Goldsmiths in medieval Europe were one of the most important and widely-employed artisans. They were typically employed to work on pieces of art commissioned by the rich nobility. In doing so, goldsmiths frequently worked on a wide range of mediums with their gold expertise.
These particularly included the illustrated manuscripts, a huge number of which were produced in Europe during the medieval period. Goldsmiths were the ones who used their skill to adorn the covers, bindings and internal pages of such manuscripts with different kinds of fine and intricate gold work.
Goldsmiths as Manuscript Artisans
Illuminated manuscripts were one of the most prominent genres of art during the medieval period, especially during the early medieval period. Given the expansion of Christianity’s influence across Europe during this period, a number of nobles, monarchs, monasteries and clergymen commissioned illuminated manuscripts to be made.
These manuscripts, typically covered Scriptures or relevant literature, were penned down in elaborate fonts and then gilded in various manners by the goldsmiths. Such manuscripts were extensively produced in Anglo-Saxon England, Carolingian and Ottonian Empires in Continental Europe as well as in the Byzantine Empire.
Goldsmiths and Mosaic Art
Goldsmiths also played a limited role in the creation of numerous mosaic artworks, especially in the Byzantine Empire where mosaic was one of the key genres of art during the medieval period. Goldsmiths were hired for mosaics only when a mosaic involved the use of gold or another precious metal, which was not often and usually only in cases where the mosaics were commissioned by the Emperor.
Goldsmiths in Other Arts
Apart from illuminated manuscripts and mosaic arts, goldsmiths also produced a large variety of other types of art pieces in medieval Europe. Like most of the art commissioned in the early and High Middle Ages, the art pieces of goldsmiths were typically related to religious themes.
Notable types of art produced by the goldsmiths during this period included golden holy reliquaries often used in religious ceremonies as well as items of personal use by different monarchs such as golden sceptres, crowns and textiles with golden lining.
Given their extensive expertise in engraving and embossing, the goldsmiths in medieval Europe also played an important role in transporting these techniques to print where they eventually developed independently of the use of gold.
Goldsmiths also excelled in using innovative techniques such as enameling which allows glass to be fused with a precious metals like gold, enabling the creation of a highly colourful gold-made piece of art. Other medieval techniques used by medieval goldsmiths included basse-taille which allows them to create low-relief gold patterns to be filled by enamel.
Goldsmiths in Medieval Europe
As artisans, goldsmiths enjoyed very significant prestige in medieval Europe. They typically worked not just on gold but also on silver and occasionally used gems in their works. In most major medieval European cities, goldsmiths organised as guilds who held significant sway and political power. Given their affluence, goldsmiths also often acted as bankers since they had a ready stock of well-secured gold at most times.