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Illuminating Metalwork: Metal, Object, and Image in Medieval Manuscripts

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De Gruyter




Archived as published. In the public domain.

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Book Chapter


A seated man raises a hammer to strike a metal cup placed on an anvil: these are the basic bodily gestures and material signifiers that identify metalworkers in medieval visual representation (Fig. 1). The present essay examines the labor performed by goldsmiths and the use of gold in a selection of Gothic miniatures, specifically those found in a lavishly illustrated Life of St. Denis created around 1300 for the French king Philip IV the Fair.1 As a composite portrait of a group of professionals and a type of material, my discussion asks how manuscript painters reflected—and reflected on—the creations of colleagues who, like them, were among the few artisans who handled substances of exceptional social prestige: silver and, above all, gold. To what extent did the painters’ and smiths’ enterprises coincide physically and coexist conceptually in the conversion of gold into two-dimensional images and three-dimensional objects? And how did those material transpositions echo with the conversion of currencies controlled by the money changers who were the chief purveyors of the noble metals? Finally, can such secular transmutations be associated with a central concern of the Life of St. Denis, namely the recasting of Parisians from pagans into Christians?

Metal Labor, Material Conversions: Goldsmiths in the Life of St. Denis and in Parisian Life, ca. 1300



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