British Museum blog

On medieval metalwork

Jamie Hall, contemporary and medieval metalworker

The majority of the objects on display in Treasures of Heaven are made from precious metals. In the modern age, the computer is the pinnacle of technological development, and during the Industrial Revolution it was vast machines that filled the role. But prior to that, during the middle ages, it was the products of the metalworker that represented the very best of human ingenuity. Popular culture gives the impression that arms and armour were the heart and soul of metallurgy, but work in the precious metals is no less inspiring, and in fact, the two branches go hand in hand, one feeding into the other.

As a jeweller, and a medievalist, the exhibition was a very exciting opportunity to see the labours of my predecessors first hand. It’s one thing to read about the methods they used, and another to behold these objects, and see the tool marks – remembering that each stroke of the engraving, and each strike of the hammer, had a human hand behind it, using tools that are not so different to the ones I use today. But these aren’t the works of a single artisan; rather, they represent a high level of social and economic organisation – the materials, like enamel and gemstones, would be purchased by, or given to, a particular religious order, and the work might be done within a monastic workshop, or perhaps by secular artisans in a nearby town.

Within that workshop would be masters and apprentices of various persuasions – experts in casting, forging and gilding, others who worked with the precious stones, others who would engrave and polish the metal. One such workshop is described in a 12th-century book called On Divers Arts by an artisan-monk calling himself Theophilus, where even the steel tools were produced in-house.

My favourite piece in the exhibition is the Bell Shrine of St. Cuileáin, which has an almost sci-fi quality to it. Aside from the excellent knotwork decoration, the piece is assembled from a mixture of cast and forged sections, and has a feeling of solidity that you can see across the room.

It isn’t often that we get a chance to see such a wide range of methods in one place – the exhibition is almost like a catalogue of techniques. Nor do we normally get to see objects that cover over a millenia of history, across so many different cultures, each with it’s own unique take on Christianity. From the post-classical styles of the Byzantine Empire, to the pagan-influenced works from the British Isles, and everything in between, the Treasures of Heaven exhibition is a stunning testament to the passion, inspiration and ingenuity of our ancestors, and their search for beauty in a world of tragedy and violence.

Jamie Hall (@primitivemethod) is a contemporary and medieval metalworker.

Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe is open until 9 October 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven

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  1. Sheri says:

    I find metal work very interesting and intricate work and I’m sure it is valuable, however, what was it worth at the time of creation and how do you know what age and time it was from, and where it originated?

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