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Studio Magazine

On Gold Leafing

Allison Noelle Conner

In Lawdy Mama (1969), Barkley L. Hendricks places a portrait of his cousin Kathy against a field of shimmering gold. An early work, the painting appears on an arched canvas and incorporates gold leaf. These formal aesthetics blur together popular motifs used in religious art and architecture during the Byzantine and Renaissance periods when gilded mosaics approximated the light of the divine.

In an interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Hendricks lists three lessons he gleaned from working with gold leaf for the first time. In addition to discussing how he had to adjust to the technical facets of adhesives and using a canvas instead of a hard surface, he notes a common refrain about the material—it is notoriously delicate and fussy. “The slightest wind or heavy breath will send it fluttering all over the place,” he remarked.1 An errant breeze from an open window or air conditioner could ruin the smoothness of the leaf. Handling it requires patience and dexterity alongside the lightest of touches.

Gold leafing, or gilding, refers to applying thin layers of gold to wood, metal, plaster, glass, and other objects. Many attribute the practice to ancient Egypt, noting that artisans developed the technique of transforming this malleable metal into foil-like sheets around 2000 to 3000 BCE. The abundance of gold in the region, especially in the mountainous area between the Nile and the Red Sea, gave artisans a unique advantage; they were able to experiment with the form, perfecting a process that remains relatively the same to this day. Goldsmiths would hammer gold bars with mallets and stones until reaching their desired thickness, usually around one micron. From there, they would bind these leaves to surfaces such as sarcophagi with adherents such as glue, or with tamping methods. Known as “the flesh of the gods,” gold leaf was applied to amulets, statues, furniture, tombs, and more. Its inclusion took on many meanings, announcing power and wealth while also invoking immortality and spiritual transcendence.

Beyond Egypt, many ancient civilizations practiced the art of gilding. Gold foil methods matured during the Shang Dynasty in China, where it was added to pottery, textiles, and even silk robes. Ancient Greeks used gold leaf to accent armor and crowns in Chryselephantine sculptures. In these statues, which also incorporated ivory, carved wood was overlaid with sheets of gold leaf, as in the Athena Parthenos from the mid-fifth century BCE. Created by Pheidias and installed in the Parthenon temple, the monumental statue depicts the god Athena dressed in a helmet, peplos (a draped garment), and her signature aegis (her protective shield decorated with a gorgon’s head). While ivory was used for her skin, everything else was dipped in gold. Within Islamic culture, the Blue Qur’an is a sumptuous manuscript produced circa the late-ninth century to mid-tenth century famous for its gold calligraphy on indigo parchment paper. The ink was made by grinding gold leaf into a powder. The calligrapher would write the lines using a transparent adhesive such as egg white, gum, or fig sap. Afterward, the text would be covered with powder before being burnished for shine.

Gold leafing techniques reached new heights during the Byzantine Empire (fourth to fifteenth century). As the influence of early Christianity grew, gold became a symbol of the eternal light and presence of God, infusing a scene at hand with the sacred energies of heaven. Mosaics emerged as a popular art form at this time, adorning the ceilings and walls of churches with depictions of religious figures like archangels and saints. To make a mosaic, small blocks of glass, stone, or tile were combined together to form a geometrical pattern or image. Gold leaf was sandwiched between these blocks, called tesserae, adding a twinkling brilliance to the artworks. And since churches were only lit by candlelight, these mosaics took on an otherworldly aura thanks to how the gold would catch the flickering light. For example, many of the mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, a former church-turned-mosque in Istanbul, are strategically placed near windows in order to take advantage of this play between illumination and material.

By the early Renaissance period, many artists continued to expand upon the formal qualities of Byzantine art, as in the case of “gold-ground.” Inspired by the gold backgrounds of Byzantine icons, where gold leaf was applied to the surface in order to offset the portrait of a central figure, Italian artists like Cimabue (c. 1240–1302) and Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267–1337) added a realistic approach and psychological depth to their figures. In Cimbabue’s Maestà, painted around 1280 for the Church of Santa Trinita in Florence, the Virgin Mary cradles infant Jesus while sitting on a resplendent throne. The two are flanked by angels and prophets, whose halos radiate a flaky golden hue that is mirrored by the background. A team of artisans was needed to produce gold-ground paintings like this one. The process involved cutting a popular plank and coating it with a layer of gesso. One artisan would sketch a preliminary design in charcoal and that outline would be carved using a scalpel. Bole, or reddish clay, would be added to the lines as a primer before applying gold leaf with a brush.

Drawing from this rich history, artists in the modern era played with the meanings of gold leaf in inspired ways. Austrian painter Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) drew on the gold-ground tradition during his infamous Gold Phase, an eight-year period where he worked extensively with gold leaf. His father was a professional goldsmith, which explained Klimt’s personal attraction to the material. A 1903 trip to Italy was also a turning point, where he encountered Byzantine mosaics in the Church of San Vitale. He combined oil paint with gold foil and would apply that straight to the canvas. Unlike Byzantine and Renaissance works, Klimt’s gold took on sexual and erotic connotations. In Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901), the Biblical figure Judith holds the head of Holofernes and is set against a gold-colored landscape of fig trees and vines. Wearing a sheer robe and a thick gold collar, Judith gazes at the viewer, her eyes filled with a languid pleasure.

When looking at Lawdy Mama, it is fascinating how Barkley reframes these varied artistic references. The curve of Kathy’s afro recalls the halos emanating from the angels in Maestà. And the arched canvas adds another classical touch, a nod to the lunette shape used in medieval panels. Barkley wanted his portrait to evoke the Byzantine icons of the Madonna, and his use of gold-ground crackles with the same mystical energies as Berlinghiero’s Madonna and Child (c. 1230). To these old traditions, Barkley adds his own spin. He situates his snapshot of Kathy, full of familial warmth, within the transcendent qualities of life, as represented by the gold leaf technique. In his portrait, the divine and the everyday merge in a delicate embrace.

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