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.
Ancient Egypt (Electrum)
Statuette of Amun, ca. 945-712 B.C. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Pendant in the Shape of an Uraeus, 2030-1650 B.C. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Ancient Egyptian metalsmiths began creating gold objects as early as the predynastic period (4th millennium BC), before the Egyptians had even established a written language. Initially, gold was exclusively reserved for the use of kings, and eventually for nobles, too. Gold was considered to be the skin of gods and goddesses in the Egyptian pantheon, and a pharaoh might order his eternal resting place capped with a brilliant gold-plated pyramidion to reflect the blessings of the sun god Ra.
Interestingly, the Egyptians weren’t so concerned with the purity of the material, but rather produced objects with Electrum, a naturally occurring gold-silver alloy whose content ranges between 20 and 80 percent gold. Due to its hybrid nature, Electrum typically took on a lighter color than yellow gold, as in this Uraeus (snake), adapted from a pharaonic head covering.
Electrum’s “taint” of silver also proved useful to Egyptian goldsmiths, who quickly discovered that the uneven tarnishing of the gold and silver components in the metal led to beautiful red imperfections in their finished objects. Turning the situation to their advantage, they began producing “red gold” works, such as the red gold burial mask of Ukhhotep.
Islamic Art & Medieval Illuminated Manuscripts (Gold Leaf)
Catalan Atlas, 1375. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Islamic holy laws restrict the use of recognizable imagery in art, such as depictions of prophets, due to concerns about idolatry. As a result, Muslim artists have spent over a thousand years developing intricate patterns and calligraphy in their art, focusing on fine materials and incredible amounts of detail and finish.
Though it was considered impious to wear too much gold in Islamic society, the wealthy still owned and sometimes wore it to show their power. The Muslim king Musa Keita I of Mali, for example, who reigned from 1312 to 1337 CE, is considered by some to have been the richest man in the history of the world, even adjusted to inflation, due to his vast stores of gold.
Folio from a Qu'ran Manuscript, late 13th-early 14th century. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He legendarily gave away so much gold on his 1324 pilgrimage to Mecca that he devalued the material in Cairo, Medina, and Mecca for the following 10 years. To correct this, he borrowed all the gold he could carry from moneylenders in Cairo, effectively controlling its price in the Mediterranean. He is celebrated in the 1375 Catalan Atlas, an illustrated set of Spanish maps of the world from the Medieval period, with a gold-leaf crown and coin.
Gold was often used in illuminated manuscripts (both in Islamic and European texts). In the absence of representative images, Qu’ran illustrators used gold leaf to set off sections in their holy text. To render the word of Allah, artists strove to manipulate the finest materials in the most beautiful manner, as seen in the delicately handled gold and calligraphy on vellum in this late 13th-century page from a Qu’ran folio.
Inca Gold (Gold Sheet)
A gold-sheet mask representing the sun god Inti from the La Tolita part of the Inca empire. Photo by Andrew Howe via Ancient History Encyclopedia.
The Inca culture of South America is known for its “lost gold.” In the early 16th century, the conquistador Francisco Pizarro renewed his efforts to dominate the Inca after learning of a legendary gold cache supposedly owned by the people. Gold was thought to be the sweat of Inti, the sun god, who was represented in many forms, including in this gold-sheet mask housed in the National Museum of Ecuador in Quito.
The zig zags of Inti’s sun rays were carefully hammered out in gold sheet. Some rays end in figures or faces, perhaps signaling the fact that the great kings of the Inca Empire claimed Inti as their direct ancestor—or that their reach was as far as the sun’s. The object, forged from Inti’s divine “sweat,” suggests that his blessing would carry to the rightful rulers. As Inca artisans refined the goldworking techniques of earlier indigenous populations they had conquered (like the Chimú, who were in turn influenced by the earlier Moche), they helped their kings confirm and trumpet their divine lineage.
Christian Art in Europe (Gold Leaf)
Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Maestà, 1308-11. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
The use of gold in Western art proliferated in Christian altarpieces and iconic paintings from the late Middle Ages, a practice that carried on into the Early Renaissance. In Duccio’s famous Maestà of 1308-11, the Virgin Mary holds the infant Christ before a brilliant gold-leaf background that merges at times with the golden halos of the pious devotees who surround them.
Imperial Gate mosaic at the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
This manipulation of gold leaf descended partly from its use in early Christian mosaics, where gold leaf reacted to candlelight in poorly lit buildings, visually enhancing religious experience for largely illiterate congregations. In modern-day Istanbul, the golden mosaics of the Hagia Sophia (built 532–37 CE and modified by future rulers) exemplify this early approach, together constituting some 30 million gold tiles.
Kintsugi (Golden Joinery)
Kenzan-style Dish with Bamboo Leaves, in the style of Ogata Kenzan. 17th-18th century. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
According to legend, the Japanese artistic practice of kintsugi, or “golden joinery,” began when a 15th-century shogun sent a broken tea bowl to China to be repaired. When it returned joined with ugly metal staples, the story goes, Japanese artisans attempted a more satisfactory solution, ultimately combining gold dust and lacquer into a substance that could seal cracks in pottery.
Whether that episode tells us more about 15th-century geopolitics or decorative goldworking, kintsugi developed into a wildly popular practice—one in which gold could be substituted for silver or platinum. Kintsugi pottery evoked the aesthetic of wabi-sabi, or acknowledging the beauty in imperfection. Kintsugi pottery became so renowned, in fact, that it was claimed that connoisseurs would break their bowls just to have them re-joined with gold.
Gold in the Modern Era and Art-World Critique
Drawing influence from the use of gold in decorative arts, the Austrian Symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, progenitor of the Art Nouveau movement, employed gold leaf in his turn-of-the-century allegories and portraits of women. For Klimt, gold came to signify something like romantic or erotic love, returning something of an “aura” to painting after the relatively material quality of 19th-century Realism and Impressionism.
But gold would also provide fodder for 20th-century artists who used its association with wealth to critique practices within the art market. For the conceptual artist Piero Manzoni’s cheeky provocation, Artist’s Shit (1961), he canned his own feces, labeled it, signed it, and priced it at the weight of gold, poking fun at the age-old idea that artists are divinely inspired by something deep within. “If collectors want something intimate, really personal to the artist, there’s the artist’s own shit, that is really his,” Manzoni wrote the same year to his friend, the artist Ben Vautier.
The next-generation provocateur Jeff Koons is known for kitschy golden sculptures that recreate pop culture icons or banal everyday objects. Claiming that he wanted his art to be as approachable as possible, Koons tapped the power and appeal of Christian art and popular culture, combining them in an image of one of the world’s most famous celebrities. His gilded porcelain sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) recreates a photograph of the King of Pop holding his beloved pet chimpanzee, adjusted to create a composition resembling Madonna and Child imagery—like Duccio’s Maestà, above, or Michelangelo’s Pietà (c. 1500) at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
Though Koons has claimed that his art doesn’t contain any message or lesson, his sculpture can be read as a critique of the idea of the “superstar” artist in a “fine arts” tradition, with the value instilled by his use of gold taking a lead role.