The art of decorating metal with vitreous enamel.

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Late 12th century reliquary from
Limoges, France, depicting the
murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket.
The decoration on this exquisite item
of Christian art is champlevé enamel
over gilt copper. Louvre Museum Paris.

Enamelling (c.1200 BCE - 1915 CE)
Decoration of metal with vitreous enamel


Materials and Methods
Enamelling Techniques

For more about the chronology of arts and crafts,
please see: History of Art Timeline (2,500,000 BCE - Present).

The Golden Madonna of Essen
(c.980). An undisputed masterpiece
of German medieval art. The eyes
of both mother and child are made
of cloisonné coloured enamel.


Enamelling is a technique which is closely associated with goldsmithing and jewellery art, as well as with precious metalwork of all types. Derived from the Latin word "smaltum", the Old French word "esmail", and the Anglo-Norman French word "enamailler", enamelling emerged during the era of Aegean art as one of the first and most spectacular methods of making metal more colourful, without the need for precious or semi-precious stones. In this technique of decorative art, vitreous enamel (in the form of a powder or paste) is applied to a metal surface and then subjected to intense heat, which melts the enamel turning it into a brilliant glass-like substance which also gives the metal a hard, long-lasting surface. By varying the ingredients, this glass-like coating can be made semi-transparent or opaque, while its colour is regulated by adding various metal oxides such as iron, cobalt, praseodymium and others. Enamelling is related to other types of art - especially mosaics and ceramics, as well as painting; moreover, in its reliance on metallurgy, it has affinities with glass production - see, Stained Glass Art: Materials & Methods - one reason why it flourished during the era of Romanesque architecture when the demand for stained glass soared. Modern enamelling is exemplified above all by the exquisite Fabergé Easter eggs supplied to the Romanovs in St Petersburg. Enamel has been used to embellish a wide range of metal items, including: weapons and equestrian trappings; domestic items like mirrors and vases, ecclesiastical objects, including reliquaries, altar-screens, caskets, chalices and crosiers; drawing room items, such as decorative items, snuffboxes, bottles, candlesticks, etuis and thimbles.



Materials and Methods

Making the Enamel
Enamel is a compound of sand or flint, red lead, plus soda or potash. These materials are melted together under intense heat, which produces an almost transparent glass (known as flux, frit, or fondant), marked by a very slight blue or green tinge. The hardness and thus durability of this substance varies according to the proportions of its components. This transparent flux is the base from which all coloured enamels (and opaque enamels) are made. Coloured enamel is made by adding one of many metallic oxides to the flux when it is still molten. Brilliance of colour is typically regulated by fine-tuning the proportions of the other ingredients. Turquoise-blue enamel, for example, is created by adding black copper oxide together with a large quantity of carbonate of soda. Opaque enamel is made by adding calx - a mixture of tin and lead calcined.

Fusing the Enamel and Metal
Typically, the molten enamel is poured onto a slab where it solidifies into squares of roughly 10 to 13 centimetres (4-5 inches) in diameter. These cakes are then crushed into a fine powder and then washed. The surface of the metal object to be enamelled is carefully cleaned before being coated with the wet enamel powder, and then dried. The whole ensemble is then heated in a kiln or oven until the powder melts and fuses with the metal. It is then withdrawn and allowed to cool.

Enamelling Techniques

The main methods or styles of enamelling, are known as: Cloisonné, Plique-à-jour, Champlevé, Basse-taille, Grisaille, Email-peint, and Ronde Bosse.


Derived from the French word "cloison", meaning compartment or cell, cloisonné enamelling involves the delicate creation of raised compartments above the surface of the metal, which are then filled with vitreous enamel glaze (or paste) and vitrified in a kiln. Celebrated examples of cloisonné enamelwork include: the Celtic Petrie Crown (100 BCE); the Ardagh Chalice (8th/9th century); the Khakhuli Triptych (8th-12th century; the Golden Madonna of Essen (10th century); the Byzantine style Pala d'Oro altar screen (c.1100); the Stavelot Triptych (1156); and the Fabergé Eggs.


