There can be few people who have ever seen a medieval Bible and not looked in awe at the rich decorations inside, but also noticed how liberally decorated they are with gold and pondered the extravagance.
A new exhibition at the British Library looks at how gold was used to embellish important documents, not just in olde Christianity, but across the whole planet. Every culture valued gold and used it in important documents.
But not always how we expect.
The library has managed to pull together a wide range of books and manuscripts from across the world to show off both the artistry involved, but also the wide range of how gold was used. Gold was also political, and a traditional wax seal on a royal document was replaced with a gold seal to try and reinforce the power of a failing regime, as one example on show of a seal issued by Emperor Baldwin II after he was deposed.
There’s a “letter” to King Richard II, which is a very long letter, as it’s actually a book. Gospels in gold, Korans in gold, diplomatic letters in gold.
Adding gold leaf to a book seems an exceptional extravagance, and at the time most of these books were created, gold was the metal of kings, but at a time when the cost of producing an illustrated (illuminated) book was itself beyond the realms of most people, the cost of adding gold seems almost a modest decoration.
Even today, the lustre of adding gold to a book elevates it, and as a young adult, a diary with the edges of the pages in gold felt grand, even if in truth gold leaf is quite cheap — you can pick up 100 sheets for under £5.
The skill of the medieval craftsmen was less in the material value than in the artistry, and the time it took to create these exceptional bound volumes of religious texts.
We often think of gold in books as used to give them a glitter when read, but some documents are made of gold itself. A scroll curled up not unlike a snake is made of a 2-metre long sheet of gold that was written upon – a treaty between the Zamorin of Calicut and the Dutch East India company. We may assume this meant it was amazingly important, but very few such documents survive today, as they were too easily melted down and reused. A gold scroll has more value being recycled than a book decorated with gold leaf ever could have.
Today gold is more often found in computers and consumer electronics as an important part of the computer circuitry and there’s an entire, if dangerous, industry in extracting the precious metals from discarded computers. Computers are today’s publishing tools, so maybe in the future, there will be an exhibition about gold in modern publishing — inside computers.
But back to today, and this is a modest-sized exhibition, but packs 50 glittering items to see, and is as delightful for the artistry on display as the chance we don’t get often enough, to compare how so many different cultures used the same material to sometimes very unexpected ends.
And do check the dates on the description labels, most of the objects on display are well over 500 years old.
Standard: £8 | Seniors: £4 | Concessions: £3 | Children <11: Free
Tickets can be bought at the desk, or reserved online from here.