Presenting the legend: the many frames of Raphael

by The Frame Blog

 This article is dedicated to the memory of HM Queen Elizabeth II

Only two surviving original frames seem to be known for works by Raphael – three, if the border of the early gonfalone he painted is included; more, if the frescos in the Stanze of the Vatican are added – and, except for the latter, even those do not contain the paintings any more. This is a great loss for understanding how Raphael’s works would originally have functioned. His enduring fame and the legend which was ignited by his untimely death made his paintings so highly desirable that even works which remained in situ were turned into giant Raphaelesque shrines, and surrounded with often monstrous frames. The following article considers the variety and number of some of the many reframings of Raphael, as well as the surviving original frames and the descriptions of others. It is based on a paper written by Peter Schade of the National Gallery, which was delivered during the recent exhibition of Raphael’s work at the Gallery.

Early works and their original frames

Raphael (1483-1520), painted gonfalone of the Holy Trinity with integral border, Pinacoteca Comunale, Città di Castello

The gonfalone of the Holy Trinity was painted between c.1500 and 1502. It was a double-sided processional banner, but was separated into its two constituent parts in 1632, and has been relined, restored multiple times, framed for protection (probably in the 19th century), and is generally rather battered [1]. However, it was recently restored again with some of the losses infilled, making it easier to read, and was exhibited in its home town of Città di Castello in Umbria, where Raphael’s career began. It has an integral painted and parcel-gilt border around each piece, decorated with a Greek fret, and punctuated with square motifs of cruciform leaves centred with a floret. Pieces like these were routinely produced by all Renaissance painters, along with much else; as Vasari noted in his chapter on ‘Dello of Florence’ (1404-53):

 ‘… not only were chests painted in this manner, but the beds, the backs of chairs, the frames and other ornaments of the rooms… even the most excellent painters employed themselves… in painting and gilding such things… this is illustrated by some chests, chair-backs and frames in the apartments of Lorenzo de’ Medici… by excellent masters…  Dello…devoted himself… for many years… to nothing else than decorating and painting chests, chair-backs, beds, and other ornaments…’ [2]

This universal concern with the production of all kinds of decorative and applied art meant that painters also worked very closely with the joiners and carvers of the frames for their more spiritual creations, and understood the contemporary mechanics, ornament and symbolism employed in every kind of art, from high to low. This becomes strikingly apparent in Raphael’s later work in the Vatican Stanze.

Raphael (1483-1520), copy of the Mond Crucifixion, c.1502-03, o/panel, 283.3 x 176.3 cm., in the original carved stone architectural frame, San Domenico, Città di Castello; various views

Chronologically also very early in Raphael’s career, the original frame of the National Gallery’s Mond Crucifixion, begun when he was still only nineteen, is still in place in the church of San Domenico in Città di Castello. The arched stone niche is part of the fabric of the building, and most probably pre-dates the commission of Raphael’s work, since there is a corresponding and identical setting for Luca Signorelli’s Martyrdom of St Sebastian which was painted five years earlier, in 1498.

Signorelli (c.1441/45-1523), Martyrdom of St Sebastian, c.1498, o/panel, 288 x 175 cm., now in the Pinacoteca Communale, Città di Castello, montaged into its original frame in San Domenico

San Domenico is a severely simplified basilica church with no side aisles, which seems to have been decorated almost entirely with earlier 15th century frescos; so these two sacred scenes in their monumental pietra serena frames must have appeared strikingly vivid and immediate, as though they lay beyond actual openings in the wall. The frames themselves are built like architectural portals – massive and classicizing, each with an inner frame formed by a garland of cherubs. Raphael’s Crucifixion, painted for the donor’s mortuary chapel, was financed by wool (like his first commission, also in Città di Castello, the Baronci Altarpiece).


The flat façade of the altarpiece, beneath the space for the painted predella panels, is inscribed with the name of the commissioning client and dated:

‘Domenico di Tommaso Gavari caused this work to be made 1503’[3]

Raphael (1483-1520), Mond Crucifixion, c.1502-03, National Gallery, London, in current frame, and detail. Photo: Sailko

The painting was purchased from the church in 1808 by the French Cardinal Fesch, half-brother of Napoleon’s mother, and was eventually bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1924. At that point it was set into a 19th or early 20th century rectilinear moulding frame with projecting ornamental corners and a flat inlay with an arched sight. It moved through several more unsuitable settings, until in the mid-1960s it was reframed in the replica of an antique 17th century Italian garland frame used elsewhere in the Gallery, adapted from the rectilinear construction of the model to an arched form. This frame has a reverse profile, and a wide frieze carved with a scrolling flowered vine on a punched ground; the garland (on a torus above the sight edge) is composed of fruit with symbolic significance: apples (and figs) for the Fall of Man, bitter lemons for the grief of the Virgin, gourds for resurrection, etc [4].

