A Short, Shiny History of Gold in Art, From the Glittering Tombs of Ancient Egypt to Gustav Klimt’s Scandalously Gilded Surfaces

The prized material has ancient associations with the sun, worship, and of course, wealth.

Gustav Klimt, Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901). Collection of Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.
Gustav Klimt, Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901). Collection of Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna.

Gold is a color that stands alone. Just ask any chrysophilist—a fancy word for lovers of the stuff, which is to say, almost everyone. For millennia, this material has been used as a glittering symbol reserved for that which is most sacred and revered. The Incas called gold “tears of the sun.” The Egyptians knew it as “the flesh of the gods.” The hue has adorned tributes to deities, marked depictions of kings and queens, and symbolized opulence, power, and otherworldly spiritual splendor.

The mythologies and histories surrounding gold have at times been troubling, too. In mythology, King Midas’s wish for a golden touch becomes a curse. Belief in magic played a part, with alchemists seeking to transform ordinary metals into the coveted matter. The real-life quest to acquire gold ore has had at times horrendous consequences, including centuries-long colonial plundering. During the American Gilded Age, gold took on more sinister implications, embodying decadence, excess, and corruption (the Emerald City of Oz, in The Wizard of Oz, was itself a reference to “ounces” of gold and the American obsession with money).

Nevertheless, gold has retained its powerful sway to this very day (who could forget the hubbub over Maurizio Cattelan’s golden toilet at the Guggenheim?). With the recent news of the discovery of hoards of gold in France and Denmark, we decided to take a brief look at gold’s enduring role in the history of art.

Ancient Symbol of the Gods

The funerary mask of King Tutankhamun at the Cairo Museum, Egypt. Photo: Tim Graham, courtesy Getty Images.

The funerary mask of King Tutankhamun at the Cairo Museum, Egypt. Photo: Tim Graham, courtesy Getty Images.

While it’s uncertain just when humans first encountered gold or began to create art objects out of it—the Scandinavian Trundholm sun chariot dates to at least 1,400 B.C.E—it was in the fertile crescent of Egypt that gold blossomed into new and lustrous forms, thanks to numerous artisans.

Egypt had a veritable glut of gold, it should be noted. While other civilizations had to scour for the prized material, the element was so common in Egypt that royalty adorned themselves with flecks of gold as a cosmetic. What’s more, the Egyptians were technically savvy, managing to turn the naturally soft material into lasting objects and adornments for rulers both for this life and the next. In the tomb of Pharaoh ​​Tutankhamun (one of the only tombs to be excavated largely untouched), archaeologists discovered the famed Mask of Tutankhamun, a funerary mask of the young king’s visage made of 11-karat gold and inlaid with gemstones. Of entering the tomb for the first time, archaeologist Howard Carter wrote rapturously, “Strange animals, statues and gold…everywhere the glint of gold.” It is worth noting that even since these early experiments, gold has been associated not only with wealth and power, but also spirituality, transcendence, and the afterlife. A fascinating tidbit for the jewelry purists out there: Egyptians were concerned more with the specific hue of gold than with its quality, and often used alloys—particularly the gold-silver alloy electrum—to create their art objects. 

Byzantine Beauty 

Christ as Pantocrator, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist (circa 1261), Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Christ as Pantocrator, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist (circa 1261), Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Gold was at the very core of artistic creation during the reign of the Byzantine Empire (4th–15th century). Its rulers were often honored with artistic tributes, such as the famed 6th-century mosaics depicting Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Further west, gold leaf adorned Celtic illuminated manuscripts, and in paintings, images of Christian religious figures were set against ethereal and flattened backgrounds of gold leaf. In this era, the gold once associated with ancient sun gods saw itself transferred to the Christian faith, with gold reflecting divine light and radiance, as well as God’s illuminating omnipresence. Viewed by candlelight, as they were intended to be, such works would have had flickering, otherworldly beauty. 

