Sometime before committing suicide in 1981, atheist Ruth Hermence Green said: “There was a time when religion ruled the world. It is known as the Dark Ages.” Indeed, she meant that the era dubbed the “Dark Ages” was when Catholicism ruled the world, for it is undeniable that some sort of “religion” has dominated every society for most of history.
This eponymous darkness refers to a supposed lack of intellectual progress throughout Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Detractors of the Middle Ages claim that this dearth of scholarship continued until the Renaissance, when Europe reopened its eyes to the pagan societies of Greece and Rome and, hence, became luminous once again.
However, is it true that the Middle Ages were dark? And, if so, can that darkness be attributed to the Church? New research on the medieval use of nanotechnology in art suggests that the answer to both these questions is a resounding: No.
Medieval Nanotechnology in Art
For some time, the art community has known of the medieval use of a substance called Zwischgold. It consists of an extremely thin foil of gold fused on top of a thicker, yet still very thin, foil of silver. The use of Zwischgold dates back at least to the early 1200s.
To better understand this substance, scientists recently submitted samples of it to a sophisticated process called ptychographic tomography that provided the first three-dimensional views of it. The results were astounding. Whereas specialists previously knew that Zwischgold is thinner than gold leaf, they never realized just how thin it is.
The average thickness of the samples tested is 30 nanometers. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter. Gold atoms are around one third of a nanometer in diameter, meaning that the Zwischgold used in medieval art averaged merely 90 atoms thick. To put this into perspective, a human hair is 80,000—100,000 nanometers across, meaning it is around 3,000 times thicker than the gold layer of the medieval art material.
This is a revelation to scientists who never imagined that medieval man was capable of producing so sophisticated a substance. What still stumps scientists is: how did artists produce such a delicate substance with only hand tools? And why?
A Trade Secret Unknown to Modern Man
No surviving manuscript explains the process of how Zwischgold was made in the early years of its production. Experts believe it must have been something of a trade secret that artists hesitated to share.
However, there is some evidence showing the methods used later on. Medievalists.net explains:
“…the art historian now knows the method used in the 15th century: first, the gold and the silver were hammered separately to produce thin foils…Then the two metal foils were worked on together, a complicated procedure that required highly skilled specialists.”1
While an understanding of how men produced Zwischgold provides a glimpse into the sophistication of the Middle Age’s technology, understanding why they made it casts light on the character of the medieval soul itself.
Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam
At first, experts believed that the production of Zwischgold was for purely monetary reasons since the application of such a thin layer meant that the artists’ gold would stretch much further than if they had used other methods like gilding. However, some now believe that the expense of the complex process of making Zwischgold would have negated any material-saving cost benefit.
An article on Medievalists.net explains: “since this nanotechnology would have needed more expertise and specialized materials, the cost of their production would probably have been similar to the use of gold.”2
This has led specialists to seek other reasons for its use. Undoubtedly, it added detail and sophistication to art, especially when used in tandem with other gilding techniques. Since Zwischgold is paler and less reflective than gold leaf, it is often found in the folds of garments and to highlight inner layers of hair.
Along these lines, some believe it helped establish a hierarchy of importance when comparing the different elements in a work of art. Medievalists.net said: “there was … strict hierarchy of materials: gold leaf was used to make the halo of one figure, for example, while Zwischgold was used for the robe.”3
The fact that he would go through such trouble to honor one element in a piece of art over another illustrates medieval man’s passion for order, proportion and hierarchy. Inflamed with a love of justice, he was eager to give everything its proper due. He yearned to make distinctions and order everything with wisdom. This attitude contrasts sharply with modern man, who desires to level things out to the lowest common denominator and mete out an equal measure to all.
Medieval man did not espouse this horizontal vision. Rather, he saw things in a vertical manner that ultimately led to God and His glory. Writing in Return to Order, TFP scholar John Horvat discussed this medieval perspective, saying: “This vertical vision invites us to elevate our minds with singular purpose to transcendent values and ultimately to God. R.H. Tawney describes this vision as a ‘theory of a hierarchy of values, embracing all human interests and activities in a system of which the apex is religion.’”4
Indeed, a love of the Church, centered on Our Lord Jesus Christ, illuminated the man of the Middle Ages and everything he did. He desired nothing more than to unite himself entirely to the God-man. Mr. Horvat affirmed this, saying: “To be like Our Lord Jesus Christ was the ideal that inspired the Middle Ages. Medieval man desired to be linked to Him in the most complete way possible; to lose himself in Him.”5
The Luminous Ages
All this shows the fallacy of Ruth Hermence Green’s contention that Catholicism’s rule produced dark ages. Rather, it produced ages that were more luminous than any the world has seen, despite the limitations of the time.
This is true, not only because of the tremendous sophistication of what the medievals produced with such paltry means, but even more so because during that time, all society was focused on Christ, Who is the Light of the World.
Thus, what so many dub The Dark Ages would be more appropriately named The Luminous Ages. Modern society could certainly use a good dose of that luminosity.
Photo Credit: © jorisvo – stock.adobe.com
1. Medievalists.net, The Secrets of Medieval Nanotechnology Revealed in New Study, accessed December 19, 2022, https://www.medievalists.net/2022/10/secrets-medieval-nanotechnology/.
2. Medievalists.net, Medieval People Used Nanotechnology, Researchers Find, accessed December 20, 2022, https://www.medievalists.net/2021/12/medieval-nanotechnology/.
3. Medievalists.net, The Secrets of Medieval Nanotechnology Revealed in New Study, accessed December 20, 2022, https://www.medievalists.net/2022/10/secrets-medieval-nanotechnology/.
4. Horvat, John II. 2013. Return to Order. 1st ed. York, Pennsylvania: York Press, p. 312.
5. Ibid. p. 336.