20th century Spanish frames

Apart from these two instances of the early gonfalone and the architectural frame already prepared for the Mond Crucifixion before it was painted, and apart also from the later example of the St Cecelia frame (see below), the history of Raphael’s frames is, rather, one of the history of collecting, and of the extraordinarily varied spread and number of designs which have been applied to the work of this most collectable of painters.

Raphael (1483-1520), Resurrection of Christ, c.1501-1502, o/panel, 56.5 x 47 cm., Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo. Photo: Sailko

This frame is particularly strange. The Resurrection of Christ was in the possession of the 7th Lord Kinnaird, banker and art collector, who bought pictures from the Orléans Collection when it was auctioned in London in 1792, where he may have also obtained this painting: it has no earlier provenance. However, the frame which it now occupies in the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (where it has been since 1954) is very similar indeed to a frame in the Prado which contains Mantegna’s Death of the Virgin, made for the latter in 1925 by the Cano family workshop of Madrid.

Mantegna (1430/31-1506), The death of the Virgin, c.1462, tempera on panel, 54.5 x 42 cm., Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

The Resurrection was sold from the Kinnaird collection in 1946 and at some point was bought by the art dealer and MI5 agent, Tomàs Harris [5], who was half-Spanish and presumably the source for its current frame. Perhaps he had used the Cano family as framemakers for the Spanish paintings which were his main interest, and thought that their design for a Mantegna was equally suitable for a putative, not-altogether-accepted-at-that-point Raphael. Frames from the Cano workshop (which still exists) are related in conception and style to the Italian revival frames used by the dealer Joseph Duveen to rehabilitate Renaissance paintings from British collections for the American market [6]; however, they are much less carefully made, incorporating moulded compo ornament as well as carved wood, and suffering from creeping polychromy and excess surface pattern.

Raphael (after; 1483-1520), The Holy Family with a lamb, o/panel, 28 x 21.5 cm., Museo del Prado

Coincidentally, there is a copy of the Holy Family with a lamb after Raphael in the Prado itself, which sports another Cano frame – a slender inner giltwood and polychrome tabernacle, with dolphins at the crest and dragons supporting the tablet of the apron – which has been aggrandized by a vast and ornate sgraffito’d backboard, five or six times the area of the painting. Raphael’s work and paintings attributed to him seem occasionally prone to this kind of over-framing, as though his genius needs extravagant size and ornament to present it appropriately.

Small panels and their diverse frames

Raphael (1483-1520), The Conestabile Madonna in its display case, the Raphael Room, State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

A similar but even more exaggerated route has been taken for displaying the Conestabile Madonna, which has been given a shrine-like vitrine equipped with its own micro-climate, to present a minute painting already enclosed in several layers of ornamental giltwood.

Raphael, The Conestabile Madonna, tempera/c (from panel), c.1504, 17.5 x 18 cm., State Hermitage Museum

The Museum entry states that,

‘The painting has retained its original frame, decorated with grotesque ornaments and evidently executed after a drawing by Raphael. Before the transfer of the painting from panel to canvas, the frame was integral with the painting’ [7].

Unfortunately, this gives the impression that the whole frame is the original, and that Raphael himself designed it. The 2004 exhibition catalogue clarifies things:

‘Raphael transformed the square picture field of the Conestabile Madonna into a roundel by painting four spandrels in the corners, decorated with fine grotesques on a black ground…. This transformation of a square into a roundel is unusual but not unique, and clearly relates to how the picture was framed. The picture now has a magnificent and very old frame, although it appears to have been modified to fit Raphael’s picture and may not be original. ’ [8].

Painting decorative spandrels and adding a gilt rim is some sense creating a frame (or at least a border) for the miniature, but the physical giltwood frame starts with the run of beading on the sight edge and has nothing to do with Raphael. The 2004 catalogue notes that it has ‘been modified’ to fit the painting, but it actually seems to have been assembled from several antique frames or giltwood elements around an inner pastiglia frieze with corner cassettes, using as a pattern a 16th century Venetian restello or looking-glass frame.

