Giovanni da Milano, Christ and Saint Peter; the Resurrection; Christ and Mary Magdalen, ca. 1360s; tempera on wood, gold ground.
Gold is a precious metal, along with silver and the platinum group of metals; precious because of its rarity and high economic value. But it is its beauty, its rich warm color, that has made it valuable to so many cultures over millennia. It has become a metaphor for the highest worth, material, spiritual, and aesthetic. On a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I photographed Medieval and early Renaissance paintings that used a great deal of gold, laid on the panels using gold leaf. I wanted to think about how the expanse of gold which stood in for a landscape, as in the painting above....
Francescuccio Ghissi, St. John the Evangelist with Acteus and Eugenius, ca. 1370; tempera on wood, gold ground.
....and this one for instance, changed the meaning and the sense of space within the paintings. What we have instead of a worldly space is a spiritual one; instead of something measurable, there is limitless space, both flat and deep, changing with changing light.
Goodhart Ducciesque Master, Madonna and Child with the Annunciation and Nativity, ca. 1310-15; tempera on wood, gold ground.
The clarity of contrast between paint and gold ground makes the figures of Madonna and Child all the more important. There is delicate incising in the gold surrounding them, and its gracefulness is continued in the golden details of clothing. The entire panel is unified by the gold flowing throughout its images.
Maso di Banco, Saint Anthony of Padua, ca. 1340; tempera on wood, gold ground.
The presence of this rather austere saint is enhanced by the brilliant gold of his background. Gold is always more than just a color, here emphasizing the spiritual depth of St. Anthony.
Workshop of Agnolo Gaddi, Saint Margaret and the Dragon, ca. 1390; tempera on wood, gold ground.
This is a delightful small panel painting, lighter in feeling than the paintings above, though still depicting a saint. For me, the gold in this painting becomes more a part of the whole, perhaps because the colors of the figure do not separate it so dramatically from its ground.
Fra Angelico, A Bishop Saint, ca. 1425; tempera on wood, gold ground.
Fra Angelico takes a different approach in this small panel, having the saint surrounded by black, with a decorative border of gold that is repeated in the halo, cloak, and mitre. The saint is contained within a window of light and spirit.
Pietro di Domenico da Moltepulciano, Madonna and Child with Angels, 1420; tempera on wood, gold ground.
A heavenly gold is behind the angels and Madonna, and sparkles on her cloak. I don't know much if anything about Christian iconography, but these works make me think that gold is also seen as the light of God.
Miguel Alcaniz, Mission of the Apostles, ca. 1408; tempera on wood, gold ground.
One thing that's wonderful about the new installation of paintings at the Met is that they are putting on view some of the collection which I've never seen before, such as this Spanish painting, and the one below. There's an extravagance of design in these works that is exciting to see. The elaborate gold surround of this panel and the rows of round halos are gorgeous, belying the austerity of the rocky landscape. To me, it's a sumptuous religiosity.
Valencian Painter, Saint Michael and the Dragon, ca. 1405; tempera on wood, gold ground.
This Saint Michael is elegant and lithe, a golden dancer slaying a fearsome dark beast. The gold surrounding him brightens his aspect, imbuing him with light.
Ishida Yutei, Flock of Cranes, Edo period, 1767-84; pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, and gold on gilt paper.
I recently read a long essay by the Japanese novelist Jun'ichiro Tanizaki titled In Praise of Shadows, written in 1933. Although it is too nationalistic for my taste, it has some interesting insights into Japanese aesthetics, and a paragraph about the use of gilt papers that helped me to understand something about gold in Medieval painting that I couldn't know from seeing the works in a museum: that the gold would glimmer out of a dark surrounding, such as that of a church. Its luster would make the paintings seem to be lit from within, or from some mystical source.
Shibata Zeshin, Three Crows in Flight and Two Egrets at Rest, late 19th century; two panel folding screen; colored laquer and white pigment on gilt paper.
Here is what Tanizaki wrote about gold:
And surely you have seen, in the darkness of the innermost rooms of these huge buildings, to which sunlight never penetrates, how the gold leaf of a sliding door or screen will pick up a distant glimmer from the garden, then suddenly send forth an ethereal glow, a faint golden light cast into the enveloping darkness, like the glow upon the horizon at sunset. In no other setting is gold quite so exquisitely beautiful. You walk past, turning to look again, and yet again; and as you move away the golden surface of the paper glows ever more deeply, changing not in a flash, but growing slowly, steadily brighter, like color rising in the face of a giant. Or again you may find that the gold dust of the background, which until that moment had only a dull, sleepy luster, will, as you move past, suddenly gleam forth as if it had burst into flame.
Gold is a remarkable material for art, carrying with it so much meaning, and such complex beauty.