The Secret History of Color


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Aug 10, 2022

In this series, we explore the stories behind certain pigments - natural and synthetic - and how these hues, and artists’ understanding of color in general has impacted the development of art. Read the first installment, What is Color? here.

What does gold mean?

Humanity’s fascination with gold is an ancient one that doesn’t look like melting away anytime soon. Even in today’s digitised world, investors invariably rush to buy gold during a crisis. What is it about this shiny yellow metal that still fires our imagination? And why have artists so often turned to it over the centuries?

Although gold is found beneath the Earth’s surface, its true origins lie somewhere out in the cosmos. Formed billions of years ago from the collision of neutron stars, this heavy element probably made its way to our planet on the back of asteroids. There is evidence that humans were using gold as part of their rituals as early as 40,000 years ago and over the last few millennia various symbolic meanings have grown up around this rare and lustrous metal. Famously described by the Incas as ‘tears of the sun’, gold has been associated with the sacred and heavenly realms, as well as royal and divine authority. Its luminous perfection has given rise to such concepts as the ‘golden age’, the ‘golden city’ and the ‘golden mean’. When an athlete takes first place at the Olympic Games, they are rewarded with a gold medal, rather than silver or bronze. In contrast, ‘fool’s gold’ stands as a warning about the dangers of hubris.

The Ancient World

As the most malleable metal, gold can be struck repeatedly without splitting or breaking. For thousands of years, humans have taken advantage of this property to transform small lumps into thin sheets of gold leaf, greatly increasing its range of potential applications and also making it go much further. One tiny nugget ten millimetres in diameter can be turned into a sheet measuring one meter squared.

The great ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, China, India, Greece and Rome all used gold leaf to decorate important and valuable objects. Egypt was blessed with gold ore deposits along the river Nile and around 5,000 years ago they began to be mined and worked. The shimmering aesthetic quality of the metal meant that it was greatly venerated by the Egyptians, believing it to be ‘flesh of the gods’. Having beaten it thin, craftsmen would gild objects made from wood and other metals such as bronze. Because it was thought to possess magical powers like immortality, gold was perfect for use in tombs, sarcophagi, sacred objects and ceremonial rituals designed to ensure passage into the afterlife. Tutankhamun’s mask is perhaps the most glorious of all Egyptian gold artefacts, using 11kg of the precious metal along with various types of gemstones.

When someone says ‘as rich as Croesus’, they might not be aware that they are referring to a 6th century BC king of Lydia (now in Turkey). The local river Pactolus was teeming with gold, which Croesus turned into coinage to create a standardised currency. The river’s riches were attributed to the mythical King Midas having once bathed there as a way of ridding himself of his ‘golden touch’.

Gold was not always as plentiful as it was in Lydia, so sometimes a cheap imitation such as orpiment had to be used in its place. Unfortunately, this arsenic based mineral was also highly poisonous, resulting in countless deaths amongst the Roman slaves forced to mine it. Worse still, it was sometimes even used as a medicine in Ancient China. Although genuine gold was highly valued in China, jade was prized even higher and was reserved for only the most important ceremonial objects and weapons.

Byzantine, Islamic, Indian and Japanese Art

The Romans had used gold leaf to depict secular figures on pendants and medallions, but with the Empire’s conversion to Christianity, this practice took on a new religious significance within the Byzantine Empire (aka the Eastern Roman Empire). For early Christians, gold was a way of portraying divinity, transcendence and spirituality within mosaics, icon paintings and triptychs. Byzantine ‘gold-ground’ paintings utilized gold leaf to create a shimmering backdrop, representative of heaven itself, against which figures appeared to magically float.

Illuminated Christian manuscripts were regularly ornamented with gold leaf, embellishing the detailed decorative borders and exquisitely designed initials. Islamic manuscripts also employed gold leaf in its calligraphy, seen in the Blue Qur’an created for the Great Mosque of Kairouan in Tunisia. In both traditions, gold was believed to enhance the spiritual message of individual passages.

Gold played an especially important role within Persian, Mughal and Indian royal courts. Central to this distinctive Indo-Persian aesthetic were luxuriously detailed miniature paintings, liberally decorated with gold leaf. The powdered gold was first turned into a paint, then used to enhance calligraphy, clothing and architectural features. In 16th and 17th century Japan, gold leaf was used to decorate food and enhance designs on lacquered folding screens.

Medieval and Renaissance Italy

The Byzantine tradition of gold-ground paintings was common throughout late medieval Italy, especially in panel paintings of the Madonna and Child, such as Giotto’s famous Ognissanti Madonna (c. 1310). Because worldly wealth was considered a sin by Christianity, gold was used to represent not luxury but unworldly heavenly light and wisdom, highlighting details such as robes and halos in the altarpieces of Duccio and Cimabue.

By the end of the 14th century, the use of gold-leaf started to decline, supplanted by a search for naturalistic modes of representation. Rather than relying on flat gold backgrounds, artists started to depict the natural landscape using innovations such as aerial perspective. However, gold in art didn’t disappear entirely. As the Renaissance progressed, it increasingly threw off Christianity’s hair shirt attitude towards wealth, adopting classical and pagan notions of magnificence. The great 16th century goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini made his famous Salt Cellar for Francis I of France, using the metal as a conspicuous and unashamed display of luxury and power.


No artist of the Modern period is so associated with gold as the Viennese Secessionist painter Gustav Klimt. Although now dead for more than a century, his works are arguably more popular than ever. His ‘Golden phase’ lasted the first decade of the 20th century, making inspired use of gold leaf by drawing on Classical, Byzantine and Renaissance precedents, as well as Japanese examples. His famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907) is an elegant symphony in gold. His ethereal The Kiss (1907-8) uses the shimmering metal to play with ideas surrounding sex, desire and decadence, as well as riffing on echoes of Byzantine imperial decline that he saw reflected in his own time. From the very beginning, this most seductive of metals appears to have embodied humanity’s dreams of a better life - and whilst all that glitters might not be gold, we appear to still live in hope.

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