A guide to gold-ground paintings

An illuminating overview of a tradition that flourished in religious centres across Europe, but particularly in Florence and Siena, bringing divine richness to Italian art at the dawn of the Renaissance — illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Fra Angelico, The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen

Fra Angelico (circa 1395/1400-1455), The Crucifixion with the Virgin, Saint John the Baptist and the Magdalen. Tempera on gold ground panel. 25⅛ x 15 in (59.7 x 34.2 cm). Sold for £5,001,000 on 6 July 2023 at Christie’s in London

The term ‘gold-ground’ usually refers to religious panel paintings made during the late Middle Ages in Italy. Technically speaking, a gold-ground artwork is any with a background made from gold leaf. It can be a painting, mosaic or manuscript illumination — all of which have had gold applied to them for around 1,500 years.

However, when art historians use the term, it’s normally in reference to paintings of the Virgin, Christ and saints made on gold-leaf-covered panels of wood between the second half of the 13th century and the early 15th century.

A handful of these works come from France, Spain and central Europe, but the vast majority are Italian. There, the two greatest centres of production were Florence and Siena, although other republics and kingdoms, including Genoa, Venice and Naples, also had their own schools.

Tommaso del Mazza, called The Master of Saint Verdiana (active 1377-1392), The Annunciation. Tempera on gold ground panel. 11 x 13¼ in (26.7 x 33.5 cm). Sold for £277,200 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

From individual paintings to multi-panel works

Gold-ground paintings come in a variety of shapes and sizes and were used for private and public devotion. Some gold-ground works are small, square, single-panel paintings that depict the Virgin and Child in a pose known as the ‘Hodegetria’. This refers to the way Mary’s hand signals that Jesus, cradled on her lap, is the saviour of mankind.

The image was particularly popular in Siena among the burgeoning Order of Franciscans, founded in 1209, which held the belief that the Virgin could protect the city from plague, drought and war. Siena’s congregation would offer gifts to her portraits hanging inside chapels, or light candles before panel paintings on street corners.

Martino di Dartolomeo di Biagio (active 1398-1434), The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula — a predella. Tempera and gold on panel. 13¾ x 17¼ in (34.9 x 43.5 cm). Sold for £50,400 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

Other works can consist of up to 20 gold-ground panels hinged together, housed in elaborate frames adorned with buttresses, piers and pinnacles that reflect Romanesque and Gothic architecture. These can measure more than 10 feet in width and height.

These complex works often tell the story of the life of Christ, or certain saints, and were placed on altars for the clergy to use as didactic tools — bringing scripture to life and explaining moral lessons to the mostly illiterate masses.

Between Byzantine traditions and the revisions of the Renaissance

Gold-ground painting took cues from Byzantine art, but also laid the foundations for the Renaissance.

Gold, unlike any other colour, has the ability to radiate a warm, glowing light. And when viewed by the flickering flame of a candle, gold shimmers with life. As a result, since at least the 6th century, Christian artists used gold to represent divinity. The gold background of Byzantine icons is a sacred stage for the subject’s message.

After the sack of the Byzantine capital Constantinople in 1204 by the knights of the Fourth Crusade, many icons were carried back to Italy as booty. Not long after, Italian artists began to adopt their motifs, styles and materials.

Niccolò di Buonaccorso (active 1372-1388), The Madonna and Child Enthroned, with Saint Catherine, Saint Bartholomew and Two Angels. Tempera on gold ground panel. 10⅛ x 7¼ in (25.6 x 18.5 cm), including later additions of 1 in (2.4 cm) to the top and bottom edges. Sold for £201,600 on 7 December 2023 at Christie’s in London

At the same time, these artists broke free from the Byzantine tradition of rigid, flat, linear figures. Instead, they used half-tones to give volume and shadows to create depth. They also added psychological depth to their figures’ facial expressions, as well as using complex compositions and architectural references to establish narrative.

These principles would become the foundations of Renaissance art.

The painter as craftsman — and part of a team

Gold-ground paintings were produced by teams of specialised artisans working together. One person would start by cutting and planing a seasoned plank, usually poplar. This was then coated with a layer of gesso — a mixture of chalk and glue made from animal skin.