Raphael, Conestabile Madonna montaged with Venetian restello, early 16th century, Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum, New York

This is very much in the tradition of the Florentine dealer Stefano Bardini (1836-1922) [9] and his creative ways with bits and bobs of antique frames and woodwork, welded together with modern pieces of infill or copied in various imaginative ways. There was a similar dealer in Venice – Antonio Zen [10] – who supplied antique frames or settings reinvented from old elements and copies in the 1840s; he supplied the National Gallery in the 1850s. The painting of the Madonna & Child was bought by the Tsar of Russia in April 1872 from the family of the Conte di Conestabile della Staffa in Perugia, and given by bequest to the Hermitage in 1881, and it is very possible that it was reframed whilst still in Perugia in order to enhance it for sale, or that the Tsar had it reframed in Italy in order to present it to his wife.

Looking at the two frames side-by-side, above, and judging just by this image, the backboard and apron seem to have come from one place and the crest from another (possibly with the cornice, which does not stretch far enough across the lateral panels beneath it). These have been mounted with decorative pastiglia elements from elsewhere – two vertical and one horizontal piece below the cornice. The shelf-like ledge above the apron (from which, in a traditional restello, hooks would depend for hanging toilet accessories) appears to have been extended to left and right, and the eagle supporters at the sides may have been taken from yet another source. The general effect is of a rich and glorious setting for the work of a major artist; nearer to, the proportions are all wrong and the joins apparent.

(Top left) copy after Raphael, Conestabile Madonna, o/panel, c. late 18th century, o/panel, 19 x 18.5 cm., in 19th century frame, Hampel Auctions, Munich, 10 December 2015, Lot 227; (lower right) copy ditto, watercolour s & d ‘C. Marianecci Fece 1869’, 19 x 19 cm., in 19th century frame, Fontaines Auctions, Pittsfield MA, 14 September 2019, Lot 9

Two copies of the Madonna which came onto the art market recently have approached the framing of the work in ways which are divergently faithful to the ‘original’. The lower copy has reproduced it relatively exactly in moulded compo, in the process melding together all the bits and pieces of its source (which heightens its 19th century look) into a seamless whole; whilst the other version has reinterpreted the various elements in ways which look quite similar close to, but as a whole produce a very NeoClassical effect. Both indicate that the work was seen in the 19th century as a united piece, probably in its original frame, and that the latter was also thought probably to have been designed by the artist.

Raphael (1483-1520), St Michael, 1503-05, o/panel, 30.9 x 26.5 cm., in 16th century aedicular frame, and detail showing site of enlargement, Musée du Louvre

The two little panels of saints in the Louvre introduce another aspect of historic framing. Although they are not an exact pair, they may perhaps have been painted for the same patron (although perhaps a year or so apart), and ‘have been together for … much of their histories’ [11]. They were recorded, bound into a diptych, when they entered the French royal collection in 1661:

‘No 1177 – Raphael – another diptych which closes [like a book] within a leather cover, on one side depicting St George on horseback fighting the dragon, and on the other St Michael who is also fighting a monster, both executed by Raphael’ [12].

Raphael (1483-1520), St George fighting the dragon, c.1503-05, 29.4 x 25.5 cm., in replica of St Michael frame, Musée du Louvre

This is unusual; there are MSS books with leather bindings, in which, for example, miniature portraits of the patron and her husband have been inserted inside the covers [13], and there are carved ivory diptych panels used as part of the outer covers, back and front, of leather book bindings for sacred works. There are wooden diptychs which close and slide into velvet or leather bags for safe-keeping , but there do not seem to be other examples of small paintings held in the 17th century equivalent of a leather diptych photograph frame. Presumably there was a wooden carcase inside the leather, to create a level from which the paintings were set back, so that the surfaces didn’t meet; and possibly the leather was a variation on the painted faux-marbre outer surfaces of portable diptychs. Perhaps the leather had even been applied at a later point to a double wooden frame dating back to the time when the two panels were first brought together, sometime in the 16th century.

Giulio Romano (attrib.;1492-1546; also attrib. to Raphael, 1483-1520), Madonna & Child with St Elizabeth & John the Baptist, 1516-18, o/panel, 38 x 32 cm., Musée du Louvre

The St Michael and St George panels, which made their way together from the collection of Louis XIV ultimately into that of the Louvre, were accompanied by a panel, only a little larger, of the Madonna & Child with SS Elizabeth and John the Baptist. This has been attributed to Raphael, and also to Giulio Romano when he was employed in Raphael’s workshop. All three panels have been framed in the same manner, in small giltwood aedicules with minimal ornament in the case of the two saints (incised flowers on the columns, and punchwork), with added polychromy on the frame of the Holy Family. These frames must have been added after the panels entered the Louvre, and their choice may have been inspired by the size and structure of the even smaller aedicular frames in lacquer and pietre dure used for portraits by Corneille de Lyon, and by small Roman pietre dure domestic altarpieces of the 17th and 18th century with free-standing columns. The frame of the St Michael is a slightly extended original early 16th century aedicular frame, and the one on the St George is a very fine copy.

