Understanding Goldsmithing Through Depictions of St. Eligius

by Jamie Hall on April 21, 2010

St. Eligius was born in 588AD, and spent some years as a goldsmith before founding a few monasteries and converting various pagan tribes on the north-west coast of Europe. He is sometimes also referred to Eloi, Eloy or Loye.

There are various images of St. Eligius at work, drawn, painted or engraved throughout the middle ages. Amongst other things, St. Eligius is the patron saint of goldsmiths, metalworkers and coin collectors, and consequently, many of the images depict him in a workshop, or using tools. However, we can’t take these illustrations too literally – their function is not to describe the craft of goldsmithing, but to show Eligius as he was in life. The first issue that we notice is that these are not historical portrayals – they are of their era, and so Eligius is shown wearing clothes in the Renaissance style in the second and third images; likewise, the representation of the workshops and tools reflect to time in the artists were working, not the 7th century, when Eligius was a working goldsmith. I’ll be making another post about other images of historical workshops, but I felt it was important to keep those separate from these, because the function of the depictions of Eligius is very specific, and so the images need to be examined in the context of religious art. All of the images have been marked by me with boxes running from the bottom left to the top right.

The above image from the 1400s’ (A) depicts him in a busy workshop, with two men and (unusually for images of this sort) a woman, all hard at work. This is a paradoxical portrayal, because the tools and processes seem to be remarkably realistic, but the workshop is full of animals, including a pair of pigeons copulating (A1) – I don’t allow animals to make out, not even when I’m wire-drawing, as the man is shown doing. The technique is one I haven’t heard of before, but makes some sense – the drawplate is held by the weight of the jewellers’ feet, and he leans down and pulls the wire up with the draw-tongs. Because I’ve never seen any other reference to this, it could a misunderstanding by the artist, but the structure of the foot plate (if that’s what you’d call it) suggests that it was intended for the purpose. To his left is a furnace with bellows, a basket of fuel and coal-tongs.

A2 shows Eligius himself at work, which he certainly wouldn’t have done while wearing his fine ecclesiastical robes. Looking at his work and the work of the others, a chalice is being produced – Eligius is forming the cup on an anvil set into a block of wood or stone. The anvil he uses is of an unusual shape, while the one next to it is the more familiar double-horned jewellers’ anvil. A3 shows his other companions at work – the woman is using a punch and hammer, perhaps stamping a design, or maybe repoussé. Next to her, the man is using compasses to mark out a circle, with the foot of the chalice on a board in front of him. The bench they are using is covered with tools, including files, hammers, shears and punches. There is space for two more workers at the bench, which has two benchpegs on the side nearest Eligius, with a leather apron for catching filings and dropped items. In the modern day, we tend to use removable metal trays for this purpose, but some jewellers’ still prefer leather for its ability to collect filings and fragments – the leather is burnt periodically and replaced, so that the precious metal can be collected. A4 is a tool rack with various types of hammer, files, pincers and gravers on show.

In image B, from a similar era, the same work is taking place – Eligius is forming or finishing the cup of a chalice on an anvil (B1), while his companions work with gravers other components of chalices (B2). Note that the man dressed in white is using proper tool grip for his graver, while the man dressed in black is holding it in a way that makes no sense unless he was just using it as a scriber. Likewise, Eligius himself is holding the hammer in a way that has no practical use. On the bench where they are working can be seen various tools – amongst other things, it appears that there is a fork (or perhaps dividers) and small spouted pot of oil or some other liquid. In the background (top right) a boy is operating bellows.

The final painting (B) is by Petrus Christus, from 1449AD, a similar date to image A, at the top. Although it is still referred to as a depiction of St. Eligius, it has apparently been proved to be a simple illustration of a goldsmith, not Eligius himself; a halo had been added at some point, and then removed more recently, causing the confusion. This image does not show the workshop, rather it shows the shop where the goldsmith would sell his wares. On the desk are coins, some tiny objects (perhaps gemstones) and weights for the scales, which the goldsmith is holding. Behinds him (B2) are goods for sale or display – a pad of rings, earrings, beads, bottles and a cup above that, and a piece of coral with two bars (one is clearly glass*) it’s left. Above that is a plaque with three settings – I can’t imagine what it’s decorative function would be, so perhaps it is simply there to show examples of stones and setting styles to customers.