The Cultural Heritage of Gilding

Gold leaf has been used to embellish objects serving significant social and cultural purposes for thousands of years. Foremost among this history are religious traditions involving gold. A plethora of gilded devotional objects and architectural elements were used in medieval Western religions, relying on the brilliant qualities of gold to signify the presence of the divine and to convey an aura of reverence.  Some of these, such as miniature icons and charms, were portable, while others, such as wall murals, carvings and spires, remained stationary. One example of a large architectural project is the Dome of the Rock, an Islamic shrine in Jerusalem. A landmark for Muslims and Judeo-Christians alike, the central dome is covered in gold.

The Dome of the Rock is embellished in mosaic patterns and gold. When the dome was refurbished in 1993, 80 kilograms of gold were required to complete the project. (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The Dome of the Rock is embellished in mosaic patterns and gold. When the dome was refurbished in 1993, 80 kilograms of gold were required to complete the project. (image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Eastern religions have also been known to employ gold as a signifier and a narrative aid. In Thailand, statues of the Buddha are often gilded to literally convey religious text, which describes the spiritual teacher’s golden complexion. Buddhist visitors to a temple can show their devotion to the faith by applying their own piece of gold to a statue. Other times, Buddhist religious scripts are written in gold lettering.

Figure of the Buddha Amida seated on a lotus pedestal, made of lacquered and gilded wood.From Dairenji Temple, Osaka, Japan, mid 18th century. (image courtesy of The British Museum)
Figure of the Buddha Amida seated on a lotus pedestal, made of lacquered and gilded wood. From Dairenji Temple, Osaka, Japan, mid 18th century. (image courtesy of The British Museum)

In a secular context, gold symbolizes power. The material is seen in the Far East on objects including Chinese porcelain, Korean beads, Japanese screens, Indian armlets and Middle Eastern coinage. In the West, we have shoes, Italian armor, English bodkin cases, French brooches and dozens of other treasures befitting each national tradition. Teddy Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet” boasted gold scrollwork on the bows of each of 16 functioning naval battleships.

Nowadays, visitors to the U.S. Capitol and other official buildings are greeted with an awe-inspiring onslaught of gilded ceilings, frames and column details. Many of the frames received conservation treatment from Lowy’s master gilder, R. Wayne Reynolds. Curators, art lovers and high profile clients have trusted Lowy Frame & Restoring Co. for over a century.

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