Form of Enamelling Used in Jewellery Art, Goldsmithery and Decorative Metalwork.

Pin it

Reliquary of St. Thomas Becket
(c.1200) Musee du Moyen Age, Paris.
Champlevé copper, engraved,
chased, enameled and gilt.
Made in Limoges by Master Alpais.

Champlevé Enamelling


Description & Characteristics
Related Articles

Note: Enamelling is a type of ancient art - more accurately a form of decorative art - used most often in goldsmithery to decorate metal items, although the method is also associated with glass or ceramic objects. Typically enamellists coat the object with a mixture of powdered glass and other materials and then fire the whole thing in a kiln. The mixture fuses with the object, giving a smooth, glass-like effect. The addition of certain metallic ores to the powdered glass can produce a range of vivid colours.

Ceremonial bracelet/armlet made by
goldsmiths of the Mosan school near
Liege in present-day Belgium. Worn
on the upper arm, it depicts the
Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Champlevé enamel on gilded copper.
(1170-80) Louvre Museum, Paris.

Detail on a late 12th century reliquary
made in Limoges, France.
Features the murder of Thomas Becket.
Champlevé enamel over gilt copper.
Louvre Museum, Paris.

The Stavelot Triptych (1156)
A masterpiece of Medieval art of the
12th century Mosan school.
Morgan Library & Museum, New York.

Description and Characteristics of Champlevé Enamelwork

Like cloisonné enamelling, champlevé is designed to add colour and glitter to metalwork, by creating small "compartments", which are then filled with vitreous (glass-like) enamel or inlays of precious stones and heated to fusion-point in a kiln. Once the enamel or stone inlay has cooled, it is smoothed with pumice stone and polished. However, unlike cloisonné - which involves the creation of partitions above the surface of the metal object - the champlevé technique involves the creation of depressions or troughs below the surface - one reason why its name, which means "raised field" in French, is so confusing! The metal lines left untouched between the troughs serve as partitions. Because it is relatively easy to vary the width of the trough, the champlevé method provides for a greater variety of design than that achieved by cloisonné. Although seen in jewellery art made during Classical Antiquity, it was only during the era of Celtic art (from about 400 BCE onwards) that the technique became consistent and widespread. Indeed, Celtic metalwork art exerted a significant influence on Irish Monastic Art (500-1200) as well as early Christian art created in monasteries across England. (For more, please see also: Celtic Jewellery art.)

However, the champlevé process is most associated with Romanesque art from the eleventh century onwards, when it was applied to reliquaries, caskets, plaques and vessels, as well as liturgical crosses and a variety of jewellery. It was also used in the making of illuminated manuscripts, to embellish bindings and covers. Later variants include the more translucent basse-taille technique. Famous items created using champlevé enamelling include: the Stavelot Triptych (1158) and the Becket Casket (1180-1190).

History of Champlevé Enamelwork

No one knows exactly when champlevé was first invented, although it is likely that the process first emerged during the phase of Hellenistic Art (c.323-30 BCE) - see also Ancient Greek Metalwork - spreading northwards into the Black Sea region of Russia, before being adopted and carried into Europe by migrating Celts. At any rate, champlevé on bronze is closely associated with the La Tene style of Celtic culture. Interestingly, during the era of Roman art, the method was practiced almost exclusively in the northern provinces of the Roman Empire that were formerly occupied by Celtic tribes. (See, for instance, the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan, c.150 CE.) Celtic enamelling endured in northwest Europe, especially in Ireland, where it influenced medieval Christian art up until the 12th century. The main colours seen in Celtic enamelwork included a red, which some experts believe was intended as an imitation of red coral (see, for instance, the Witham Shield); along with bright yellow and blue; while the base was usually bronze. Other specialities of Celtic enamellers was their use of millefiori glass, which they fused into a ground of coloured enamel, and their increasingly ornate penannular brooches. Nearly all Late Celtic enamelwork featured the champlevé technique together with curvilinear designs.

The art of champlevé enamelling reached its zenith during the period of Romanesque architecture and early Gothic architecture, partly because of the growth in the making of stained glass (which also relied on metallurgy) for the new cathedrals appearing across Europe. During this period medieval artists focused on the technique of champlevé on copper plate, although they worked also with bronze, silver and gold. Blue was the predominant colour, as it was also in the stained glass art. The school of Mosan art, which grew up around the valley of the River Meuse near Liege, was renowned in particular for its development of the champlevé process - as exemplified by the work of Godefroid de Claire (c.1100-73) and Nicholas of Verdun (c.1156–1232). Another centre of excellence was the Limoges school in southern France. The Stavelot Triptych (1158, Morgan Library & Museum, New York City) - a reliquary and portable altar commissioned by the Benedictine monastery of Stavelot - is a superb example of Mosan champlevé, while the Becket Casket (1180-1190, Victoria & Albert Museum, London) - one of several reliquaries or "chasses" made to store the relics of Archbishop Thomas Becket - is a wonderful early example from Limoges. Other important centres of Romanesque enamelling included Cologne, Germany, and Silos in Spain.

Related Articles

Novgorod School of Icon Painting (& murals) (c.1100-1500)
Icons, mosaics, murals, Russian medieval art.

Medieval Manuscript Illumination (c.1000-1500)
History, types and styles of gospels made during the Middle Ages.

Romanesque Illuminated Manuscripts (c.800-1150)
Book painting in Germany, England, Spain, Italy, and France.

Gothic Cathedrals (c.1140-1500)
Design and characteristics of the greatest cathedrals in France.


• For more about decorative arts and crafts, see: Homepage.

© All rights reserved.