We have designed, fabricated, and tested a modular CCD area detector system for macromolecular crystallography at synchrotron x-ray sources, code-named the `gold' detector system. The sensitive area of the detector is 150 mm X 150 mm, with 3,072 X 3,072 pixel sampling, resulting in roughly a 50 micrometers pixel raster. The x-ray image formed on the face of the detector is converted to visible light by a thin phosphor layer. This image is transferred optically to nine CCD sensors by nine square fiberoptic tapers (one for each CCD), arranged in a 3 X 3 array. Each taper demagnifies the image by a factor of approximately 2. Each CCD has a 1,024 X 1,024 pixel raster and is read out through two independent data channels. After each x-ray exposure period the x-ray shutter is closed and the electronic image is digitized (16-bit) and read out in 1.8s. Alteratively, the image may be binned 2 X 2 during readout, resulting in a 1,536 X 1,536 raster of 100 micrometers pixels; this image can be read out in 0.4s. The CCD sensors are operated at -40 degree(s)C to reduce electronic noise. The detector is operated under full computer control: all operational parameters (readout rates, CCD temperature, etc.) can be adjusted from the console. The image data (18 MByte/image) are transferred via a fast VME system to a control processor and ultimately to disk storage. During April 1994 we carried out a complete set of measurements at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory (SSRL) for a full characterization of the gold detector. Characterization includes quantitative evaluation of the instrument's conversion gain (signal level/x-ray photon); detective quantum efficiency (DQE); point-spread function; sensitivity as a function of x-ray energy; geometrical distortion of images; spatial uniformity; read noise; and dark image and dark image noise. Characterization parameters derived from these measurements show that this detector will be extraordinarily valuable for macromolecular crystallography.