Derived from the French for "open to daylight", Plique-à-jour was designed to imitate the visual effect of stained-glass through the use of translucent enamels. Enamel is applied in a similar manner to cloisonné, but the compartments are not firmly fixed to the metal surface. As a result, once the enamel has fused, the metal surface (typically aluminum-bronze) can be removed, leaving a network of compartments with metal "walls" but no "floor". Light is then able to shine through the transparent enamel in the manner of stained glass. It is however a notoriously difficult technique with uneven results. One of the finest examples of medieval plique-à-jour is the Mérode Cup (c.1400), a medieval silver-gilt cup made in Burgundy, France, for the Belgian family of Mérode. It is noted for its side, cover and base panels of translucent enamel created using the translucent plique-à-jour technique.


Unlike cloisonné which utilizes "compartments" above the surface of the metal, champlevé enamelling involves the creation of compartments below the surface. Typically, shallow troughs are carved out of the metal and then filled with vitreous enamel. Initially the technique was applied mostly to bronze. The Celts, for instance, were prolific and highly skilled champlevé bronze enamellers, and their works had a huge impact on early Christian art up until the 9th century. Later, during the era of Medieval art, artists turned to champlevé enamelling of copper plate. Examples of medieval Christian art using champlevé decoration include: the Stavelot Triptych (1158) and the Becket Casket (1180-1190).


Derived from the French for "low-cut", Basse-taille enamelling involves the creation of a bas-relief design on the surface of the metal. The shallow indentation of the design is then filled with transparent or translucent enamels which are applied in phases to accentuate the shading and enhance the luminosity of the precious metals. An outstanding example of 14th century Basse-taille enamelling is the Royal Gold Cup or Saint Agnes Cup, now in the British Museum. Made from solid gold, lavishly decorated with enamel and pearls, it was crafted by French goldsmiths for the French royal family, and is regarded as the masterpiece of International Gothic metalwork.


Grisaille enamelling - not to be confused with grisaille painting - involves the application of a dark, typically blue or black background of enamel, which is then overlaid with a series of ever more translucent enamels, allowing the enameller to create a picture with a real sense of depth, not unlike a bas-relief. The grisaille technique was a speciality of Limoges during the era of Renaissance art in Europe.


Derived from the French for "painted enamel", the technique known as émail-peint first emerged in France during the transition from Gothic art to the new ideals of the Italian Renaissance. It involved the use of enamel as if it were paint and a metal sheet as if it were a canvas. First, the metal sheet (usually made of copper plate) was coated on both sides with white or pastel coloured enamel and fired. An image was then painted on the front of the sheet using coloured enamels and a paintbrush. Additional layers of coloured enamel were added, each fired separately. Lastly, a number of highlights made of finely ground vitrificable colour pigments were applied by brush. One of the great exponents of painted enamel was Jean Fouquet (1420-81), one of the leading French painters of the 15th century. The method was further developed in Limoges during the 17th century.

Ronde Bosse

The technique of Ronde bosse enamelling is named after the French for "in the round", and is also known as "encrusted enamel". It is a three-dimensional form of enamelling which is applied to rounded shapes in high relief. This complex process was used originally for small gold sculpture and ornaments during the era of Gothic art and the succeeding Renaissance period. The Mannerist Cellini Salt Cellar (Saliera) (1543), made of ivory, rolled gold and vitreous enamel, by the Italian Mannerist artist Benvenuto Cellini, is one of the most famous examples of "ronde-bosse". Another is the Holy Thorn Reliquary (c.1393) crafted in Paris for John, Duke of Berry, to house a fragment of the Biblical Crown of Thorns. Made of gold and decorated with sapphire, ruby, rock crystal and pearls, it uses the technique of enamelling en ronde bosse to create almost thirty 3-D figures, mostly in white enamel.