Raphael (1483-1520), Allegory of a knight, c. 1504, o/panel, 17.1 x 17.3 cm., National Gallery, NG 213

Raphael (1483-1520), The Three Graces, c.1504, 17.8 x 17.6 cm., Musée Condé, Chantilly

Another pair of small panels which have been for a long time associated with each other are the Allegory of a knight in the National Gallery, and The Three Graces in Chantilly. They appear in an inventory of the Borghese collection in 1633 and again in 1693, and were apparently in the same collection for 150 years [14]. As the 2004 cat. puts it,

‘…their identical size, tripartite subject matter, the similarity in the faces and poses of the female figures, and the strings of coral beads worn both by the Graces and Pleasure in the Allegory, suggest that they were conceived as a pair. Different hypotheses have been put forward as to how the two images were originally combined. The difference in figure scale makes it unlikely that they formed the wings of a diptych. The subjects are appropriate for painted portrait covers, but portraits were never square in format, and it is far more likely that one was the cover for the other, or that they were framed back to back [or front to front?], or even kept as independent treasures in a cloth bag or a drawer’ [15].

Small treasures like this (around 7 inches high), especially from the hand of a painter such as Raphael, would be something to be hoarded and brought out only for like-minded friends and acquaintances, to be pored over by the owner, or offered as a moral lesson to an heir; and the original framing would have reflected this, even before the panels were brought together in the Borghese collection.

The present frames separate the panels perhaps even more than the physical distance between them. In 1987 the National Gallery reframed its Allegory in a 16th century Italian-style reproduction gilded cassetta with pastiglia ornament on the frieze, whilst the Three Graces, which was acquired by Henri d’Orléans, duc d’Aumale, in 1885, ending up in the Château de Chantilly, has been at some point enclosed in an extremely bizarre silver affair, like a giant cigarette case decorated with a Mannerist style repoussé frame, and then submerged in a proportionately huge 19th century black and gold moulding frame. This combination seriously impedes the spectator’s ability to see the painting.

A very much more satisfactory solution for a small panel was found when the National Gallery’s Madonna of the pinks was framed in an early 16th century Venetian pastiglia frame in 2006.

Raphael (1483-1520), Madonna of the pinks, c.1506-07, o/panel, 27.9 x 22,4 cm., and detail, National Gallery,  NG6596

Quite a number of these little frames with early moulded decoration have survived, and are commonly used these days to frame small Renaissance portraits, or little sacred scenes, as here (another instance at the National is Bellini’s St Jerome reading in a landscape). Their original use is unknown, although Peter Schade suggests that they might have been made as a series for the fourteen Stations of the Cross – which would explain their comparative numbers. For more on these frames in general, and for the various designs used for the pressed decoration, see ‘National Gallery, London: a Venetian pastiglia frame’. This particular design has a double guilloche with textured bands.

The small-scale, low relief decoration of the pastiglia is particularly suitable for such a delicate and finely-detailed scene.  The 2004 catalogue suggests that it was a panel designed to be ‘held in the hand for the purpose of prayer and contemplation’ [16]; in this case the original frame would have been even simpler and lighter. There is also the possibility that it too may have been designed as a diptych, opening like an illuminated Book of Hours in which the other leaf might have held an MS prayer or other passage intended to focus the attention on the expression of divine love which the painting encapsulates, and which the pinks symbolize [17].

Raphael, Madonna of the pinks in earlier 17th century Bolognese frame

When the painting entered the Gallery, at first on loan, it was initially given a much weightier and sculptural frame – a 17th century Bolognese frame with a strong ogee profile.

Raphael, Madonna of the pinks in its 19th century Montiroli frame, and detail

Previously, when in the collection of the 4th Duke of Northumberland, it had been given a frame designed especially for it by the Italian architect, Giovanni Montiroli, and in which it hung for many years in Alnwick Castle. Montiroli charged £6 for a full-sized drawing for the design of this frame, which was then carved at the Duke’s own school of woodcarvers in 1862, probably by a woodworker called John Brown [18]. It is a carved and parcel-gilt Renaissance revival-style frame made from boxwood, having corner cassettes carved with rosette paterae. The friezes are decorated with vertebrate candelabrum ornament, and the top and bottom frieze also hold inscribed tablets: above, ‘MADONNA DEI GAROFANI’; below, ‘RAFFAELLE’. The inner small frieze has a carved guilloche. The elaboration of the design, careful carving, and these tablets with the picture title and artist’s name, are characteristic of collectors’ frames in the 19th century (many of which were carved to traditional patterns in the workshops of Florence and Siena) [19]. Given that this one is made from boxwood, which is notoriously hard and thus more difficult to carve, the detail of the ornament is quite impressive.

