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Old Metals: The Art Of Damascening
( Article orginally published September 1962 )
Steel with a watered or wavy lustrous pattern, as seen in swordblades and other weapons of Oriental origin, is known as damask steel or Damascus steel. This form of metal enrichment can be achieved by twisting and welding together strips of iron and steel.
A similar, though inferior, style of surface ornament may be effected by etching the metal, reserving certain sections by covering those portions with a protective substance in a manner to manipulate the variegated pattern desired.
This peculiar metalwork technique was practiced principally in the Syrian capital of Damascus, as the name implies. The watered designs of Damascus steel are sometimes inaccurately described as damascening, which is a distinctive technique of inlay and overlay highly developed in Damascus.
Damascus steel has been produced in countries of the Orient from an early period, the most famous blades coming from Isfahan, Khurasan, and Shiraz in Persia (Iran). Excellent examples may be seen in the State Armory Museum of the Moscow Kremlin.
Damascening is the art of inlaying or incrusting wires and plaques of gold - also silver and copper - on objects of iron, steel, bronze, and brass.
The outline of the design is carefully engraved and undercut with a sharp instrument. After the minute furrows thus made have received the gold threads (wires), they are hammered smooth, holding the inlays securely - forming a delicate and intricate pattern on the contrasting background. The whole metal is penetrated by the process so that bruising does not damage the design.
Overlays or incrustations are applied by cutting a groove in the surface, outlining the circumference of the slightly hollowed section to be covered. The plaque is fitted into the groove and the overhanging edge is carefully beaten down to hold the incrustation securely.
This form of metal ornament is one of considerable antiquity. Splendid specimens have survived from ancient Egypt and the Mycenaean Age of Greece (1400-1000 B.C.). These early works - which demonstrate the charm that may be gained by combining several metals in a well-designed example - influenced later craftsmen.
In the arts of ancient India many different pure metals and alloys were employed. Not only was iron worked at an early date, but gold, silver, lead, copper, and tin were known in the Vedic Period (c. 1500800 B.C.).
The very early metalworkers in India pursued, and perhaps originated, a knowledge of the art of preparing steel. The steel of India was known to the Greeks and the Persians, and probably to the Egyptians, as was Damascus steel. Iron and steel were sent from India to Mesopotamia.
Dr. Coomaraswamy wrote: "Of monuments remaining in India, the most famous is Chandragupta's wrought-iron pillar near Delhi, which weighs 10 tons and is about 1500 years old. After being exposed to the wind and rain through the centuries, the pillar is unrusted, the capital and inscription are as clear and as sharp as when constructed."
The art of damascening was applied by, Islamic metalworkers in India, Persia, and the Near East, beginning in the 15th century, or possibly earlier. Excellent examples from these countries, as well as from China and Japan, may be seen in many museums.
The principal forms of applied decoration on metal were inlay and incrustation of a contrasting metal.
Arabesques of gold and silver were arduously applied. Damascening in the highest degree of excellence was practiced in Punjab, North India, in the Sikh period - from the 15th to the 18th century.
In an inferior form of damascening, known as devali, the surface of the metal was not engraved, but merely roughened, with silver or gold wire beaten over the hatched surface following the delineated design.
Both forms of damascening were practiced in all sections of India and in Ceylon.
In Persia, the Sasanians (224650 A.D.) were unsurpassed in metalwork. They worked in silver, gold, Sasanian silver are not refined, they do show significance and strength attained in no other silverwork.
Bronzes from this period, even more than silver, display the surpassing quality of Sasanian art. The surprising strength of the Sasanian bronzes survived into Early Islamic times (650-1037), as exemplified in a post-Sasan.ian bronze jug in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore.
Persian metal vessels of the ninth and 10th centuries followed significant styles, with simplicity and strength as the artistic ideals. Metal objects of the Seljuk period (1037-1197) were incrusted with silver patterns on a background of deeply carved foliage with trailing tendrils.
Carved metal had been known for some time but silver inlay seems to have come into Persia proper from the Eastern provinces. A 12th century silver-incrusted vessel in the Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, substantiates this assumption.
The art of gold and silver damascening on bronze reached its perfection in the 14th and 15th centuries, with elegant embellishments on basins and braziers, trays, ewers, pen boxes, caskets, and candlesticks. Allover designs of carving and inlay were often executed with the ingenuity of a master jeweler.
The cover of the bronze casket in the accompanying illustration is expertly damascened with silver incrustations representing phoenixes in flight.
The effect of damascened silver on bronze was enhanced by contrasting surfaces of polished black bitumen, which, though concealing the bronze, did accentuate the silver.
Of special significance among the Near Eastern Arms exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, are a 17th century Persian helmet, and a cuirass of steel, damascened with gold in the Safavid style. Other interesting examples are shown in the Department of Arms and Armor: shields, swords, and daggers of Iran, India, Turkey, and the Caucasus.
Medieval metalworkers of the Near East appreciated the artistic value of introducing contrasting metal surface decorations as a true enrichment of their work. In addition to repousse and embossing, they applied partial gilding, niello, enamel; also striking designs of inlay and overlay, as a means of enhancing metal surfaces.
Even book bindings were sometimes made of precious metals, delicately damascened, and often jewelled.
Russian museums, with their wealth of magnificent metal art, offer the opportunity to observe damascening, and other metal arts, as may be seen in no other museums. In the Hermitage Museum's department of History of the Culture and Art of Foreign Countries of the East, there are all sorts of delightful examples among the Islamic and pre-Islamic collections.
More than two million items are exhibited in the Hermitage Museum alone.
The weapons, armor, and military accessories contained in the State Armory Museum in the Moscow Kremlin comprise more than 4,000 objects. The perfection attained through the centuries of original and unequalled style of ornament is exemplified in this superb collection. Included are splendid sabers of Damascus steel, many decorated with openwork; also damascening.
These accessories were made by Russian armorers and foreign craftsmen from East and West: Byzantium, Germany, Italy, France, Sweden, Persia, Egypt, India, China, and other countries. Most of the examples, how ever, were created by skilled metalworkers of the armory in the Moscow Kremlin, where Russian and foreign craftsmen worked side by side.
The most ancient example of defensive armor exhibited in the State Armory Museum is a 13th century Byzantine helmet. Conical in shape, it is made of iron, delicately damascened in gold and silver; figures of saints are well defined on the helmet.
By the 15th century, arms became symbols of imperial importance, wealth, and pride. Palaces blossomed with exquisitely effected ceremonial arms and heraldic devices. Saddles and quivers, even tents, sparkled with diamonds and pearls. Textiles of precious metals, and jewels-all were magnificently manipulated.