Gilding in medieval art is a practice very familiar to this period in history. Today, gilding practices are taken on largely to create glamorous pieces of art and furniture, and to draw attention to certain important buildings, but in the Middle Ages, the practice of gilding was much more widespread and was often used to highlight significance in certain art pieces.

From illuminated manuscripts to “gold ground” paintings, medieval artists went to great lengths to create finished pieces that communicated honor, respect, and the utmost reverence. Read on to learn more about gilding in medieval Europe and its ties to artistic achievements accomplished through gilding to this day.

gilding in medieval art

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When Did the Use of Gold Leaf in the Middle Ages Begin?

Though gilding in art is often associated with the Byzantine and Middle Age period, it is believed that gold leafing actually started with the ancient Egyptians. At time in history, gold was hammered into a thin layer to be used to cover sculptures and other luxury objects. The act of gilding went on to become popular in other countries and became a continued tradition for future time periods, with the act of gilding becoming increasingly popular amongst people alive during the Byzantine Empire and Medieval period.

Did Medieval Artists Use Gold Leaf?

Yes, Medieval artists used gold leaf. In fact, it was during this time that gold leaf was used extensively in decorative motifs, for manuscript gilding, and golden backgrounds.

Today, artists often rely on gold paint or other forms of gold pigment to create a glimmering yet realistic gold look on painted portraits and other pieces of artwork. By contrast, Byzantine art often used real gold paired with laborious gilding techniques that reflected the culture’s values, much of which was marked by religious beliefs connected to early Christianity. Thus, solid gold was often used as the foundation for a gold background of important religious figures and other pieces of icon art. This is often referred to as “gold ground painting” and remains a very important chapter in art history.

Gilding in Medieval Art Meaning

The meaning of gilding in Medieval art was generally tied to religious significance. This is a continuation of the importance of early Christianity, its icons, and its value system, and thus, involved embedding images of religious figures into backgrounds of gold to create paintings commonly associated with the Middle Ages.

Apart from religious meaning, Medieval art took on “barbaric” significance as well. Artists who were not Christian would often borrow from the popular religious gilding practices of their era to create their own art forms using unburnished gold leaf to create gothic architecture, book illumination, and other works of classical art that would continue on for centuries.

Types of Gilding in Medieval Art

The types of gilding in Medieval art included the use of gold leaf to illuminate gold letters, to highlight luxury objects, to draw attention to Byzantine icons, or to highlight other important religious figures like Saint Catherine, Baby Jesus, Mary, and more.

Various types of media could be utilized to lay gold leaf during that time, but mordant gilding was a popular form, with artists using various type of mordant to achieve proper adherence of the gold leaf.

Gilding in Medieval Art Examples

The following are a few examples of art relics created with the use of gold ground painting methods in Middle Ages:

  • Madonna and Child: This is a painting achieved by Barnaba Agocchiari, an Italian painter of the 14th century. The art depicts Mary and baby Jesus assembled against a gold ground background.
  • The Crucifixion with the Madonna and Saint John the Evangelist: As the name implies, this piece resembles the moment of Jesus’ crucifixion and includes both Saint John and Mary in the portrait. The picture was completed by Guido di Piero, also known as Fra Angelico.
  • The Wallraf Triptych: Similar to Madonna and Child, this is a depiction of Mary and the baby Jesus, along with other religious figures deemed of utmost importance in the Christian faith.

How Did They Make Gold Leaf in the Middle Ages?

During the Middle Ages, gold leaf was made by pounding or hammering gold leaf into thin sheets. It was a time consuming and laborious task that was manually achieved. The gold leaf was pounded very thin, although probably not quite as thin as the gold leaf made today. Because of modern day machinery, we can now pound gold thinner than a human hair.

Still, gold leaf of Medival times was thin enough to become useful for a variety of artistic projects, providing a uniquely sophisticated and extravagant flair to pieces that simultaneously highlighted the importance and significance of the images it graced.

Why Was Gold Leaf Important in the Middle Ages?

Gold leaf was utilized in the Middle Ages, not only because it looked nice, but also because it was used to highlight significance. Precious metals were often used in medieval art, but gold was by far the most common, especially when it came to icon art.

These days, gold leaf isn’t used nearly as frequently in artistic pieces as it was in the Middle Ages. Rather than resorting to easier methods such as using gold acrylic or oil paint, artists of historical times would go to great lengths to use shell gold, unburnished gold leaf, silver, and other media not often used today to highlight saints or other relics of art important during this time period.

What Adhesive Was Used in the Middle Ages For Gilding?

Gilding adhesive used in the Middle Ages could have been a variety of substances including egg white, garlic juice, gesso, and other types of adhesive or mordant. Today, we depend mostly on water gilding and oil gilding techniques, both of which are the most durable and reliable ways of adhering gold leaf to non-edible surfaces. However, in the Middle Ages, these types of size adhesive weren’t available, meaning artists had to use what they had on hand.

All in all, attention to detail was of the utmost importance when it came to Medieval art, and thus, the technique of applying gold leaf, though it took much longer and required more expensive materials, was seen as a worthwhile and very common practice during the Middle Ages.

Gold Leaf in Manuscripts and 3D Objects

While it was very common to see gold leaf used to highlight significant religious figures by way of gold grounding, it was also very common to use gold leaf for lettering on manuscripts and 3D objects. These illuminated manuscripts carried much the same importance as the religious paintings did, as the illuminated wording was usually used to highlight the importance of a religious piece of literature.

Though most common in Christian literature, gold leaf can was also used in religious Islamic texts.

Gilding In Medieval Europe

Gilding in Medieval Art Was an Extravagant Affair

Gilding in medieval art was a meticulous and time-consuming process with the purpose of creating beauty and signifying the importance of relics, manuscripts, and paintings. Using gilding practices to apply silver, copper, and most notably, gold, was an important and much cherished way of creating art in the Middle Ages.

Today, art pieces like these may seem old and antiquated, and indeed, they are. Still, there’s certain level of beauty, sophistication,and grandeur to these Medieval works not often seen today. Preserved pieces may still be observed at your local metropolitan museum or a national gallery if you happen to come across one. Either way, know that these important historical and much treasured pieces are indeed wonderful odes to the past, and help us to reflect on some of the major ways art and gilding has transformed over the course of history.


What is gilding in art history?

Gilding in art history was often used to signify importance in an art piece. Entire backgrounds were covered in pure gold leafing, before a foreground that featured a religious icon or significant religious event was depicted using paint and other artistic mediums. 
In addition, many 3D sculptures and statues were covered in gold to create striking and interesting pieces in much the same way we see today. Medieval art has a style all its own, unique to its own time period, and is worth studying due to its level of sophistication and grandeur not often seen in modern day art.

When was gilding first used?

It is thought that gilding was first used by ancient Egyptians. Gold was hammered thin by human hands before it was affixed to statues and artwork relevant to the culture at the time. This practice continued and became an artistic method of choice through the Byzantine and Medieval periods. Gilding practices, although not quite as popular as they were back then, still remain even to this day. 

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