Cloisonné was very popular decorative technique during the transitional period from Late Antiquity to the early Middle Ages. The name is derived from the French word “cloison” meaning “cell”. This refers to the technique of creating individual spaces by using thin metal wires or panels and filling these cells with garnets or other semi-precious stones or with colored enamel (glass paste). The most expensive cloisonné decoration involved garnets, typically imported from Sri Lanka. Enamel cloisonné was far more common and used on buckles and strap ends, weapon handles and scabbards, brooches, jewelry and many other small objects.
Although colored enamel decoration on metalwork had a long history in pre-Roman Europe, continuing through the Roman period in the western provinces, the particular type of cloisonné we are concerned with here seems to have reached Europe by contact with the migratory cultures of Goths, Vandals, Franks and others during the 4th Century CE. This contact involved controlled settlement of some populations in exchange for military service, direct conflict with other groups (sometimes defeated militarily, sometimes paid off and kept at bay beyond the Roman frontiers) and forcible occupation of Roman territory, changing the cultural, political and artistic landscape of Europe over the next few centuries.
One object offered on our website, a Merovingian Frankish silver and cloisonné buckle dating to the 5th or 6th Century CE, is a high quality and illustrative example of this technique. Found in France and for many years in an old English private collection, this object (which may be found here: http://www.clioancientart.com/catalog/i163.html ) features a deep red roughly heart shaped glass panel set into the silver buckle plate.
During conservation work on the Staffordshire Hoard, which includes many small objects decorated in cloisonné technique, conservators at the British Museum have had the opportunity to study in detail methods used in assembling such objects. Of special interest is how the amber and other colored glass was made to adhere to the metal. Combined with earlier research on the Viking Sutton Hoo treasure, this has shown that various types of complex patterned metal foils were used both to assist in making the enamel adhere securely to the object and to accentuate its reflectivity, making the enamel “stones” sparkle by allowing light to pass through and bounce off the foil patterns beneath. They also found that in some cases during the many centuries they lay in the ground, the leaching of soil into the spaces between the enamel and the metal foils compromised this reflectivity, clouding the effect.
In the case of our Frankish buckle, this has also proven to be the case. While still beautiful in color, the fifteen hundred years this object spent in the ground resulted in a loss of the “sparkle” that would have been so obvious when the object’s former owner wore it. Like so many other antiquities that have been changed in color, texture or completeness by the passage of time, we must use or imaginations to visualize this object in its original appearance. Perhaps this is part of the allure of antiquities: not quite being able to touch the original reality of an object. As Leonard Barkan pointed out in his remarkable book Unearthing the Past, Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture –
“…anything that is uncompleted or has been robbed of its completeness by the passage of time both fascinates us and offers us the special vantage point from which the salient characteristics of moments in history are divulged. Or perhaps the fragment reveals one of our salient characteristics: the wish to enter historical moments via their breaks or discontinuities.”