Throughout the more than eighty years of the Museum's conservation laboratories, many different criteria have been applied for interventions in gilded works, many of them are now obsolete but which very much remain part of our history and are still visible in the collection. Our team of specialists currently apply advanced methodologies which include, documentary study, examination, scientific analysis, and conservation methods that respect each work of art. They allow us to understand, identify and preserve the materials used in the metal decorations that have suffered wear or corrosion and which have often been altered or have even disappeared.
As reflected in some medieval paintings’ contracts, clients requested gilding techniques specifically and artists obeyed by applying it in agreed locations. The optical properties of gold in reflecting light served to draw attention to areas that were symbolic, such as holy figures’ halos or auras. But its purpose was also to demonstrate wealth and prestige with brilliant and rich golden details and surfaces, such as cloudscapes or backgrounds and carved-wood frames, imitating the goldsmithery. Some of the most common ornamental resources of this technique were gilded relief decorations, punch marks, applying paint on leafs of burnished gold, sgraffito and applying transparent lacquer. These techniques could give more authenticity to the representation of certain objects, such as pieces of precious metal or embroidery, brocaded velvet fabric and other luxurious fabrics.
However, all that glitters is not necessarily gold... Throughout history, metal leafs, especially of tin and silver, which are less expensive than gold have also been used with the intention of representing, for example, a suit of armour or other silver objects. Other times, tin and silver sheets were covered with a yellowish varnish called mecca gilding to imitate gold and save on costs: a well-known example is the metal decorations on wood in Romanesque paintings. And we have recently found that, as indicated in the old treaties, metal leafs were also used in Romanesque mural paintings. We have identified remains of tin metal sheets, probably covered with that varnish, in the cruciform nimbus of Christ of Sant Climent de Taüll, one of the Museum’s masterpieces.
You can discover all this in the free exhibition Exploring gold. Investigating the gold in the paintings of the museum, from 9/03/2017 to 18/06/2017.
Head of the Department of Restoration and Preventive Conservation