The art of enameling, ancient and modern

Detail of red enamel studs on the Battersea Shield, Britain, 350 – 50 BC. In The British Museum, London.

The striking image above is a detail from the Battersea Shield. Found in the River Thames in 1857, it is actually the bronze covering from the front of a wooden shield that dates to between 350 and 50 BC. Among the decorative elements are 27 studs of red enamel, several of them visible in this image. The idea of affixing colored glass to metal or other surfaces was not new when this extraordinary object was made. Glass, Egyptian faience or other vitreous materials had been known since at least 4,000 BC. But to apply them to copper, bronze, silver or gold required some means of mechanical attachment. What makes enameling different is that the vitreous material is actually fused on to the metal surface at very high temperatures.

The first true known example of enameling comes from the Island of Cyprus, that great crossroads of the eastern Mediterranean. Six golds rings and a gold scepter and orb, dating to the 13th Century BC, were found in a Mycenaean period tomb on the Island. The enamel decoration included green, pink and white and was applied with such skill that the technique must have been in use for at least a short time prior to the creation of those objects. It is widely assumed that enameling spread from Cyprus to the Greek mainland (though Greece never became a major center for enamel art) and then to Europe. In Gaul (basically modern France and parts of Germany), Iberia (modern Spain and Portugal) and Britain, during the Iron Age the enameling arts flourished. The Battersea Shield is just one of many examples of exceptional craftsmanship from this period.

With the absorption of Northwestern Europe and Britain into the Roman Empire, Celtic enamel techniques continued to evolve but often in ways that conformed to new decorative styles and the decoration of new, previously unknown types of objects. The small bronze object shown below is a Roman fibula (brooch)  of the 1st or 2nd Century AD found in Roman Britain. It features carefully controlled applications of red, white, black and yellow enamels, in which the colors are not kept separated from one another by wires or other obstructions but allowed to fuse not only to the metal surface but also to one another. Brooches and other small objects of personal adornment were often  enameled in the western provinces of the Empire. The image just beneath it, found in Spain and now in a private U.S. collection, is a small decorative stud in the form of a shield. It may have decorated a small piece of furniture or a box or it could have been part of the horse trappings of a Roman cavalryman. In this example, the artisan has set white and blue enamel powder into small cast cells in the bronze, allowing the enamel to melt just enough to fill in the cells smoothly and fuse to the metal. It is an early forerunner to true cloisonne technique.

Roman enameled bronze brooch of the 1st or 2nd Century AD
Roman enameled bronze decorative stud of the 1st to 3rd Century AD. U.S. private collection. Ex Clio Ancient Art and Antiquities

Larger objects could also be enameled, such as the Cirecester Cockerel shown below. Discovered in a child’s grave at the Roman town of Cirencester during excavations in 2011, it is the most complete of several such pieces which seem to have been crafted in Britain and exported throughout the Roman world.

The Cirecester Roman Cockerel, an enameled bronze figurine of a rooster made in Roman Britain, 2nd Century AD. In the Corinium Museum, Cirencester, UK.
Small gold roundel detached from a larger object, with cloisonne enamels depicting the Virgin Mary. The Greek abbreviated text reads “Mary, Mother of God.”

With the decline of the western provinces of Rome in the 5th Century, enameling became gradually more common in the eastern provinces centered around the new Imperial Capital of Constantinople. There and in other centers around the late Roman and Byzantine Empires, enameling reached brilliant new heights using mainly the cloisonne technique. Particularly from the 9th through 12th Centuries, Byzantine artists applied enamels to precious metals, often setting small roundels, such as the example pictured above, into larger objects such as chalices, processional crosses, and especially book covers; these were often dispatched to distant lands as diplomatic gifts. Byzantine enameling styles also had a long term influence on Medieval Italian art. With the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade by the Venetians and their allies, a great number of ancient and contemporary art works made their way back to Venice and other Italian ports. One example is pictured below: An icon of St. Michael the Archangel, 10th Century AD, now in the Treasury of St. Marks Cathedral in Venice. While the Byzantines would retake their Capitol from the westerners several decades later and continue working in enamel for some time thereafter, the craft never fully recovered. Technical innovations and new styles in enamel would next develop in the Islamic world and in western Europe.

Enameled plaque depicting the Archangel Michael. Enamels & precious stones on gold. Byzantine, 10th Century AD. Treasury of San Marco, Venice, Italy


Met Islamic Enameled Glass Bottle Mamluk Egypt Late 13th Century
Late 13th Century Mamluk glass bottle with enameling and gilding. 17 & 1/8 inches tall. Probably made in Cairo. Now in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The extraordinary glass bottle above was made in Egypt, probably Cairo, in the late 13th Century AD. It is a strong example of the art of enameled glass that reappeared first in Syria during the Ayyubid Dynasty and then shifted to the new Mamluk Dynasty’s capital at Cairo. Enameled glass had been known in the Roman Empire but for many centuries thereafter was a great rarity. But for about two centuries, Islamic glass makers in Egypt and Syria practiced a technique of applying enamels in multiple colors, sometimes accompanied by gilding, to large blown glass vessels and fixing the enamels to the glass in a single kiln firing. Examples were exported to Europe, mainly though Venice and other Italian ports, and the technique was emulated there

