Surround yourself with all that glitters, from objects that lure the eye with their impressive mass and exquisite workmanship to subtler glimmers of light and luxury through the addition of a sheer gold leaf, fine gold wire, or a dusting of gold powder. Learn why gold has captivated us for millennia, and find out all the ways it was incorporated into objects across the museum’s collections.
At A Glance
Rare, lustrous, and enduring, gold has a deep history in Asia. The oldest extant geological map depicts a gold mine in Egypt circa 1320 BCE. Even the English word “gold” originates from the Sanskrit term meaning “to shine.” In the sixteenth century international trade introduced gold from the New World. Gold has diverse meanings and roles in different cultures, and artists have worked this precious substance in many ways.
The Value of Gold
Gold is a precious metal—its enduring rarity and value has made it indelibly associated with money through its long history of use as currency. Small but significant gold coins show how rulers struck golden coins bearing their names or likenesses to confirm their power and status.
Because of its molecular structure, gold can be worked heavily and continuously without stiffening or hardening. It is soft enough to be cut with stone or tooled with wood or bone. It can be hammered into very thin, even translucent sheets or drawn into wires finer than a human hair. Gold’s color and strength can be enhanced by mixing it with other metals to form alloys. Copper intensifies the reddish hue of gold, while a small addition of silver gives a cool, greenish tone. The proportions of alloys are measured in carats (a twenty-fourth part); twenty-four carat gold is pure.
Gold’s properties allow it to be remelted and reworked. This poses a dilemma in terms of historical preservation, since precious metals like gold were often melted down for reuse, particularly in times of economic hardship. Some types of gold objects have very few examples that remain because of this.
Objects made of gold are uncommon in Japan, where other symbols of prestige and value, such as calligraphy or ceramic tea bowls, often took precedence. During the Edo period (1615–1868), the government regulated the display of wealth. Gold objects became the privilege of the uppermost social classes or the secret treasures of wealthy merchants. This ornament may have been shown in the display alcove or used as a luxurious paperweight on a writing desk. It was perhaps a gift that reflected the custom of presenting wild goose caught by the shogun on a hunting expedition. The fine workmanship reflects the artistry of its creator, a prominent maker of sword fittings.
Reading Meanings into Gold
Due to its distinctive properties, gold was often recognized as having symbolic associations with purity, durability, value, and warmth. In Persian painting, gold was used as a way of rendering daylight. Since ancient times, gold in India was understood to have a positive and purifying effect on its wearer. In South India, bathing a divine image with “gold water” is part of ritual: the donor puts a piece of gold jewelry into a pot of water that is then poured over the deity. When they receive their jewelry back, it is even more positive and purifying. In many periods in Chinese history gold was considered a luxury. In distant antiquity—the second millennium BCE—gold objects in China reflected the adoption of techniques and style from the north steppe, but over time Chinese used gold in distinctive ways that suited the artistic culture of each Chinese dynasty. Gold was often regulated by statuary laws since it was considered precious and luxurious. It was also used to adorn Buddhist arts as a way to reflect their sanctity. Images of the Buddha are usually gilded because one of the thirty-two characteristics that marked the Buddha at birth was skin that shone like gold. Chinese Buddhists interpreted the golden color as an expression of the Buddha’s sunlike spiritual radiance, his inner purity, and the inestimable worth of his teachings.
During part of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), laws restricted gold’s use to the imperial family and ranking officials. This jar belonged to a set of eight gold objects, each bearing a chased design of dragons and clouds and studded with gemstones, allegedly recovered from the tomb of the Xuande Emperor (1399–1435). Tibetan objects circulating in China seem to have stimulated a taste for gold set with gems.
An inscription, “Only the pure may touch it,” suggests that this fine leather binding was intended for a copy of the Qur’an, although similar covers were used for secular manuscripts. Gold leaf highlights the designs that were created on block stamps, then pressed into the leather to leave a finely sculpted impression. The lavish application of gold leaf underlines the importance of manuscripts, such as the Qur’an, in the Islamic world.
