Champlevé enamel

This short documentary tells you all about the champlevé enamel technique. This particular skill was a Limoges speciality during the middle ages.

Different techniques are used to enamel metal: champlevé, ''cloisonné'' enamel and painted enamel (pas d’articles). Champlevé is an engraving technique which consists in digging cavities into the metal and filling those cavities with enamel, thus leaving a design formed by the partitions.
Limousin's champlevé enamel probably is one of the most beautiful examples of the artworks produced in Limousin during the Middle Ages. And with this particularity: that a great number of pieces were made and largely disseminated across Europe and for a very long period of time: from the middle of the 12th century to the middle of the14th century approximately.
And there is a remarkable variety of pieces which, quite extraordinarily, were (ordre inversé) automatically revered, from as early as the 12th century, so, from the very beginning of their production, actually.
If this production took place here in Limousin, in Limoges, it probably was because of a convergence of complementary circumstances and factors.
First of all, other than copper, which is another issue, (since copper is not found naturally in Limousin), the wood used for fire, the water and its excellent quality, since it is slightly acidic and thus perfect for cleaning the enamel powder, all the metallic oxides were available here, so, in fact the natural environment was quite favourable for this type of production.
There also was an extremely vigorous artistic tradition, linked to the production of manuscripts at Saint Martial's abbey, and thus a mastery of colours, which had already been in expansion for centuries (ordre), in a very strong and remarkable way.
In this region there were favourable religious and political factors. Limousin's lands were owned by the Plantagenets ever since Alienor of Aquitaine's and Henry Plantagenet's marriage. And the duke of Aquitaine, probably wanted to expand the distribution of what his land produced, since he had been crowned in Limoges (ordre).
The pope himself came from Rome to buy Limousin champlevé enamel objects, to equip Rome's churches and Saint Peter's confession at the very beginning of the 13th century.
Meanwhile, there also was a very modest production, which was probably not costly at all, since copper and glass were very basic materials and therefore not expensive, but which, once moulded by Limoges enamellers, turned into pieces of great visual value. So, basic artworks that resembled noble metals and gemstones were made, which of course was (ordre) very attractive.

Limoges enamellers, in two centuries of production, actually took part in the transition between Romanesque and Gothic art. And for example, the first enamels, which were worked on only on the surface, became sculptures, and played on the union of enamel, a vitreous material, and copper, a metallic material which can be worked on in depth and can be either just gilded or both gilded and enamelled: a play on the relationship of volume and colour between those two materials.
There is then an infinity of variations around these objects; each one is unique. Because the enamellers were constantly able, not only to renew (pas d’article) designs, patterns and objects styles, but also the technique used itself. And that capacity to create an object from flat design into volume is properly brilliant.
In the 19th century when people showed new interest in the history of medieval Limoges enamel, champlevé enamel was neglected, In fact, at that time, it was quite significantly called ''Byzantine enamel'' which means ''Romanesque'' or ''medieval'', people knew it was from Limousin. But what was considered even more representative of Limousin was painted enamel whose renowned representative was Leonard Limousin, who, at that time, was considered to be a great artist, at the same level as Leonardo Da Vinci, which is not really the case anymore, at least not to that extent.
And so obviously, artists who now use the champlevé technique are right in saying that it is a Limousin tradition, but they are a minority. Probably because the historiography of champlevé enamel was biased by the interpretation, which was a very ''regional' interpretation we could say, that was made of those objects in the 19th century.
We adapted the etching technique to (pas d’article) champlevé. So, first of all, we varnish the piece of metal we are working on, in order to create a design, so that all the parts that we coated with metal won’t be attacked by the acid. All the parts that weren’t varnished, however will be engraved.
There are different enamel pigments, basically there are three enamel quality categories: opaque, transparent and opal. There can also be a combination of the three. The principle is simple, (pas d’article) enamel powder is a crystal, coloured by metallic oxides, cobalt for blue, copper and gold for red etcetera.
Enamel starts out as a powder, a bit like sugar, and it is the vitrification process, which means heating it to 900 degrees Celsius, that gives enamel its vitreous appearance. (enlever “back”)

Other stages
  • La châsse émaillée de Saint-Viance

    A remarkable 13th century enamelled shrine and holy oil container can be found in Saint Viance church. Discover these two gorgeous objects thanks in this…

  • L’émail champlevé

    This short documentary tells you all about the champlevé enamel technique. This particular skill was a Limoges speciality during the middle ages.

  • Le pont de Saint-Viance

    Relive the adventure linked to the construction of this bridge, thanks to this audioguide, which also explains how people used to cross the river, before…

On the same topic
Activities and landscape