use of gold leaf for backgrounds, halos and decoration in icons is
not simply for aesthetic reasons. Although burnished polished stamped
and tooled icons can be very beautiful, the use of gold leaf in icons
is primarily for a specific theological purpose. Gold in the
Byzantine language of colour signifies light. Not simply daylight,
but the light of God, more specifically, the gold in icons is spoken
of as being like the uncreated light of God as witnessed by the
Apostles on Mt Tabor when they were present at Christ’s
use of gold leaf in art has a very ancient history, it can be seen on
painted Egyptian Sarcophagi and many Greek and Roman statues of the
deities of the Classical Pantheon were painted and gilded. The
classical craft of applying and polishing gold on a prepared wooden
support or surface became part of the language of the icon from their
earliest incarnations. The very oldest icons of Christ and St Peter
which have survived At St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt are both
Today iconographers use a
variety of techniques for gilding. The technique regarded as both
the most rewarding and the most challenging, is ‘Water Gilding’,
this technique is probably Egyptian or Greek in origin and was used
by the iconographers of Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire. It is
certainly the technique used by the Early Italian masters such as
Duccio, who was himself the pupil of a Greek master iconographer.
Perhaps the earliest and certainly the most comprehensive written
description of the technique can be found in ‘Il Libro dell Arte’,
The Craftsman’s Handbook, a fifteenth century painters manual
written by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, pupil of Taddeo Gaddi, a
follower of Giotto.
gilding is normally the technique employed on a panel painting or
icon; it works best on a surface that has been specially prepared
with gesso, a white plaster made from chalk, marble dust and animal
glue such as rabbit skin or gelatine.
brilliant white gesso is rubbed, scraped or sanded to achieve a
perfect flawless surface on which to gild. Any flaws scratches or
marks will show through the polished gold. Decorations and halo lines
can be incised into the gesso at this point.
many layers of red clay like pigment called ‘bole’, mixed again
with animal glue is applied dilute and warm to the areas to be
is in turn polished to a high gloss finish and the panel is now ready
tools are required for handling and applying the gold leaf. The gold
used is almost pure, traditionally 23, 1/2 carats, pure gold is
unsuitable, as it fragments and breaks too easily in use.
gold comes in small books, bound between layers of tissue paper. From
the book it is laid onto a special suede covered mat called a
‘gilders cushion’, then cut with a ‘gilders knife’, a long
carbon steel, flexible knife into the shape required. Most gilders
work with half leaves, applying and slightly overlapping the gold
half a leaf at a time. To pick up and lay down the gold the gilder
uses a special squirrel hair brush, a ‘gilders tip’, which is
traditionally exactly the size of half a leaf of gold.
the gold is cut ready, the gilder brushes the tip against his skin to
pick up a little surface moisture/body oil; the gold is so fine that
it will stick to the slightest hint of moisture on the surface of the
tip. When the gold has been picked up ready to use, the gilder wets
the clay surface with water with a tiny amount of animal glue and
some alcohol in it with a large squirrel brush, the ‘gilders mop’.
The gold on the tip is then laid on the wetted area, as the water
soaks into the clay and evaporates the gold leaf is pulled down onto
the clay and sticks hard. About an hour after it has been laid the
gold can be polished, or burnished with another special tool made
from a piece of cut shaped and polished agate or hematite.
the gold has been polished to a mirror like reflective shine and left
for a day or two to set properly it can be embellished with stamping
or tooling. A variety of tools can be used for this, ranging from
specially made metal punches with patterns such as flowers, crosses,
or stars cut into them, to simple ball punches of various sizes that
can be used singly, or in clusters to make simple designs and
patterns. The small ‘stippling’ marks are made with tiny ball
punches used repeatedly simply with hand pressure, the bigger punches
are tapped carefully with a wooden or rubber mallet.