The art of Gilding

Over time, art has played a critical role in culture, serving functions ranging from decorative, communicative, ceremonial to symbolic, and it often carries deep personal and societal significance.


Gilding is the process of applying a thin layer of gold, gold leaf, or gold paint to the surface of an object.

This technique is used to give items such as picture frames, books, sculptures, and architectural elements a gold appearance, enhancing their aesthetic value and showcasing wealth and craftsmanship. There are several methods of gilding, including water gilding, oil gilding, and electroplating:

  • Water Gilding: This traditional and highly skilled method involves applying gold leaf to a surface prepared with a layer of gesso and then a layer of bole (a type of clay mixed with water). The gold leaf is then brushed on and polished to a high shine.
  • Oil Gilding: Easier than water gilding, this method involves using a size (a type of slow-drying adhesive) on which the gold leaf is applied. It is suitable for less delicate surfaces and does not require burnishing.
  • Electroplating: This modern method involves using electrical currents to deposit gold onto the surface of an object. It’s commonly used for metals and provides a durable finish.

Gilding not only enhances the object’s appearance but also has protective qualities, as gold is non-reactive and can prevent corrosion and wear. Gilding carries deep historical and symbolic significance in both religious and secular contexts. Here’s an overview of its various roles:

  1. Symbolism of Purity and Light: Gold, often used in gilding, symbolizes purity, incorruptibility, and divine glory due to its luminous and enduring qualities. Its ability to reflect light enhances its perception as a material connected to divine light and spiritual ideals. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is a profound example where gilding is used. The golden dome is one of the most recognizable landmarks in Jerusalem and is highly revered. The gold reflects sunlight brilliantly, making the dome a beacon of light and a symbol of religious significance.
  2. Use in Religious Art and Architecture: Gilding is prevalent in religious artifacts and buildings. It adorns statues, icons, church domes, and temple interiors, emphasizing the sacred nature of these objects and spaces and suggesting a celestial connection. An iconic example is the gilding used in the decoration of the St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The interior, which features extensive gilded decorations, uses gold to emphasize the sacredness of the space, elevating the spiritual atmosphere for all who enter.
  3. Historical Significance in Sacred Manuscripts: In religious manuscripts, such as those from the Middle Ages, gilding was used not only for decoration but also to signify the sacredness of the texts. This application served to honor spiritual writings and emphasize important theological elements within the art. The Book of Kells, housed at Trinity College Dublin, is a beautifully illustrated manuscript containing the four Gospels of the New Testament. It is renowned for its lavish decoration, much of which includes gilding that highlights its sacred texts and theological significance.
  4. Perceived Eternalness: Gold’s resistance to tarnish and corrosion imparts a sense of immortality, making it ideal for use in religious and significant secular contexts, where it symbolizes the eternal nature of spiritual truths and the perpetuity of important cultural values. The use of gold in the burial mask of Tutankhamun, an ancient Egyptian pharaoh, exemplifies the perceived eternalness of gold. This mask is meant to confer immortality to the king in the afterlife, showcasing the enduring nature of gold.
  5. Psychological Impact: The impressive appearance of gilded surfaces can evoke feelings of awe and reverence, enhancing the spiritual ambiance and fostering a deeper religious experience for worshippers. The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles, with its gilded and mirror-laden architecture, is designed to awe visitors. The extensive use of gold throughout the hall magnifies its grandeur and elevates the stature of the French monarchy, evoking a sense of reverence and admiration.
  6. Gilding in Symbols of Republic and Democracy in France: In France, gilding also decorates symbols of the republic and democracy, evident in iconic sites such as the Chapelle des Invalides, Pont Alexandre III, the wood paneling of the Élysée Palace, and Versailles. These sites use gilding to underscore France’s governance, heritage, and the enduring spirit of its democratic ideals, celebrating the nation’s history and values through splendid gold-leaf embellishments.

Gilding thus serves as a bridge between the divine and the earthly, enriching both religious experiences and national pride. Its use in various contexts highlights its dual role in symbolizing the sacred and the sovereign.

An active gilding workshop operates in the one of the art forms historic places in Porto, Portugal.

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