All that glitters is gold: a spotlight on the world’s most precious colour

For thousands of years gold has symbolised opulence, status and spirituality in everything from architecture to paintings, jewellery and ceramics. It represents the highest milestones in life: golden years; a golden age; golden anniversaries. In its physical form, gold is a practically indestructible metal, but it is also malleable and unlikely to tarnish, so it’s no surprise that humans have long been infatuated with turning gold into long-lasting decorative items. Join us as we explore the fascinating relationship that humankind has forged with gold. 

 

A powerful metal 

Small concentrations of gold are commonly found in all igneous rocks around the world. Gold is easy to forge, engrave, cast and gild, and so humans have mined and moulded the metal into many useful forms since the time of ancient civilizations, such as electrical circuits, currency and dental alloys. Gold became a popular metal for jewellery-making because it is incredibly malleable, and it retains its brilliant colour and shine even after years of exposure to the elements.  

Humans first began discovering gold deposits washed up in streams and rivers. The first known artifacts of jewellery and religious objects made of gold are believed to have come from Eastern Europe in 4000BC. By around 1500BC Ancient Egypt was benefitting from mining a bountiful supply of gold from Nubia in Northeast Africa. Other regions were also finding gold deposits, though to a lesser degree, such as Lydia (in modern-day Turkey) and Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), along with India, China and Persia. 

It was much later that the quest for gold became exploitative – from Christopher Columbus’ quest for gold in the Americas in the 1400s, to the gold rush in California and Australia, along with discoveries in Alaska, South America and South Africa. The rise of the Atlantic slave trade and the looting of palaces, temples and tombs meant that an unprecedented influx of gold arrived in Europe, resulting in a global boom in gold production.

A symbol of the gods 

It's believed that the Ancient Egyptians began creating objects from gold before they had a written language. Because of the huge supply from Nubia, gold was everywhere. The colour represented the skin of the gods, and so gold items were reserved for pharaohs, particularly when connected to the afterlife. One of the most spectacular and well-preserved remains from Ancient Egypt is Tutankhamun’s burial mask, made up of a hefty 11kg of gold and embellished with glittering gemstones.  

Carsten Frenzl from Obernburg, Derutschland, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the Incan Empire, gold was believed to be the sweat of Inti, the sun god, while silver represented the tears of the moon. Because Incan kings were believed to be descendants of gods, the Incan people became master goldsmiths, decorating temples with gold, and forging regal jewellery. Only the kings were allowed to wear gold during their lifetime; noblemen were permitted to wear gold only in the afterlife – in their burial chambers.  
 
The art of goldbeating describes a process of pounding fine gold into exceptionally thin sheets (roughly 0.1 micrometre thick) known as gold leaf, which is then used to gild objects such as paper, textiles, glass, wood and metal. Gold leaf is synonymous with the Byzantine era, where lavish depictions of Christian icons were encircled by gold leaf backgrounds or halos. Remains of Byzantine mosaics are widespread, and some of the finest examples are those depicting Jesus and Mary, along with various saints, emperors and empresses, in Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia.  

Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons
Empress_Zoe_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia.jpg: Photographer: Myrabelladerivative work: Myrabella, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Similarly, gold has long been used in Islamic artwork, from miniature paintings to calligraphy – one of the oldest and most notable gold-leaf illuminated manuscripts to survive is the Blue Quran. Holy laws in Islam prohibit human idolatry, and therefore illustrating the human physical form in religious material is largely forbidden. This means that the use of gold has been restricted to intricate gold patterns, scripture and calligraphy, and so these techniques are highly developed.  
 
Important buildings, including many houses of worship, have been gilded in gold across the world. Countless golden temples, pagodas and shrines are scattered across Asia, from the gold-leaf Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan, to the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, and both structures glisten in reflective pools. Also known as the Golden Rock, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda is a Buddhist pilgrimage site in Myanmar. A small pagoda is perched atop a huge gold-leaf boulder that looks as if it could roll away at any moment. According to Buddhist legend, the rock is kept in place by a strand of the Buddha’s hair.  

 

David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Later decorative techniques 

In Japan, the art form known as kintsugi – translating as ‘golden joinery’ – was developed during the 16th and 17th century. It is the method of repairing broken ceramics with gold. A tree sap lacquer is used to glue fragments together, left to dry and then traditionally dusted with powdered gold. The technique is part of a wider Japanese philosophy called wabi-sabi: the beauty and acceptance of imperfection and incompleteness.   

 

Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Perhaps the most famous painter to use gold in portraiture is symbolist Gustav Klimt. Klimt’s father was a gold engraver, and when the artist visited Italy in 1903 he was particularly taken by the medieval gold mosaics that decorated religious buildings. The most famous painting from his Byzantine (or Golden) phase is the first portrait he made of Adele Bloch-Bauer in 1907. Klimt’s use of gold leaf was used not to pay respects to holy deities, but to illustrate the sensuality and sexuality of his subjects, which was received somewhat controversially at the time. 
 
Klimt completed this portrait of Mrs. Bloch-Bauer over two years, immortalising her in what many consider to be the ultimate expression of desire and reverence. At this point, Klimt was already famous for his unique style; he had been commissioned to create three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. When completed, this work was criticized for being too racy, so it was never installed in the Great Hall and was destroyed by the retreating German forces in May 1945. Thankfully, the portrait of Bloch-Bauer still exists; it had been stolen and installed in the Galerie Belvedere in Austria by the Nazis until, after a lengthy international court battle, it was returned to her heirs in 2006. 

 

Gustav Klimt, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Though many artists and makers still use gold leaf and gold metal, also available on the market today are gold metallic paints, from acrylics and oils to inks and markers. With the most luxurious colour on the spectrum now widely accessible, just about anyone can add a dose of golden grandeur to their work.

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