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Enamel

( Originally Published 1955 )



enamel. A technique of the metalworker which on occasion approaches the qualities of or substitutes for painting. The process is one of applying glassy material to a metallic background, usually by fusion. Enameling seems to have been practiced in differing fashion in all ages, but it assumed especial importance in the craft work of the middle ages. As a substitute for painting, enameling is usually precious and miniature in scale, sparkling and iridescent in surface, permanently bright and contrasting in color. The origins of enameling are to be found in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Cretan and ancient Oriental art where it was practiced for its inlay- or jewel-like qualities. It was also employed in the classical period. By medieval times various techniques were practiced. The most delicate was cloisonne, probably invented by the Persians. In cloisonne as in all fused-glass enameling, colored glasses are ground, made into a water-paste, applied to the metal and fused at high temperature. This paste is applied to a depressed area of the metal, produced in Byzantine cloisonne by beating back a portion of the thin gold plate. Divisions are achieved by erecting within the area fine flat wire fences or cloisons, sometimes soldered to their background. These cloisons function as color dividers and as drapery lines. The contrast of opaque and translucent colors, and the glint from the gold beneath the glass give a shimmer to this type of enamel like that of mosaic work. This technique reached an apogee in the ateliers of the Byzantine empire. Our earliest example from the eastern Mediterranean is the cross of Paschal I (817-824) in the Sancta Sanctorum of the Vatican. The earliest Constantinopolitan product is the Cross-reliquary of the tenth century in Limburg. The success of this technique as an exquisite substitute for painting during the mid-Byzantine period can be seen in the superb little plaques in the Metropolitan Museum.

Enameling was an important type of minor art form during the so-called Dark Ages of western Europe. Virtually all the wandering tribes, Celtic, Siberian, Nordic, seem to have practiced one or more techniques in connection with their favorite art forms: trappings and jewelry. This practice continued in the ornamentation of books, vessels and reliquaries when settled communities developed. Several techniques were employed in addition to cloisonne. They practiced "Cold" inlay in which cut pieces of colored glass or semi-precious stone were introduced into hollowed settings, into pierced metal or behind perforated holes. The western people eventually preferred champleve enamel in which the glass paste was placed in compartments cut into the thickness of the metal plate. This produced a more cubic, cellular effect and left the dividing metal thicker at the surface. It was employed in Romanesque ateliers with opaque colors set into thickish bronze plates whose exposed surfaces were gilded or traced with engraved lines. While an obvious imitation of Byzantine cloisonne, this champleve achieved a strident, planar quality quite in keeping with Western taste of the time. Western output had apparently been enormous in pre-Romanesque times, with some of the best work produced in the British Isles and Ottonian Empire. By the late Romanesque period a great industry existed for enameled reliquaries, crosses and church furnishings. Best known were the centers in Limoges, the Meuse valley and the Rhineland. A number of artists are known by name, including Rugerus of Helmershausen (c.1100), Godefroy de Claire (early twelfth century), Nicolas of Verdun (1150-1225?). Many of the enameled plaques of these Western ateliers were assembled to make small chests or reliquaries in the form of buildings. Sometimes the enamel appeared in conjunction with relief work executed in repousse or by simple attachment of cast pieces. The total effect was a sculpural, architectural one that contrasts strongly with the incorporeal, painterly quality of its contemporary, Byzantine cloisonne. Fine examples can be seen in the Morgan Collection of the Metropolitan Museum.

Italian and French enamelers of the early Renaissance perfected a new method called "painted" enamel. In this technique the colors are applied like paint to the copper sheet and are fused together without cloisons. By careful application the effect of modeling, space and atmosphere can be achieved. The product is a true painting, no longer analogous to mosaics or stained glass in appearance. Lorraine and Limoges led in this technique during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, producing such masters as Limousin, Raymond and the Penicauds.



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