Cloisonné: A Masterpiece of Ancient Metalwork

Pectoral of Senusret II, from his daughter's grave, using shaped stones rather than enamel. Cloisonné inlays on gold of carnelian, feldspar, garnet, turquoise, lapis lazuli, 1880s BC Cloisonné, an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects,...

Cloisonné Pectoral of Senusret II, from his daughter's grave, using shaped stones rather than enamel. Cloisonné inlays on gold of carnelian, feldspar, garnet, turquoise, lapis lazuli, 1880s BC

Cloisonné, an ancient technique for decorating metalwork objects, has captivated art enthusiasts for centuries. The process involves using colored material held in place by metal strips or wire to create intricate designs on metal surfaces. While the modern cloisonné technique primarily employs vitreous enamel, ancient craftsmen utilized cut gemstones, glass, and other materials to achieve stunning results.

The creation of a cloisonné masterpiece starts by adding compartments, known as "cloisons" in French, to the metal object using solder or affixing silver or gold wires. These compartments separate the different colors of enamel or inlays, resulting in vibrant and visually striking designs.

Chinese Cloisonné Chinese Ming Dynasty cloisonné enamel bowl, using nine colors of enamel

In antiquity, the cloisonné technique was primarily used for jewelry and small fittings on clothes or weapons. Geometric or schematic designs with thick cloison walls were popular during this period. However, as the technique evolved, thinner wires allowed for more intricate and pictorial images, particularly in religious art and jewelry.

By the 14th century, champlevé enamel had replaced cloisonné in Europe. However, the technique found its way to China and became widely used for larger vessels like bowls and vases. To this day, China remains a hub for cloisonné enamel art, showcasing Chinese-derived styles that have also influenced Western artists since the 18th century.

Anglo-Saxon seax hilt Early 7th-century Anglo-Saxon seax (knife) hilt fitting, gold with garnet cloisonné inlay. Staffordshire Hoard, partially cleaned.

The history of cloisonné stretches back to the ancient world. Its origins can be traced to the jewelry of the Near East, where enamel was used to hold gemstones firmly in place. Ancient Egyptian pectoral jewels and the intricate designs found in the Tomb of Tutankhamun testify to the craftsmanship of these early artisans.

The Byzantine Empire played a significant role in the development of cloisonné. Byzantine enamel icons spread to neighboring cultures, inspiring the Migration Period art of various European peoples. A particular type, known as "garnet cloisonné," was widely used, incorporating gemstones, glass, and enamel with elaborate thick-walled cloisons. This technique became especially popular among Christians, as the garnet symbolized Christ.

Byzantine enamel plaque of St Demetrios Byzantine cloisonné enamel plaque of St Demetrios, c. 1100, using the "senkschmelz" or "sunk" technique and the new thin-wire technique

In Japan, cloisonné enamels reached new heights during the Meiji era (1868-1912). Skilled Japanese craftsmen produced highly advanced pieces, surpassing any previously seen in the world. Leading artists like Namikawa Yasuyuki and Ando Jubei showcased their works at international exhibitions, earning accolades and establishing Japan as a renowned center for cloisonné enamel art.

The brilliance of cloisonné enamels can also be seen in Russia. The House of Fabergé and Khlebnikov revitalized the technique during the 19th century, introducing raised and contoured metal shapes that were filled with enamel. These pieces, known as "raised cloisonné," featured intricate designs and left the metal edges visible, creating a unique aesthetic.

Cloisonné enamels continue to captivate and inspire with their exquisite beauty. From ancient Egypt to modern-day Japan, the art of cloisonné represents the pinnacle of metalwork craftsmanship. Museums around the world, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, proudly display collections of these extraordinary creations.

So, the next time you gaze upon a cloisonné masterpiece, take a moment to appreciate the skill, artistry, and history that went into its creation.

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