Next, the initial design would be sketched onto the panel’s surface in charcoal, and the outline would then be incised with a scalpel. After that, a layer of reddish-brown clay called ‘bole’ would be applied around the incised lines. This acted as a primer and gave the gold a deep, rich colour.

Gold leaf — made from coins melted and then pounded into exceptionally thin sheets about three inches square — was then delicately applied to the bole with a brush.

Associate of Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1285/90-1348), The Crucifixion with the Madonna and Saint John the Evangelist. Tempera and gold on panel. 12½ x 9 in (31.8 x 22.9 cm). Sold for $945,000 on 9 June 2022 at Christie’s in New York

The gold would be burnished and buffed to create a uniform, shiny surface. Patterns of tiny holes were then punched into this using sharp tools. These are typically found in the haloes that surround figures, and around the picture’s borders, adding texture to the panel’s surface and affecting the way the light is reflected from it. Each workshop tended to have its own signature pattern.

For the final stage, a painter would add the image using tempera — a mixture of pigment and binder, normally egg yolk.

The artists to know: from Cimabue to Daddi

These painters were considered on a par with craftsmen, rather than the free-thinking, independent artists whose names began to emerge in the Renaissance. As a result, their identities were often unrecorded.

That’s not to say they weren’t handsomely rewarded. In 1308, when a low-skilled manual labourer would earn around 20 to 25 florins a year, the city of Siena paid Duccio di Buoninsegna 3,000 florins to create the Maestà, the altarpiece for its cathedral.

Today, anonymous artists’ works are grouped by scholars on stylistic qualities such as the treatment of hair and hands, or how they render the folds of drapery. They are then given a name referencing a notable work — often a fresco cycle on the walls of a church — such as ‘the Master of the Baptistery of Parma’.

However, some of the most influential painters’ names were recorded. The forefather of the gold-ground tradition in Italy is the Florentine Cimabue (c. 1240-1302). After him came Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1260-c.1318-1319) and Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267-1337), who worked in Florence and was Ciambue’s pupil.

Duccio’s heirs in Siena were the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro (c. 1280-1348) and Ambrogio (c. 1290-1348), and Simone Martini (c. 1284-1344). In Florence, Giotto’s heirs were Andrea di Cione di Orcagna (c. 1308-1368) and Bernardo Daddi (c. 1280-1348).

Many of the masterpieces of gold-ground painting were made by these eight artists.

The discovery of oil paint and the end of an era

The popularity of gold-ground works came to an end with the development of oil paint and canvas. These materials gave artists new opportunities to express themselves.

For example, oil paint could be used to build up thin, almost transparent layers of colour, known as glazes, or thick, creamy and dense areas of paint called impasto. It also provided them with an infinitely wide palette of tones and hues and — unlike tempera — the freedom to change their mind and rework areas of a painting.

Master of the Wallraf Triptych (active circa 1360), The Wallraf Triptych. Central panel: the Madonna and Child with Saints Clare and Francis, and a Clarisse Donor, the Annunciation above. Left wing: the Nativity, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Last Supper with a Papal Saint and Christ on the Way to Calvary. Right wing: the Flagellation, the Crucifixion, the Pietà and the Last Judgement. Tempera and gold on panel. Sold for $990,000 on 14 October 2021 at Christie’s in New York

The birth of linear perspective, often accredited to Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco, painted circa 1428 in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, also gave artists a new and powerful tool with which to bring Catholic dogma to life.

What collectors look for

Collectors of Italian gold-ground works from the Middle Ages tend to prioritise quality and condition. A solid attribution and historical provenance also make a work desirable.

Complete altarpieces are rare and highly prized — over the centuries, many were broken up into smaller parts to be sold off.

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Some collectors prefer recognisable images, such as the Madonna and Child or a Crucifixion scene. Others may want a more unusual subject to complement their collection.

Contemporary art collectors are also entering the market. They admire the tactile and transcendental qualities of these artworks, and value them as cornerstones of a cross-category collection.

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