The art of gilding armor was a common practice in ancient times. This beautiful way of coating armor was not only done upon a delicately etched steel surface for the purpose of visuals, but also because it was a long lasting way of laying gold that proved more durable than other gilding methods also used during that time.
From an elaborately embossed surface to the simple use of gold across a blade, there were many purposes for the use of gold leaf in the decoration of armor and weapons. Join us as we uncover further information about this beautifully intriguing ancient process.
Table of Contents
- Did Gold Armor Exist?
- What Is Gilt Armor?
- How Is Armor Gilded?
- Gilding Armor in Ancient History: A Beautiful Task
Did Gold Armor Exist?
Yes, it is true that gold armor actually existed.
Although this may seem rather regal, expensive, and stunning in our day, making armor out of gold is quite a common practice. Gilded armor could weigh well above 50 pounds, making it an elaborate yet fitting decoration for the one fitted with such an extravagant suit. Though you may see examples of ancient works like this at your local museum of art used mainly as ornamental display today, it can sometimes be difficult to wrap our minds around wearing something so heavy and luxurious.
Armor made of gold was a very real thing and often involved a highly meticulous and dangerous process to achieve the desired look and effect.
What Is Gilt Armor?
“Gilt armor” can be thought of as armor that is coated in precious metal. While many coats of arms were decked in gold, some also included brass, bronze, and other materials.
In ancient times, gold foil was often used to achieve a gilt surface. The gold leaf was often adhered through adhesive, usually made from organic materials. Having said that, gold attached through metal leaf adhesive wouldn’t always prove as durable and long-lasting as mercury gilding, also known as “fire” gilding. Because of this, fire gilt armor was common and was attached to a copper surface or silver surface for best adherence.
Gilt armor and edged weapons were often coated in gold using the aforementioned fire gilding methods. The armor of ancient times often featured distinctive contrasting patterns of heat blued steel and gold over a silver or copper surface. The process was somewhat involved and even dangerous, but the results produced a stunning visual effect unmatched by many other gilding methods.
How Is Armor Gilded?
Armor was most often gilded using the fire gilding method. Fire gilt armor proved most durable in those times, though the process could have been potentially harmful to health due to the vaporization of mercury.
The process would usually begin by giving the surface of the silver or copper alloy surface a good cleaning. The cleaning process would sometimes involve an acid to ensure that the surface was completely and meticulously cleaned. This would rid the surface of corrosion, as well as dirt, oil, grease, and debris.
Once the surface was cleaned, the silver or copper surface was ready for the mercury coating. Note that other surfaces like an iron or steel surface could also be fire gilt; however, doing so would require a thin coat of copper before beginning the process. This is because gold adheres to copper and silver surfaces, but not iron or steel. Therefore, if the surface were to require mercury gilding, as in the case of armor, it would best be lain over a copper or silver surface for best results.
As for the mercury coating, the mixture would usually consist of one part gold and eight parts mercury. The mixture would be slowly heated after it was first ground together with a mortar and pestle in a process called milling. Gilders could choose to use a variety of tools to apply the mixture, including a hog bristle brush or spatula of sorts. The piece coated in mercury mixture would then be heated to allow the mercury to burn off which would yield a surface gilt in gold.
Many times the gold would appear thick and somewhat unattractive, so it would be burnished using stone or other burnishing tools. The gold left would be a smooth and unequivocally attractive surface that could be used to coat plate armor, an object surface, scabbard furniture (F.C.), a hatched surface, or other edged weapons. This completed the mercury gilding process and yielded an unbelievably stunning result much like the examples we see in a metropolitan museum of art or other splendid examples of relics carefully preserved.
Please note also that other gilding techniques exist, however, fire gilding was often most common for use in gilding armor and weapons because of its long-lasting and durable attributes. Nevertheless, mercury gilding is also highly dangerous because of the effect that vaporizing mercury can have on the lungs.
Because of this, this practice has been banned in multiple countries in an effort to reduce the side effects known to take place when this popular and effective though risky task is taken on.
Gilding Armor in Ancient History: A Beautiful Task
All in all, armor gilding in ancient history was a task that rendered beautiful results. Though dangerous, the process of mercury gilding (also known as fire gilding) produced sumptuous and lavish outcomes while proving to be more durable than the traditional laying of gold leaf or gold foil laid directly onto a surface via adhesive.
Though fire gilding armor may not be as common today, many works of art featuring gilt armor can be seen in various museums around the world.
Yes, gold was often used for armor in conjunction with blue heated steel and other alloys to produce marvelous patterns and works of art on armor and weaponry alike.
According to some sources, gold armor isn’t as effective as one might think. Still, it is more effective than other armor types, such as leather armor.
Medieval armor could be decorated in various ways, including inlay, painting, engraving, and, yes, gilding.
Fire gilding was used in China around 4 B.C., and its use continued throughout other cultures, including European culture, throughout history.