As we saw in yesterday’s post, the Middle Ages was a time of great artistic virtuosity…and variety. Working in metal, stone, wood, and ivory, mediaeval craftsmen created objects to refine private life and to decorate the altars. Of all mediaeval crafts, however, nothing is quite so quintessential to the period as enamelling, which required expertise not only in fine metals, but also in the magical substance of glass.
Glass-blowing had been known since ancient times; in many museums today, Roman glass still delights visitors with bright colours and iridescent shimmers. Mediaeval artisans, however, favoured a very different technique for turning silica and pigment into art. Using a metallic framework (typically of gold or copper) an enameler would create distinct chambers to form a complete image. Each of these chambers would then be filled with powdered glass and fired at high heat–causing the glass to fuse into a lustrous, smooth surface.
Within this broader process, however, were two specific techniques. Cloisonné enamel (produced largely by Byzantium) created raised chambers by working thin golden wires, the effects of which can be seen in the depiction of Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus above. These objects were often produced under imperial patronage as gifts to neighbouring Balkan leaders, and expressed the technological superiority of the empire.
In Western Europe, however, demand for enamelled works was high and gold was costly, and so artisans used copper plates instead. This technique, known as Champlevé enamelling, created the chambers by working downward from the surface, digging in spaces for the glass rather than building them up.
This gave these enamelwares the brilliant colours of inlaid jewels without the cost. (The Sutton Hoo treasures are an example of the effect the enamels strove to imitate; rather than glass, the Anglo-Saxon creators used cut garnet.) This technique is demonstrated in a video from the V&A Museum, which illustrates how such stunning patterning effects were achieved on a Limoges casket in their collection:
These techniques were adapted to a dizzying array of shapes. At the Walters, this Eucharistic dove sports enamel wings, introducing colour and whimsy into the liturgical space:
It should come as no surprise, given the close relationship between the crafting of enamel and its religious function, that at least one mediaeval author elevated the creation of such objects into a form of worship in his own right. Theophilus, who wrote the authoritative treatise On Diverse Arts, argued that King David of the Old Testament approved of such decorating of the holy places. This point went against the austerity practiced at the time by the Cistercian orders, and illustrates the extent to which the artistic community depended on the theological underpinnings of their work. Moving on in the treatise, he reassures the potential craftsman about his occupation:
‘Through the spirit of counsel, you do not bury your talent given you by God, but, by openly working and teaching in all humility, you display it faithfully to those wishing to understand…’
Despite the disagreement of some who considered such gaudy work unsuitable for the religious sphere, enamelling techniques continued to develop throughout the later Middle Ages, culminating in the ‘painted’ enamel technique of the Renaissance.
Employing layers of glass of varying opacity, later enamelers achieved a painterly level of nuance and detail, notable for the striking areas of light and dark in their pieces. Interest in portraying religious subjects continued, although these were often combined with a more Classical style. This is demonstrated by the medallion at left, portraying the first Christian emperor Constantine. In its fine lines and shading, it carries the techniques of enamelling to an impressive new height.
This mediaeval craft spanned the breadth of the continent, defining the religious and artistic sensibilities of a period. Full of life, colour, and shine, enamelware demonstrates the splendour of the Middle Ages, in pieces great and small.