Written in gold: exploring golden manuscripts from around the world

Some of the most significant texts from around the world have been given very special treatment, with words of holiness and of diplomatic value written both in and on gold. Annabel Teh Gallop, Eleanor Jackson, and Kathleen Doyle investigate the indelible importance of the precious metal in luxury manuscripts.


Gold speaks in a universal tongue and has long held a special place in manuscript traditions around the world. Throughout the centuries, it has been incorporated into books and documents in all sorts of ways: as golden writing, as inscriptions on strips of gold, in illuminated paintings, and in gilded book covers. So intrinsic was gold to the craft of luxury book production that manuscript decoration is known as ‘illumination’ from the use of gold to light up the pages. This relationship is at the heart of the British Library’s new exhibition, Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world, which showcases 50 golden manuscripts in 17 different languages, from 20 countries, ranging in date from around the 5th century AD to the 1920s. It includes many of the finest items within the Library’s collection. Some of these are very well known, and may be familiar from publications or previous exhibitions, but there are many other no less exquisite manuscripts that have never been seen in a gallery setting before.

Decree issued by Mughal Emperor Shah ‘Alam II, on red silk brocade with gold calligraphy. India, 1789. Size: approximately 193 x 95cm.

We open the exhibition with three sacred texts, representing three major religions, each illustrating perfectly how – across time and place – people wrote in gold to express the extraordinary importance of a text. The 9th-century Harley Golden Gospels – a copy of the Four Gospels, probably written for Emperor Charlemagne at his court in Aachen – is shown alongside one of seven volumes of a Qur’an commissioned by the Mamluk ruler of Egypt, Sultan Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, and completed in Cairo between 1304 and 1306. Between these two impressive books is another spectacular text: a lavishly decorated scroll from Japan, written in 1636 in gold ink on blue indigo-dyed paper, commissioned by the Emperor Go-Mizunoo for presentation to the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. It contains the Lotus Sutra, one of the most influential scriptures of the Mahayana school of Buddhism in East Asia, and seen by many as the summation of the Buddha’s teachings. All three copies of holy scriptures, which are written entirely in gold respectively in Latin, Arabic, and Japanese, also contain beautiful painted illuminations – such as the depiction at the start of Lotus Sutra of the Buddha granting promises to his disciples that they may attain Buddhahood in their future lives – but in this exhibition we have chosen to focus attention on the golden text itself.

Just as gold was used in sacred contexts to evoke the awe and mystery of God, secular rulers also saw the potential of gold for conveying an impressive message. Royal documents were embellished with gold to both honour the recipient and reflect the wealth and stature of the sender, as well as to emphasise the text’s authority. Perhaps the most magnificent royal decree in the exhibition was issued by the Mughal emperor Shah ‘Alam II in 1789 to Sophia Elizabeth Plowden, bestowing on her the aristocratic rank of begum with the title Bilqis uz-Zaman, ‘Sheba of the Age’. The wife of an East India Company Officer, Sophia collected Persian and Hindustani songs at the Lucknow court, which she recorded in European musical notation and later published to great acclaim. The background of this great firman or decree written in Persian is entirely gilded, with religious phrases in Arabic at the top written in gold in ‘square’ calligraphy. The whole document was then mounted on a fine piece of red silk brocade almost two metres in height.

BELOW Detail of gold script in a folio of the Harley Golden Gospels, a copy of the Four Gospels probably written for Charlemagne at his court in Aachen. Carolingian Empire, c.800. Size: 36.5 x 25cm
Detail of gold script in a folio of the Harley Golden Gospels, a copy of the Four Gospels probably written for Charlemagne at his court in Aachen. Carolingian Empire, c.800. Size: 36.5 x 25cm.

Another breathtaking but little-known document is an Ottoman land grant of 1628, bearing Sultan Murat IV’s great tughra: the stylised calligraphic rendering of the Ottoman emperor’s name that acted as his monogram or seal to authenticate royal documents. Here the sultan’s regnal name and titles are outlined in gold, with the constituent words acting as branches from which sprout red and blue flowers. The deed is written in Ottoman Turkish in gold and blue ink in ornate chancery script, in boat-shaped lines. Reflecting the great extent of the Ottoman empire at the time, the text attests to the transfer of land near Timișoara in present-day Romania.

From Johor, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, comes the earliest known example of Malay chrysography – writing in gold ink – in a beautiful letter produced in 1857. It was sent by the ruler of Johor, Temenggung Daing Ibrahim, to Napoleon III of France. The epistle is more significant as a work of art than diplomacy: its 13 golden lines pay effusive compliments to the French emperor but adroitly offer little else of substance, for at this time Johor was firmly allied with the British.

ABOVE Letter from the Temenggung of Johor, containing the earliest known example of chrysography writing in gold ink in Malay.
Letter from the Temenggung of Johor, containing the earliest known example of chrysography writing in gold ink in Malay.

