An Early History of Picture Frames

Fanum Mummy PaintingFraming pictures has been a way to present artwork for thousands of years. Framed pictures of mummies have been found in Egyptian tombs. The paintings were created on wood and then the “frame” was carved into the same piece of wood and placed onto the mummy.

The majority of researchers identify the purpose of framing early works as a method of separating scenes.  However, Van Gogh may have touched on the original essence of framing when he said: “A picture without a frame is like a soul without a body”. 


Frames - Windows to the Soul

Framing artistic works coincides with the advent of organized religious beliefs wherein the belief that “the eyes are the window to the soul” was taken as gospel. Additionally, framing was first prolifically used for religious icons. Niches and triptychs housed the iconic figures in homes, public spaces and spaces dedicated to religious worship. 

Frames give pieces of art power separating the subject from our world but also establishing its position to protect the owners. By placing a frame around a picture, it validates the content and allows the viewer to peak into the soul of the artwork, the creator and the connection to our time. 


Elaborate FrameBy the time that we reach the early Renaissance in Italy, altar frames had become elaborate works of art--- incorporating gold, gems, and mosaic inlays imitating the expectations of what would be found in the cathedrals of heaven. Deities with radiating rays of gold extended from the focal point to the exterior rim of the frame symbolizing the power of heaven on earth.   

As a ruling class emerged under the auspices of the Pope, the nobles were sold as the mundane representatives of the heavenly powers. In keeping with this thought pattern, royals began commissioning works of art for their residences.

For the first time court frames appear and the power of the art work is defined by the craftsmanship of the frame that contains it. In this period, the element of the power of heaven merges with the secular power of the monarch.

Status Among Peers

The competition for land, authority and classes to maintain a kingdom was reaching a pinnacle as people moved from tribalism to national identities.  Those with the greatest ability to hire the most talented artisans had the power to use motifs and the frames surrounding them as status symbols and tools for propaganda.

Warring was the last resort for taking control of an area.  The preferred method was coercion. A chieftain could be convinced to join forces with one leader over another according to the appearance of wealth, which would guarantee of payment for services. 

Court frames differed in the representation of carved figures and symbols.  Instead of rays of light, leaves and other organic figures were etched into the wood.  The fluid motifs reflected those made by silversmiths that were found in the courts.  

Individualized national themes began to appear as nation-states were formed.  The Cassetta frame of the Italian Renaissance is clearly such an example.

Other styles were adapted and modified from one nation to the next as each stamped its own preference on the artwork that graced the walls of the nobles.  The entablature frame identified with early Britain took on the form of architectural illusion of panels that had yet to be built. 

Sensitive to Selection of Materials

With time to fashion frames on commission, artisans began learning about the properties of the various woods that were available to them. Knowing what a particular wood could and would do and knowing which tools were required in order to accomplish a design separated the frame makers from the less skilled cabinet makers. 

wooden picture framesWoods with less density such as spruce, pine and poplar, were used in areas that would not be visible. Basswood was ideal for complex sculpting and less expensive than woods such as ebony and mahogany. 

Walnut was extremely expensive and the grain considered of such beauty that it was stained instead gilded. Oak was rarely used because of the difficulties encountered using hand tools. 

Emerging Classes of Wealth

In the late 16th Century and even more extensive in the 17th Century, portraiture became the status art of choice. With that, the selection of the woods used to make the frame became integral to the aristocratic status earned. Those with the greater wealth were afforded frames in tortoiseshell, ebony and the more costly materials. With the emergence of the mercantile class, the accepted symbols of status were mimicked for the benefit of increasing their wealth.

Poplar was one of the popular woods used for portraits and artwork in these homes. In parts of Europe such as Spain, Italy and the Germanic nations, veneer formed ornate motifs such as basket weave or ripple moldings. 

In most of Europe and the Near East, frames of Baroque and Rococco styling took a backward step and were emblazoned in gold leaf or inlaid with gold motifs.  These over-the-top stylings mirrored the success of the monarchy. 

For the first time, we see elite classes that are proud of their achievements – no matter who they had to take out - displaying their wealth in forms of physical luxuries and architecture.  Orthodox nations were more flamboyant than the Protestants.

Radical Departures in Form

When we think of Michelangelo, we immediately think of his art work and often forget that he had a major impact on architectural forms during his lifetime.  He is credited with making radical departures from the accepted form in statues, buildings and the frames around his paintings. 

He was among the first that introduced the importance of negative space and used it as commentary within the entirety of the work. 

An example of a Cassetta FrameThe Cassetta frame mimics the dowry chests of the era implying that both held important contents. Mitered corners on frames were more than just a convenience in making a square or rectangular form.  The direction of the corner – inward or outward – influences the dynamic emotions of the artwork itself.   

Style, regardless of the medium, is indicative of the particular values of an era and a society.  Ideally, picture frames should reflect the style of the subject era and the values of the owner of the artwork.

Thanks to the leaders of the Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, the exploration of how frames relate to the work and the environment in which they are placed became an art form in its own right.