A Sermon in Silver-Gilt

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It works like this: you grind the gold down to grains or paper-thin plates and you heat them until they are red-hot, and the mercury smokes.

And you stir them together.

Eight parts mercury to one part gold, the resultant liquid is squeezed through chamois leather to sift out as much mercury as possible; and you are left with a substance with a consistency not unlike butter.

And then you paint it on your subject. Which, in this case, is a candlestick; and this all happened around the year 1104, some 900 years ago.

The gilding was the final intricate stage in the creation of something simply breathtaking. A candlestick made for the abbot of Gloucester Cathedral, which is so much more than a candlestick. It is a delight to our modern-day eyes, a tumble of symbolism, a sermon in silver, copper, zinc, tin, lead, nickel, iron, antimony, and arsenic.

It is known as The Gloucester Candlestick, and on its neck it carries the inscription: ‘The gentle devotion of abbot Peter and his gentle flock gave me to the church of St Peter at Gloucester’.

It is a glorious menagerie of dragons and apes and dogs and men. Some are heading away from the candle’s light, to the bottom, some towards it to the top. Some have their mouths covered and are kept silent, others have their mouths wide open, hollering.

The strange mix of its composite metals leads historians to speculate it might have been made from a hoard of old coins, melted down.

This incredible piece of visual story has not always lived in England. By the end of the 12th century, it was at Le Mans, evidenced by a later inscription: Thomas of Poché gave this object to the church of Le Mans when the sun renewed the year’

The next we know of it, it was in the collection of a Russian prince and diplomat in 1856. Of whom, I think, more later.

On his death, the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired it, and it came home. And you can see it there to this very day.

I could describe it, but on this occasion no words would match pictures. And if you have not already seen it, it bears a visit should you be walking down Cromwell Road SW7, London.

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15 thoughts on “A Sermon in Silver-Gilt

  1. I love the information about the mercury and gold process, so much history about skills and ingenuity, though I also hope the artisan did not get mercury poisoning!

  2. Today we concerned with the environment, and in particular the extraction of gold because of contamination of the environment by mercury. We realize that for centuries and centuries man has destroyed nature. We contemplate the beauty, but we can not forget the destruction.

    1. This is true, Marcos, without doubt. Those who made this thing did not know the powers and dangers of the substances they were handling, or their effect on the world, as we do now. I always console myself by thinking that, populations being what they were in 1104, contamination and its effects must have been on a small scale. Whether that is a justification, I cannot say….

  3. You always leave me in amazement, Kate; definitely so with this post. An interesting process; almost as interesting as your play on words. You are the best, Kate. Hope all is well at the Shrewsday Mansion.

    1. Thanks for those words, Penny 🙂 They are more than usually welcome. Life is unusual right now. The way the mediaeval craftsmen worked with metal never ceases to leave me (almost) speechless. Such masters.

  4. Hi Kate! The intricate process and the patience involved here boggles my mind. This is why none of my art work ever appears in museums – well that and the fact that I can’t draw, paint, sculpt, etc.

  5. It seems a fitting gift for when the sun renews the year. Loved the description of the process – I had no idea how that happened.

  6. Wow, what an amazing object! Fascinating post, love the detail of how it was made. Wish it had been returned to Gloucester Cathedral.

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