As well as being used for writing, gold played a significant and symbolic role in paintings. Across a wide range of religious traditions, figures might be depicted in gold to reveal their inner holiness. In a 19th-century Burmese illustrated folding book of Jataka stories, narrating the previous lives of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva (or Buddha-to-be) is picked out in gold: in one tale as a golden elephant and in another as the handsome golden horse of a king. In other sacred texts, gold functions as a lustrous setting, as in the Golden Haggadah. This service book, for use on Passover Eve, was copied in northern Spain probably near Barcelona around 1320 and contains illustrations of episodes from Genesis and Exodus against sumptuous tooled-gold backgrounds. In royal portraiture, awe-inspiring power of a worldly kind was suggested by gleaming golden robes and ornaments, as seen on two beautiful early 17th-century portraits of the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh and his beloved wife Nadira Banu Begum.

RIGHT Ottoman land transfer deed, with Sultan Murat IV’s great tughra or seal. Romania, 1628. Size: 103 x 34cm
Ottoman land transfer deed, with Sultan Murat IV’s great tughra or seal. Romania, 1628. Size: 103 x 34cm

There are two main methods of applying gold to the page, each of which produces different effects. The first uses gold leaf, which is gold beaten into a thin foil. This is applied to a surface, sometimes over a raised ground of gesso (plaster mixed with glue), then burnished until it gleams. The results are large areas of brilliant sheen. The other technique uses ‘shell’ gold, which is gold ground up into a fine powder. Its name derives from the traditional practice of storing it in seashells. This powder can be mixed with a binder to make a paint, allowing artists to apply the gold finely with a brush to create delicate paintings and calligraphy. This was also the method used to make gold ink, whether for writing lengthy texts or for highlighting certain words.

The magnificent books and documents exhibited illustrate myriad ways of writing and painting in gold. But perhaps the real stars of the show are the ultimate golden manuscripts, where the text is written – or, rather, incised – on an actual sheet of gold. The Gold exhibition has brought together in one dazzling case manuscripts of pure gold originating from South and South-east Asia, and spanning well over a thousand years. One cannot help but be struck by the similar shape of these manuscripts: all are written in horizontal format, on strips of gold that are longer than they are wide. Indeed, most books from South and South-east Asia written in scripts of Indian origin, on a range of materials such as birch bark, palm leaf, and locally made paper, are produced in horizontal or landscape format. This is in distinct contrast to European books and those from Arabic script traditions, which are generally in portrait format.

Among the earliest items in the exhibition are two gold plates found in 1897 at Maunggan, a village in modern-day Myanmar, dated to the 5th-6th centuries. They are among the oldest known Buddhist textual fragments written in Pali, the canonical language of the Theravada school of Buddhism. The Pali of the Maunggan plates is written in Pyu script, which could only be deciphered with the help of the Myazedi inscription of 1113, a South-east Asian equivalent of the Rosetta Stone, which presented the same text in four languages and two scripts: Pali, Burmese, and Mon, all written in Mon-Burmese script, and – crucially – a version in Pyu, in Pyu script. Both Maunggan plates commence with the well-known chant starting Ye dhamma, which refers to the core teachings of Buddhism: suffering, its cause, and its cessation. The words have the power to protect, as well as to generate merit. The gold plates would originally have been rolled and placed at the base of a stupa – a sacred mound – where they symbolised the corporeal presence of the Buddha, and endowed the monument with holiness.

ABOVE Gold plates containing a Buddhist chant, written in Pali. Found at Maunggan, Myanmar, 5th-6th century. Size: 3.2 x 25.3cm (top); 3.4 x 33cm (bottom)
Gold plates containing a Buddhist chant, written in Pali. Found at Maunggan, Myanmar, 5th-6th century. Size: 3.2 x 25.3cm (above); 3.4 x 33cm (below).

Again, just as sacred texts were written on to gold like these Maunggan plates, royal letters and documents were inscribed on to gold as the ultimate form of luxury. This supreme type of golden document could be used to pay the highest respects to the recipient or as a more ostentatious display of wealth on the part of the sender, or probably often a combination of the two. From historical records, it is clear that in certain South-east Asian states gold was regularly used for the most important diplomatic communications, but very few examples survive because so often, following receipt, the gold was melted down and reused. Thus we know that the annual tribute letter from the King of Siam (now Thailand) to the Chinese Qing Emperor was traditionally written on gold, but only one example, from 1781, survives today, in the National Palace Museum in Taipei. Probably the most lavish extant example of such a letter was sent by the Burmese King Alaungphaya to George II in 1756. Not only was it written on a sheet of gold, but each end was studded with a row of 12 rubies. Although all the contemporary documents accompanying this letter are now held in the British Library, George II despatched the golden letter itself to his ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ in his home town of Hanover, where it is still held today in the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Library.

LEFT Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, inscribed in Malayalam on a long strip of gold. India, 1691. Size: 4.5 x 203cm
Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, inscribed in Malayalam on a long strip of gold. India, 1691. Size: 4.5 x 203cm.