Origins and History

The earliest instance of enamelwork (as opposed to cloisonné inlays of gemstones, the oldest known example of which comes from Egyptian art about 1890 BCE) dates back to Mycenean art of the 13th century BCE. It consists of six gold rings (1230-1050 BCE) decorated with cloisonné enamel, which were discovered in 1952 in tombs excavated at Kouklia, Cyprus, by the British archeologist G.R.H. Wright. Kouklia is a small village in southern Cyprus which stands on the site of Old Paphos, a city of great importance during the era of Classical Antiquity in the eastern Mediterranean. A little later, Wright unearthed the famous Royal Gold Sceptre (c.1050) - ornamented with cloisonné enamel in white, blue and purple - from a tomb in Kourion, another Cypriot village. Tests have showed that the enamelwork on the rings was made with fragments of coloured glass - a precursor technique of true enamel - while the sceptre is believed to have been made using true enamelling.

The next examples of vitreous enamelwork (blue and white enamel enclosed by gold filigree) come from Greek art of the 6th century BCE (see also Ancient Greek Metalwork), more than 400 years later. Why the method wasn't passed on from Mycenean goldsmiths to Greek artists much sooner, is not clear. In any event, by about 250 BCE, the technique had spread into the Caucasus and across to western Europe, where it was a feature of Celtic jewellery art (see also La Tene Celtic culture) which was noted for its red enamels and its enamelled horse trappings. An excellent example of Celtic metalwork art decorated with enamel is the Petrie Crown (c.100 BCE).

Enamelling was also known to Ancient Persian art from the Sassanid Era (226-650 CE). Known as Meenakari, it used highly coloured enamels to fill in incised designs made on gold.

During the Roman Empire in the West, enamelling was mostly kept alive in territories formerly occupied by Celts - see: Celtic-Style Art of the Roman Empire. In the East, the technique was widely adopted in Byzantine art (c.400-1200) by goldsmiths in Constantinople, who were responsible for a number of significant developments involving the cloisonné technique applied to gold. By 1100, Byzantine enamellers were world famous for masterpieces including a range of delicate miniature scenes decorated with brilliantly coloured enamels. One of the greatest examples of Byzantine craftsmanship is the "Pala d’Oro" altar screen (c.1105) in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice, which was brought from Constantinople to Venice about 1105.

Byzantine Christian Art was widely imitated by enamellers across western Europe. England's celebrated Alfred Jewel, commissioned by king Alfred the Great in the 9th century, reveals clear traces of Byzantine influence, as does much of the metalwork produced at Aachen during the era of Carolingian art (c.750-900). During the period of Ottonian art (c.900-1050), gold-cloisonné enamelling flourished at Essen and Trier in the Rhineland, and in eastern France - see, for instance, the Golden Madonna of Essen (c.980) in the Essen Cathedral Treasury.

With the transition from Romanesque art to the more expressive Gothic style, during the 12th century, cloisonné enamelling was superceded by the champlevé method used to decorate base metal such as bronze or copper. Champlevé was championed above all by the school of Mosan art which grew up around Liege in present-day Belgium, as well as by enamellers in Limoges and along the Rhine. Outstanding goldsmiths of the Mosan school include Godefroid de Claire (c.1100-73) and Nicholas of Verdun (c.1156–1232).

During the latter half of the 13th century, gold and silver items were again ornamented with enamel but in a new technique known as basse-taille. This technique was taken to new heights in the trecento by proto-Renaissance artists in Siena and Florence. The golden age of basse-taille enamelling concluded with the onset of the Italian Renaissance, though it endured in Spain and in certain cities in southern Germany, up to the 1650s.

Meanwhile, the art of decorating metal with enamel had spread from Constantinople across the Middle East, where it was taken up by Islamic art and carried to China via the Silk Road. Ming Dynasty Art (1368-1644) in particular was noted for its outstanding enamelwork, although the process remained a popular feature of both Chinese art and Japanese art until the 19th century.

During the era of modern art (from about 1850 onwards), enamelling flourished in particular at the turn of the century, thanks to the exquisite craftsmanship involved in the production of the Fabergé Eggs for the royal court of the Romanovs. Decorative enamelwork was also a feature of the Art Nouveau movement (c.1890-1914).


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