the majestic potentials of this material was the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, the leading figure of the Art Nouveau movement; he used gold leaf in his fin de siècle fantasies and portraits of women. For Klimt, gold was the signifier of an intimate, emotional or sexual sensation; by appropriating this material in such a context, this prolific painter brought back an aura to painting after the material quality of Realism and Impressionism.

Further into the 20th century, the interest in working with gold was revived after World War II. For instance, in 1953 the celebrated American artist Robert Rauschenberg started working on his Elemental Paintings series to which The Gold Paintings belong; he used various materials and applied gold leaf to produce small scale mixed media works. Ten years later, the other important European practitioner, Yves Klein used a similar approach for his paintings. The only difference was that Rauschenberg experimented with shapes, formats, and techniques, while Klein’s usage of golden leaves was associated with his esoteric beliefs.

On the other hand, a grand provocateur, the Italian proto-conceptualist Piero Manzoni used the gold as a perfect metaphor for the trade relations that framed the increasing consumerism and the consolidation of the art market. Namely, in 1961 Manzoni produced the object called Artist’s Shit (his own canned feces), and priced it at the weight of gold, and critically mimicked the centuries-old paradigm that artists are divinely inspired by an inner force.

One of the leading proponents of Minimal art, Donald Judd,  referred to gold with his sculpture Untitled from 1974 comprised of six boxes of highly-polished brass, and there were also other artists active throughout the 1980s and 1990s that were using this material for their works such as Louise Bourgeois, Orlan, Jan Fabre or Matthew Barney.

One of them is Jeff Koons, a celebrated American artist, best known for his kitschy sculptures influenced by pop stars and banal vernacular objects. He created an Imaginarium for the wealthy by fooling around with the notion of value, sacredness, possessions, and celebrity culture, and he often used gold in works such as Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) or Balloon Dog Gold (2015). 

For more gold artworks, read our dedicated article!

Featured image: Fra Angelico - Saint Anthony Abbot Shunning the Mass of Gold, circa 1435–1440. Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 19.7 cm (7.7″); Width: 28.1 cm (11″). Collection Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Image creative commons.; Holy Kinship Altarpiece (Brussel, ca 1600) in Niguliste kirik or St. Nicholas' Church, a medieval former church in Tallinn, Estonia; Giovanni Battista Gaulli - Dome of Church of the Gesù (Rome), 1674. Image creative commons.; Jeff Koons - Balloon Dog. Image via Flickr.