Materials & Techniques

Iron and Bronze

Iron was known to earliest man, first from meteors and later from ore. It was worshipped in Mesopotamia and formed into precious beads in Egypt as early as 4000 B.C. It was smelted from ore at least by 3500 B.C. The Phoenicians paid tribute to the pharoahs in iron. Greeks and Romans valued iron for its strength but preferred bronze for art. They used iron clamps to fasten stone building blocks laid without cement, and indoors to reinforce couches and tripods. Roman legionnaires wielded iron swords in battle. Medieval blacksmithing reached its artistic height from the 11th to the 13th century. On their anvils, smiths heated and reheated the ore to white or red heat, their repeated hammer blows giving it great strength and ductility, forming it into artistic, often fantastic shapes. Sometimes they struck the hot iron into dies the way hot wax is pressed into seals; the 13th century west door mounts at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris were fashioned in this manner, although the architectural use of iron probably originated in England.

In the 14th century smiths began to work in cold iron in order to reproduce stone tracery in metal. Only in the early stages was heat used. Using vise and saw, chisel and drill, the smith became like a woodworker, shaping the iron, boiling and riveting it together without heat, or tenoning and morticing as in joinery. Door knockers, handles, and locks were made in this way. The 15th and 16th centuries became the age of the locksmith and the armorer. In the 16th century, when fireplaces were moved from the center of the room to the wall, firebacks and andirons were made of cast iron. Iron canons, cheaper than bronze, were first cast in England in 1544. Grave slabs were sometimes made of cast iron. The 17th and 18th centuries saw a taste for wrought iron balconies, stair rails, fan lights, and imposing gates. During the first half of the 19th century cast iron gates and balustrades superseded wrought iron.

Iron became industrialized around 1860, and its artistry declined. With the increased mechanization of the 20th century and the advent of disposable plastics, there is now a renewed appreciation for handcrafted objects, and antique ironwork is one of the most satisfying areas of interest.

Adapted from

Dallas Museum of Art, The Wendy and Emery Reves Collection (Dallas, Texas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1985), 174.