The many elevated connotations of gold meant that it was a material particularly well suited to implicitly communicate value—both in the sense of literal wealth and opulence as well as in terms of ritual significance and symbolic importance. During the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771–256 BCE) in China, gold was so highly valued that anyone caught trying to obtain it without state permission could be executed.
The exquisite quality of the tapestry weaving, which uses fine gold-wrapped thread, and the style of the calligraphy suggest that these scrolls may have been woven for someone connected to the imperial court. The text alludes to the abode of immortal beings and expresses gratitude for receiving an imperial summons, which is a high honor. Gold calligraphy against a blue ground is a traditional palette for Buddhist sacred texts (sutras). Used for this secular text, the colors likely imparted an aura of reverence.
Gold in Its Many Forms
When we encounter gold in museum galleries, we find it in many forms. Artists around the world have found various ways over the centuries to manipulate gold and fashion it into dazzling objects by itself or in combination with and as an embellishment to other materials. Methods of working with gold include hammering it into sheets, foil, or leaf; striking, chasing, and engraving it; cutting, joining, and soldering it; forming it into wire; or grinding it into powder to make paint.
Dazzling Gold Surfaces
Gilding refers to the process of applying a thin coating of gold to another surface, usually metal. The earliest form of gilding in Asia used gold foil that was attached to the supporting surface by its edges. Later, gold leaf was applied to the metal surface by burnishing. This was succeeded by fire gilding or amalgam gilding. A paste (amalgam of gold powder and mercury) is painted onto the object and heated until much of the mercury evaporates, leaving the gold, which can then be polished. Either process may be used to apply gold only to selected areas in a format known as parcel gilding.
Term To Know
The decoration of works of art and architecture with gold or silver or other metals, traditionally describing the application of thin sheets of metal to a surface by means of an adhesive.
Take a look at this altarpiece—a religious sculpture that believers focus on during prayer or meditation. This sculpture features a buddha standing between two bodhisattvas (beings who have reached enlightenment and want to help others). Although this object may look like it is made of solid gold, it was actually made of bronze that was mercury gilded, which means a thin layer of gold was applied to the surface using mercury that formed an amalgam with the gold. As you can see, the gilding is partially worn off the statue because it was likely buried underground for a thousand years. Sometimes, if a religious sculpture was no longer being used, it was buried, which showed more respect than throwing it in the trash.
Adorning one’s body with gold jewelry and personal ornaments was an instant way to draw attention and signal status. Gold wire is formed by beating, by twisting thin strips until they are round in cross-section, or by drawing through a metal dye. Gold wire can be inlaid on another material to form fine linear designs. Using a stamp, it can be textured or “beaded,” then soldered in place to form raised lines or borders. The openwork design called filigree uses masses of plain or ornamented wire.
Take a closer look at an intricate Thai ring in the shape of a serpent:
Gold could also be incorporated into garments and other textiles in the form of threads. Prior to weaving, threads were wrapped in gold. Sometimes the gold was first adhered to a paper backing and long cut strips were wrapped around a thread. The Safavid capital of Isfahan was particularly known for gold-brocaded silks (zarbaft)—the costliest and most fragile type of silk fabric.
Actors of the Japanese dance drama Noh wear masks and exquisite costumes to perform on a stage built of unvarnished cypress and decorated only with a painting of a pine tree. Gold is extensively used in Noh costumes, where it reflects light and highlights the actors’ slow, stylized movements. The quality of textiles for Noh costumes reflects their origin as gifts to actors of personal garments worn by warrior patrons. This jacket would have been worn over a robe of contrasting design, usually for female roles but also for the roles of courtiers or warriors.
Gold could also be attached to garments instead of being incorporated into the textile itself.
Gold was also used over top of more durable and more protective materials to decorate armor.