On display in the British Library exhibition is a different South-east Asian letter of a similar vintage: a gold letter sent in 1768 from two princes of Bali to the Dutch Governor of Semarang, a town on the north coast of Java. Writing in Balinese, Kanjeng Kyai Angrurah Jambe of Badung and Kyai Angrurah Agung of Mengwi affirm their everlasting friendship with the Dutch in seemingly innocuous terms. Although the text of the letter has been painstakingly deciphered and published, the behind-the-scenes circumstances that precipitated the creation of such a costly letter to a relatively minor colonial official have not been revealed.

From over a century later come two gold strips from the Shan states, located in the western part of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), bearing official seals and the ritual ruling titles for the cities of Mone and Keng Tawng. These royal commissions were given in the 1880s by the last king of Myanmar, Thibaw, to Twek Nga Lu, thus installing him as overlord of the two cities. Twek Nga Lu’s appointment was contentious locally, and he was ousted after a series of campaigns by Shan opponents in league with British forces. There is a distinct difference in hue between the two plates – one is purely yellowish, while the other has an orange tinge. This is probably due to the presence of copper in the latter, yielding a gold-copper alloy highly prized in South-east Asia; in Malay, this form of gold is called suasa, and it is often used for royal regalia objects.

BELOW Detail of the treaty, showing the Malayalam text inscribed on to the gold.
Detail of the treaty, showing the Malayalam text inscribed on to the gold.

Most impressive perhaps of all these manuscripts written on gold is a 2m-long strip now coiled in a spiral, engraved in Malayalam, from the Malabar coast of south-western India. It contains the text of a treaty concluded on 10 November 1691 between the powerful Zamorin or King of Calicut and the Dutch East India Company, forming a defensive alliance against the neighbouring kingdom of Cochin and its Portuguese allies. There was evidently a tradition in Calicut for using precious metals for such important documents, for in 1711 a further treaty between the Zamorin and the Dutch was engraved on a long strip of silver.

A tiny octagonal Qur’an from Persia, bound with gold and contained in a jade case. Iran, 16th or 17th century. Size: 1 x 4 x 3.5cm (jade case: 3 x 5.5 x 5cm).

Such lavish manuscripts needed a good supply of gold, so where was the metal sourced from? The long journey began with labourers obtaining the gold from the earth, either by panning in rivers or mining underground. Historically, this could be done on a relatively small scale, often as a supplement to agricultural incomes, or as a major commercial industry. Conditions could be harsh and dangerous, as depicted in a scroll from Sado, an island off the north-west coast of Honshu, Japan, which was well known as a source of gold. Scrolls with detailed representations of mine workings were painted on silk panels by artists employed by the shogunate office in charge of mining. From contemporary sources we know that these miners worked in grim conditions, in pairs in eight-hour shifts; while one laboured at the rock face, his partner would take his meal and rest breaks. Merchants often transported the gold over long distances along international trade routes, for example from West Africa across the Sahara Desert to the Mediterranean coast. As gold was so highly sought after, it was frequently recycled by melting down older objects such as coins or jewellery.

Gold could be used not only to write the text and to enhance the decoration or illustrations within a book, but also to adorn the outer covers. Sacred texts were sometimes furnished with splendid treasure bindings of gold metalwork, of which two miniature masterpieces are on display. One is an exquisite 16th-century English ‘girdle book’, a collection of Psalms which would originally have hung from a woman’s belt or ‘girdle’, bound with covers of gold tracery and black enamel. Of around a similar date is a tiny octagonal Qur’an from Iran, bound in gold filigree, and encased within a jade box. Leather covers were often decorated with gold-tooling, a technique developed in the Islamic world in which gold leaf is impressed into the surface of the leather with heated metal tools to form intricate designs. The exhibition includes a Qur’an manuscript from Marrakesh in Morocco, copied in 1256, with the oldest known gold-tooled binding.

Detail from Kinzan emaki (illustrated scroll of gold mines), as displayed in the exhibition. Japan, c.1810-1820. Size: 25 x 822cm overall.

Shown alongside this early example is the gilded and lacquered cover for a Thai manuscript, adorned with animals and plants in the heavenly Himavanta forest of the Buddhist cosmos. Such covers were created with a technique called lai rot nam (design washed with water). Thick mulberry paper was first covered with layers of black lacquer, on which a pattern was traced. Areas to remain black were painted with a natural gum, and gold leaf was applied to the whole surface; the next day the gum was removed with water to reveal the intricate gold design. Gold-painted and -tooled bindings from the Arts and Crafts and Art Deco movements bring the golden arts of the book into the early 20th century.

From the Maunggan plates to these Art Deco bindings, the vast geographic spread and continued use of gold – for the words themselves, as a lavish replacement for sheets of paper, and in ornate outer covers – illustrates the enduring allure of this most precious metal.

Gold: 50 spectacular manuscripts from around the world runs at the British Library in London until 2 October 2022. Visit www.bl.uk/events/gold for more information.

This article was written by the exhibition’s curators Annabel Teh Gallop, Eleanor Jackson, and Kathleen Doyle, with contributions from British Library curatorial staff.

The accompanying highlights book, Gold, is on sale at the British Library shop, and online at https://shop.bl.uk.
ALL IMAGES: © British Library.