Early 16th Century Venetian enameled and gilt blown glass pilgrim bottle
Venetian glass bottle with enameling and gilding, Circa 1500-1525. In The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

The glass bottle above was made in Venice between about 1500 and 1525. Like the earlier Islamic example above it, this glass features both enameling and gilding. The vessel above emulates the Islamic pilgrim bottle form, thus showing how craftsmen in Venice and other maritime Italian republics had both adopted and adapted Islamic techniques. By the 1400s, Venice had assumed the lead role in producing finely enameled objects of glass, while France and England, which both had maintained their long tradition of enameled metals, became leading centers for the art of enameling on gold, silver and even copper and copper alloys. Enameling became increasingly common in Europe after the 15th Century and new techniques ultimately lead to its use on all manner of everyday objects and for industrial purposes, such as enamel surfaces for pots and pans.

Mid Century Mexican Miguel Pineda Aztec Design Copper & Enamel Dish
Enameled copper tray, early 1960s, by Miguel Pineda Godoy.

Both the Art Nuoveau movement, from about 1890 to 1910, and the roughly contemporary Arts and Crafts Movement, from about 1880 to 1920, embraced the art of enameling. Enamel decoration frequently appears on silver and copper utilitarian objects in these styles. It was this that ultimately gave rise to the mid-Twentieth Century resurgence of studio enameling and its widespread appeal today. The enameled copper tray above is the work of the Mexican enamel artist Miguel Pineda Godoy and dates to the early 1960s. The modern work shown below is by the Georgian artist Khatuna Roinishvili, who works in cloisonne enamel (the technique of setting enamel in small cells formed by tiny metal wires). This piece reinterprets Gustav Klimt’s famous painting “The Kiss.”

Khatuna Roinishvili Georgian cloisonne enamel
Cloisonne enamel by modern Georgian artist Khatuna Roinishvili.

Striking a more contemporary note is the pendant below by American jeweler and enamel artist Daria Salus. In this example, she uses a photo etching process on the metal and combines this with transparent enamel. This typifies the great range of new techniques, and variations on old techniques, available to today’s enamel artists.

Silver pendant combining photo etching techniques with transparent enamel by modern American artist Daria Salus.

My own work in enamels seems rudimentary in comparison with not only the sophisticated products of today’s top enamel artists but even in comparison with much ancient enameling. I jumped at the opportunity to learn enameling a couple of years ago because I wanted to learn firsthand something of the technologies and techniques used in ancient Roman enamel art. More than any other impression, what I’ve come away with is a sense of the skill, patience and dedication to their craft of ancient enamel artists. One must keep in mind the tools and technologies available to them. The difficulties of obtaining fuel for their kilns, maintaining reliable firing temperatures, obtaining and processing materials for pigments and countless other factors must have been enormous. I felt privileged indeed to be able to simply switch on an electric kiln and work with powdered or liquid enamels provided in neat, presorted containers that arrived in the mail.

Fold formed copper platter with multi-colored enamels view 1
Small fold-formed tray with multi-colored enamels and melted glass canes. Christof Maupin, 2015

In the spirit of attempting to emulate ancient Roman enameled objects, the small copper fold-formed tray shown above featured six different colors of enamel, with small glass canes melted into the black and white enamels in the bottom of the tray. Combining small glass items such as beads, chips, canes or rods with enamels by allowing them to melt into an enamel background quickly became a favorite technique of mine.

Enameled copper  pendant. “Elk” enamel background with red, green, blue, yellow and white glass rods melted into the enamel surface. Christof Maupin, 2015.
Enameled copper pendant. Deep blue and yellow enamels with black, red and white glass rods melted into the enamel surface. Christof Maupin, 2016

I have a strong penchant for abstraction in most forms of art I practice. Enameling offers the artist (especially the less skilled artist, such as myself!) the opportunity to work in an abstract style with no limits on what may be produced. The two pieces shown above focus simply on strong colors and lines in space, while the round pendant below uses a combination of transparent enamel in the background with opaque powdered enamel and a melted yellow glass bead to create an atmospheric, almost astronomical vision that appeals to many viewers.

Enameled copper pendant with transparent and opaque enamels and melted glass bead. Christof Maupin, 2016.

In another attempt at paying homage to the stunning enamel and glass creations of the distant past, particularly Ptolemaic and early Roman Egypt, I created the pendant shown below. Using an unusual shape, I attempted to capture some sense of the intensely pure white used in many ancient enamel and small glass objects, and set against this background a multi-color glass cane. A friend who does torch work, making exquisite glass beads and combining them with her silver jewelry, was conducting a demonstration of her techniques. When finished, she had a small pile of variously colored glass cane fragments left over. I asked if I could use them and the result was the piece shown below and others like it. Very pretty but I don’t think it does justice to the craftsmanship of the ancients.

Enameled copper pendant. White enamel with multi-color glass cane fragment melted into the enamel. Christof Maupin, 2016.

Many college and university art departments and art schools offer courses in the enamel arts. For anyone with a personal drive to create and an interest in enamels, glass and related materials, I certainly recommend seeking out a course in this field or even asking to apprentice to or assist an enamel artists in your area. Who knows where it might take you.

My own enamel jewelry and related objects may be found in my Etsy shop (link opens in a new tab or window):















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