This is a fragment from a breastplate made in northwestern Iran. Made of gold sheet, the figures were created using a repoussé technique, where they were hammered into shape from underneath. Holes at the edges suggest the breastplate may have been attached to clothing and used by royal individuals. The creatures next to the sacred tree are protective figures that are probably meant to provide the wearer of this breastplate with protection and prosperity.
Gold as Embellishment
The addition of gold and other precious metals to an object often underscored the wealth and prestige of its owner. The simplest silver plates from the Sasanian period were made with two pieces of silver that formed the body and the foot. In contrast, the Shapur plate consists of nineteen separate parts, an accomplishment that elevates it to the highest level of Sasanian craftsmanship. The plate was first hammered into shape, and designs were then added by chasing, punching, and repoussé work. The lost piece of the boar’s haunch reveals how the pieces were added to the surface. Gold was applied through fire gilding, a process in which gold is mixed with mercury and then heated. The gold and mercury form an amalgam that joins to the underlying metal, creating a layer of sparkling gold. At times, the gold spreads beyond the outline of a design, a characteristic of fire gilding.
Read more about the history and making of the Shapur plate through essays written for the exhibition Feast Your Eyes: A Taste for Luxury in Ancient Iran.
When applied to architectural elements, gold could catch the light and draw the eye.
The production of glazed tiles used in architecture reached new levels of refinement during the rule of the Mongol Il-Khanids in Iran (reigned 1256–1353). This molded, eight-pointed star tile bears gold leaf applied over the turquoise glaze to lend a glistening effect. Its design of a soaring phoenix is inspired by Chinese models, which became an integral part of fourteenth-century Persian visual language.
Gold in the form of leaf or paint was used extensively in Japanese paintings, especially on sliding door panels and folding screens. In the original architectural settings, the gold reflected the limited daylight or lamplight that dimly illuminated the interiors of Japanese rooms, creating subtle and beautiful effects of light and atmosphere.
This folding screen was once a set of sliding panels that formed one side of a Japanese room. The paintings create the illusion of a garden view. Gold paintings like these were commissioned for the residences of nobles and elite members of the warrior class of Edo period Japan and for privileged Buddhist temples. The square patterns on the gold background are the visible edges of gold leaf sheets, which were meticulously applied to cover the entire surface.
Due to its ability to catch and reflect light, gold was also an appealing decorative addition to glass vessels, such as lamps hung in mosques.
This rare four-handled vase bears the characteristic five-petal rosettes associated with the Rasulid dynasty (1229–1454) of Yemen. Controlling the trade routes to Africa and East Asia, the Rasulids were a formidable sea power and commissioned numerous glass and metal vessels from the Mamluks, who were based in Egypt and Syria. The vase was reportedly found in China, where it may have arrived as a gift or through a Chinese emissary returning from the Rasulid court.
Beginning in the seventeenth century, Japanese artists developed a distinctive repertoire of techniques for applying gold and silver to objects made of diverse materials ranging from lacquer, metal, and wood for decorated objects to paper and silk for calligraphy and painting. Gold and silver played a prominent and integral role in the technical and aesthetic history of Japanese painting, calligraphy, lacquer, metalwork, and architecture. Exceptional Japanese methods for lacquer decoration in gold and silver resulted in refined pictorial designs that today form a distinctive achievement in the arts of East Asia. Powdered gold leaf of various sizes and colors was sprinkled on wet lacquer in the technique of maki-e. An additional layer of lacquer was applied to protect the gold from wear.
Though we often think of gold as durable, some of its more delicate applications were very fragile and ephemeral. Decorated with chrysanthemums, this bowl may have been made for a Japanese tea gathering, or chanoyu, to celebrate the New Year. Bowls newly made for New Year’s chanoyu events often were decorated with fragile gold leaf, which wore off in the course of a single use.
Flashes of gold can decorate the pages of manuscripts as well. To write in gold, a calligrapher would first mix ground gold leaf with gum arabic or honey. After rinsing the mixture with water, he could use it like ink. The Qur’an is the most revered text in the Islamic world, and no effort was spared in its embellishment. Lavish copies often present an illuminated opening double page with intricate designs in which gold and lapis lazuli predominate.
