Gold at the British Library review: a glittering show that is literally illuminating

·4-min read
Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, showing the Malayalam text, inscribed on a strip of gold over two metres long. India, 1691  (handout)
Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, showing the Malayalam text, inscribed on a strip of gold over two metres long. India, 1691 (handout)

Any exhibition called Gold automatically conjures up ideas of coins, bullion and nuggets… the commodity that is a universal language, the one that always keeps its value, which goes up when all else goes down.

Well, this is a different aspect of it: gold as a medium in manuscripts and books, letters and documents. It still conveys costliness, preciousness and value, and it still has the most extraordinary lustre… quite literally, it illuminates manuscripts. These fifty artefacts from the British Library’s extraordinary collection show how gold was used in times when the medium was the message, and the significance of a text, a letter, a bookcover, was signalled to the simplest soul with a shining element.

For any institution that’s trying to go cross-cultural, gold also has the useful attribute of being similarly valued, and therefore used in similar ways in quite disparate countries. The manuscripts, objects and letters here are in 17 languages, and originate in 20 different countries. So, we find here gold on manuscript copies of the Bible, on Qura’ns, on Buddhist Sutra, for just the same reason.

There are diplomatic texts literally written on gold – a two metre length of gold roll that constitutes a treaty between with the Zamorin of Calicut and the Dutch East India company, for instance. There’s gold on a seal of Baldwin, the last Latin emperor of Jerusalem, and two rectangular gold seals from the other end of the world, in Burma, as well as Mogul treaties awash with gold.

Gold seal of Emperor Baldwin II, Netherlands, 1269 (handout)
Gold seal of Emperor Baldwin II, Netherlands, 1269 (handout)

Actually, those last items suggest that gold isn’t always what it seems. The early and powerful Mogul emperors used plain parchment for their communications; it was the later, less powerful ones who tried to use it to convey status they didn’t possess. Similarly, poor Baldwin was on his way out when he issued that handsome little gold seal; his more stable predecessors didn’t bother. Mistakenly, I thought that a treaty issued on a two yard roll of gold was a sign of the permanence of the relationship it signified. Nope - gold could all too easily be melted down and converted to other uses. Which is quite possibly what happened to the other copy, given to the Dutch.

One of the most spectacular items is a grant of a title of nobility, or begum, from the Mughal Emperor to a lady called Sophia Elizabeth Plowden, who was married to an East India Company officer. It’s huge, the size of a small carpet, with the background all gilded, set against a crimson cloth. Mrs Plowden was remarkable for collecting Persian and Hindustani songs, which she published to popular acclaim back home; this was the Shah’s acknowledgement of her work.

There are some unexpected uses of gold too. There’s a huge richly coloured version of The Bodhisattva, an account of the early lives of the Buddha, including his adventures as an elephant and a horse, which has an engaging comic-book aspect – here gold is used to identify the Buddha-to-be among the other animals.

A tiny ‘girdle book’ with a gold binding. England, c. 1540 (handout)
A tiny ‘girdle book’ with a gold binding. England, c. 1540 (handout)

Among the most beautiful items is the Queen Mary Psalter, given to Mary I, but actually made in the early fourteenth century; it’s opened here at the Tree of Jesse, with an exquisitely designed rendering of the family of the Virgin on the opposite page. Next to it is a Benedictional from Winchester with a fine depiction of St Etheldreda, the royal nun, with a golden habit and lily. And we also find a golden Haggadah from Spain, curiously similar in style to the psalter, with depictions of scenes from Genesis and Exodus, all with a rich gold embossed background.

The two common techniques of using gold, as leaf and as a powder for painting, are outlined here. And there’s a fine concluding section on book bindings , including an adorable little octagonal Qura’n from Persia, a miniature book of hours in a gold case designed to hang from a girdle - as much decorative as functional - and a fabulous Arts and Crafts gold-bound book from the 1920s.

Naturally, fifty items from such different cultures can be discombobulating, but the unifying theme of this fascinating exhibition gives us such interesting items and finds such stimulating connections between them, it doesn’t matter. All that glistens, here at least, is gold.

British Library, to October 2; bl.uk

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