From the very earliest human discoveries of gold, thought to have occurred between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, the precious metal was known to be something rare and special. Found deposited in rivers, the glimmering nuggets of gold—which appeared to radiate light like the sun—were too soft and malleable to turn into tools. Yet they were also incorruptible, resistant to tarnishing like other precious metals.
The ancient Egyptians found a better use for the material. They transformed it into objects invested with divine associations and ornate decorations for divinely ordained rulers. Gold would quickly come to signify not only godliness, but wealth, purity, and prestige. Indeed, throughout human history, works of art incorporating gold have served myriad purposes, from displays of piety to displays of economic power and luxury.
The earliest gold artifacts discovered by archaeologists were found in the Eastern Mediterranean and date to around the 4th millennium BC. Today, the use of gold is more widespread—you might even find an extremely upmarket dessert coated in thin, flavorless gold leaf.
From religious artists for whom gold lined the streets of holy paradise to one who used its weight as the value standard for his own feces, here is a brief history of gold in art.