Observe an Islamic manuscript up close and learn how gold leaf and gold paint were made and used:
At times, embellishing an object with gold also served a functional purpose. The Japanese technique of kintsugi was a means of repairing broken ceramic vessels by filling cracks with a paste with lacquer that was then painted with a fresh coat of lacquer and sprinkled with powdered gold to bring a unique elegance to the object. Lacquer, a strong adhesive, had been used to mend broken pots since prehistoric times in Japan, but gilt lacquer repairs became fashionable in the sixteenth century. Repairs became ornaments and even enhanced the appearance of mediocre bowls.
Sometime during its life, the tea bowl broke and shattered into pieces. It was repaired using powdered gold sprinkled over repairs made in lacquer. It became a graceful alternative to the traditional Chinese method of using staples to repair ceramics. The technique became known as “golden joinery” (kintsugi) or “golden concealment” (kintsuguroi). The broken object is not only fixed but visually transformed by the golden veins that highlight the mends.
Gold, though highly valued, was expensive and not always easily accessible. This scarcity gave rise to efforts at imitating its appearance. Imitation was further employed due to Islamic prohibition—or at least discouragement—of the use of precious metalware. To create “gold” ceramics, potters in Egypt decorated their already glazed and fired vessels with a mixture of metal oxides. The vessels were then refired at a lower temperature. Ranging from a flat brown to a glistening gold, the luster-painted decoration depended largely on the materials and conditions of the second firing. The technique traveled from Iraq and Egypt to Syria and Iran, and eventually to Spain and Italy to become one of the most popular forms of decoration in the West.
Figural representations, such as this sensuous female dancer, played a prominent role in luster-painted ceramics in twelfth-century Egypt. Although the vessels were made from coarser clay than earlier Iraqi examples, the decoration, like much of the art of the Fatimid period (909–1171), tended to be more animated and naturalistic.
The Gilded Age
The Gilded Age was a period of economic boom in the United States that began after the American Civil War and ended at the turn of the century. The term was first applied to the era by historians in the 1920s, who took it from one of Mark Twain’s lesser-known novels The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873). The book (co-written with Charles Dudley Warner) satirized the promised “golden age” after the Civil War. Twain portrayed an era of serious social problems and economic inequality masked by of the veneer of economic expansion. Literary and cultural critics and historians including Lewis Mumford, Mary Ritter Beard, and Matthew Josephson adopted the phrase as a pejorative term for a time of materialistic excesses amongst the elite versus extreme poverty for many on the bottom.
James McNeill Whistler’s Harmony in Blue and Gold, commonly known as the Peacock Room, emerged in London during this moment. When his architect Thomas Jekyll fell ill, shipping magnate Frederick Leyland turned to Whistler to complete renovations on his dining room. Leyland presumed Whistler would make a few alterations but returned to a totally transformed space. Whistler had painted over Leyland’s imported leather wall coverings, gilded the room’s shelving, and covered the ceiling with his blue, green, and gold peacock motif. Leyland refused to pay Whistler’s proposed fee. In frustration, Whistler left his former patron with a mural of two fighting peacocks, a composition he titled Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room, itself a commentary on taste and social class.
Visit the Peacock Room virtually through Google Maps:
The Peacock Room was recently restored. Read about the conservation process:
Filthy Lucre, an immersive interior by contemporary artist Darren Waterston, reimagined James McNeill Whistler’s famed Peacock Room as a magnificent ruin, literally overburdened with its own materials, creativity, and tortured history. The installation was the centerpiece of Peacock Room REMIX, an exhibition that probed the dramatic and occasionally unresolved tensions between art and money, ego and patronage, and the Peacock Room’s own exquisite beauty and contentious past. In Filthy Lucre, Waterston replicated almost all the details of Whistler’s masterpiece while transforming them into a pile of near ruin to draw parallels between the economic inequalities of the Victorian age and today.
Watch a video about the exhibition: