Exploring the Craft of Gilding in Budapest's National Gallery

On a recent trip to Budapest, I visited the Hungarian National Gallery. I normally never do much research on museums that I visit, mostly because I like to be surprised by the collections. This trip through the exhibition halls did not disappoint.

The National Gallery boasts a large collection of native Hungarian art and masterpieces from all over Europe. The museum is housed in a grand building which looks like it was renovated during the Soviet era. Many of the guards looked like they had been there since before the iron curtain fell in 1989.

While perusing exhibition halls with grand landscapes by Hungarian artists, I unexpectedly stumbled upon this grand hall that housed Hungarian Gothic altarpieces from 1300-1500.

In the days before television and the internet, religious art was oftentimes some of the only works of art that people saw. The pieces were meant to convey the religious stories and be awe inspiring. Maybe even a beacon of light, in a dark world.

If that was the case, then these altars had turned the light way up.

  Gilded figure on an altarpiece in the Hungarian National Gallery

Gilded figure on an altarpiece in the Hungarian National Gallery

I have seen a lot of gilding in my time, but these pieces presented a magnificent array of gold leaf techniques, expertly applied onto bole covered surfaces. The blinding reflections that the polished surfaces created, must have beamed across the darkest church. The variety of techniques, ranging from carved gesso, raised gilding and pastille applications created a comprehensive vocabulary for any gilder, whether aspiring or master.

The best part, however, lay in the fact that the museum allowed a look behind the scenes, which gave me an insight into the materials and techniques that these master gilders employed. From exposed layers of gesso and bole, to a view of the backside bracing network on the rear of an altarpiece: no artist's manual can deliver such first hand insight into the art of gilding.

  Cradled backside of an altarpiece panel at the Hungarian National Gallery

Cradled backside of an altarpiece panel at the Hungarian National Gallery

  Exposed layers beneath the gilding. Gesso, Clay Bole and Gold Leaf

Exposed layers beneath the gilding. Gesso, Clay Bole and Gold Leaf