The use of cold mercury amalgam gilding in Byzantium

Pete Dandridge


The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been fortunate over the course of the last several years to have been able to substantially enrich its collection of Byzantine silver-gilt liturgical objects. First, with the acquisition of the Attarouthi Treasure – a group of nine chalices, three censers, a Eucharistic dove, and a wine strainer dated to the sixth century and produced by a variety of different hands – and, more recently, with the purchase of an eleventh century Processional Cross. All of these objects were fabricated from silver sheet with the chalices and the cross embellished with repouss√© decoration overlaid by a rich strata of gold. Microscopic and metalographic examination undertaken at the time of their acquisition has indicated that the method of gilding involved the application of gold leaf over a silver surface treated either with mercury or with an amalgam of mercury and gold. With the aid of the scanning electron microscope, it has been possible to observe the interfaces between the gold, the mercury, and the silver substrate. The lack of any substantial zone of interdiffusion between the amalgamated layer and the silver suggests that these objects were not heated during the gilding process; and therefore, they may represent a continuation of the tradition of cold mercury amalgam gilding that Vittori believes was described by Pliny in his ‘Natural History.’

1995 | St. Paul | Volume 3