 

Islamic Calligraphy & Persian Miniature Paintings

Baysonghor Shahnameh, 1430.

A miniature from the Baysonghor Shahnameh (1430), a Persian epic renowned for its artistry.

Gold has a long tradition in court paintings of the Islamic world. One of the most acclaimed works of Islamic calligraphy, the Blue Quran, famously showcases brilliant gold-leaf calligraphy against rare indigo parchment. In miniature paintings of the Indo-Persian world, the hue, too, found a special significance. The Mughal Emperor Akbar (1542–1605) was particularly enamored with the art of the miniature, small, delicate paintings often intended to be collected in books or albums for private consumption. Under his rule, an artistic milieu flourished, producing intricate scenes of architecture, events, decorative elements, and clothing, all wonderfully accented with gold details. 

Louis XIV as the Sun King 

Drawing by Henri de Gissey of the Apollo costume worn by Louis XIV in the Le Ballet de la Nuit (16530>

Drawing by Henri de Gissey of the Apollo costume worn by Louis XIV in Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit (1653).

As power shifted between the Catholic Church and divinely ordained rulers and merchant classes throughout the Renaissance and into the Enlightenment, gold took on shifting political meanings. In the ancient world Zeus, god of the sky, was said to appear to Danaë as a shower of light (often depicted as a rain of golden coins). Louis XIV of France made these ancient associations new again, proclaiming himself the Sun King. In a famed ballet performance, La Ballet Royal de la Nuit, the 14-year-old king (by all accounts an excellent dancer) appeared as costumed as the sun itself, glad in sparkling gold. Louis XIV’s celestial aspirations were manifested in the architecture of Versailles as well, with copious use of gold and mirrors to create a glittering effect as the king passed through the halls.   

 

Gustav Klimt & The Vienna Secession 

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers) (1907–1908). Courtesy of Galerie Belvedere.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (Lovers) (1907–1908). Courtesy of Galerie Belvedere.

While Pablo Picasso had his Blue Period, Gustav Klimt thrived in his Gold Phase. The Austrian artist had trained as a goldsmith in his father’s studio before becoming a painter, and the material held deep personal significance for Klimt. In his work, he employed gold leaf to novel effect, flattening the picture plane in a way that is reminiscent of the Japanese prints that so inspired him. His application of gold also imbued his works with a certain “object-ness” that crossed into realms of design and decorative artists, qualities that embodied the unique characteristics of his fellow Vienna Secession artists. What’s more, Klimt’s decadent use of gold was tied not to ideas of power or religion, but to sexuality and what Klimt considered the transcendence of the intimacy between men and women. Indeed, his most famous painting, The Kiss (Lovers) (1907–1908), scandalized some critics with its overt allusions to religious icons while exalting not God, but man and woman.

 

Yves Klein’s Golden Sublime 

Yves Klein, Monogold sans titre (1961). Courtesy of Christie’s.

While the French conceptual artist Yves Klein is certainly most famed for his patented International Klein Blue, the artist was also deeply fascinated by golden hues. Klein considered his blue plus rose and gold to be symbolic of the holy trinity, with gold embodying God the father; blue, God the son; and rose, the Holy Spirit. Klein’s coveted Monogolds series featured sculptural surfaces entirely covered in gold leaf. As sites of abstracted reflection, these works harken back to Byzantine icons.

Gold played an important part as Klein expanded his metaphysical investigation with the series “Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility” from the late 1950s, in which he sold spaces of “pure pictorial sensibility,” otherwise known as space itself. Gold played an important part in these works, too. In January 1962, Yves Klein went to the banks of the Seine to perform a “ritual transfer of immateriality” with Italian author Dino Buzzati, who paid the artist for his zone of “pictorial sensibility” with gold leaf. To complete the transaction, Klein produced a receipt for Buzzati—who burned it—and tossed the majority of the gold leaf into the river so that it floated, sparklingly, away. 


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