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Gilding at Saint Panteleimon

Preparing the surface for the gilding process.

For thousands of years, architectural gilding has been a magnificent decorative element to enhance the splendor of a building. Although the Egyptians and the Greeks used gold leafing as a decorative element in the tombs of the pharaohs and to embellish statuary, the Romans were the first to use gold leaf in an architectural sense, gilding the ceilings of their temples and palaces. In the Middle Ages, gilding technology and methods developed allowing the possibility for extensive, exterior gilding projects. Very little history of gilding methods is documented due to the competitive nature of the guilds during the Middle Ages. Tradesmen passed on their techniques and trade secrets to their apprentices by word of mouth and example. The earliest publication of a gilding guidebook was “Painter’s and Varnisher’s Pocket Manuel” published in London in 1826. Today, from government buildings to cathedrals and from historic structures to modern, there are countless, beautiful examples of gilding all over the world.

Exterior gilding requires care and patience, the prep work and battle against the physical elements makes gilding a difficult process.

In order to begin gilding the base surface must be the purest form of the element so the surface of the dome or architectural element must be properly stripped, sanded and primed before the application of the gold. The size or “glue” that adheres the gold leaf to the architecture must be at optimal tack to insure adhesion. The 23.75 karat gold leaf is applied and burnished to reveal a spectacular, glistening finish. If done incorrectly, the gold leaf decoration will not last for decades as it should and will begin to deteriorate at a much faster rate; the process would have to be repeated.

Canning Liturgical Arts recently restored the five onion domes atop Saint Panteleimon Church. The patron saint of the church, St. Panteleimon was a physician and attributed his gift for medicine to the mercy of God. Although originally named Pantoleon meaning “in all things a lion,” this early Christian convert was honored with the name Panteleimon meaning “all-merciful” due to his compassion and care for the physical and spiritual needs of Christians. Panteleimon was arrested and beheaded under the reign of Maximian in the year 305.

A variety of meanings are attributed to the number of domes featured in an Orthodox church. A five domed church like Saint Panteleimon is often understood to represent Christ surrounded by the four gospel writers where as a three domed church might symbolize the Trinity. For this particular project, the domes were stripped and the process briefly described was followed. Application of gold leaf requires expertise as well as craftsmanship, the gold leaf material is fickle and delicate demanding the proper care and precision. The reward of this difficult process is the glimmering splendor of the finished product. The video below documents the progress of gilding at St. Panteleimon.