The Colonna Altarpiece and its many frames

 Raphael (1483-1520), Colonna Altarpiece, 1504-05; a montage imagining all the painted panels reunited; the main quadro (172.4 x 172.4 cm.), lunette (74.9 x 180 cm.), and Agony in the garden ,  Metropolitan Museum, New York; SS Anthony and Francis, Dulwich Art Gallery; Procession to Calvary, National Gallery; and Lamentation, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

This altarpiece consists of a quadro with a sacra conversazione and a lunette depicting God the Father; it also comprised a predella panel with five paintings until these were sold from the commissioning convent in the mid-17th century. The montage above is a speculative assembly of all the paintings as they might originally have looked, in combination with most of the carcass of the current frame (employed by the Metropolitan Museum) and surface decoration from the contemporary tabernacle frame currently in use for the National Gallery’s St Catherine by Raphael (see below). The depth of the predella panel has been increased in order to accommodate the missing panels, giving a much better balance to the overall structure. However, it should be pointed out that a written description from 1661 notes that the frame then was gilded and had columns [20].

Piero della Francesca (c.1415-92), Sant’ Antonio Polyptych, 1467-69, o/panel, 212 x 390 cm., Museo Nazionale del Umbria, Perugia

It was painted for a convent of Franciscan nuns in Perugia, to hang in the church reserved for the nuns themselves. The associated public church in the same complex housed an earlier altarpiece by Piero della Francesca, executed less than forty years earlier, but utterly different in concept and style; the main scene, although technically set in the single united space of the sacra conversazione, has the gold ground, framing arches and colonets of a mediaeval altarpiece; however, the internal architecture and the Madonna’s throne are purely Renaissance. Raphael’s altarpiece is far more in tune with Piero’s scene of the Annunciation, set in the clerestory or what equates to the pediment, with its extraordinary perspectival arcades and landscape background. The two altarpieces hung back-to-back on either side of the wall dividing the convent from the church[21].

The convent where the Colonna altarpiece lived has all but disappeared, so the architectural setting is difficult to resurrect [22]. The form of the frame can, however, be recovered to some extent through the shapes and position of the square quadro, the lunette and the predella panels. Carved giltwood altarpiece frames with an arched format to the main panel, or with an independent lunette above an unbroken top rail of the quadro, were not at all uncommon; the latter with independent lunette can be traced back to the structure of Donatello’s  Cavalcanti Annunciation (c.1435) and Mantegna’s San Zeno Altarpiece (1456-59) in Verona. It may be that the original frame for the Colonna Altarpiece had a segmental pediment like either of those two examples – a tympanum with scrolled ends copied from the pedimented tops of classical Roman funerary altars, which was used by successive generations of framemakers and painters from Donatello’s example, around 1435, and Mantegna’s in the 1450s.

Cosmè Tura (1430-95), Madonna of the Zodiac, 1480s, o/panel, 61 x 41 cm., Gallerie Accademia, Venice

Cosmè Tura’s Madonna of the Zodiac is an example of a small-scale sacred work in this type of frame, which might well indicate the original form of the Colonna Altarpiece: a model which was slightly old-fashioned in the early 16th century, just as Piero della Francesca’s Sant’ Antonio Polyptych was old-fashioned in its form for the 1460s, and thus perhaps more acceptable to the Franciscans nuns than a contemporary style. The online museum entry notes that the commissioning clients may have had a conservative approach, even to details of Raphael’s paintings; this is amplified in Linda Wolk-Simon’s Raphael at the Metropolitan [23].

After the nuns were forced by poverty and debt to sell in the 17th century first the five paintings from the predella, and then the main panel and its lunette, the last two pieces were acquired by the Colonna family in Rome (probably by Filippo II Colonna), in whose posthumous inventory they are described as one altarpiece,

‘…original by Raphael of Urbino with its walnut-coloured frame decorated with applied gilt festoons…’[24]

In parenthesis it should be noted that the lost frame of Raphel’s Transfiguration, destroyed c.1752-53 when the painting was taken out of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, to be copied in mosaic, also had a walnut frame, with an inscribed crest at the crest and two walnut columns with the impresa of the commissioning Pope Clement VII on their pedestals. This may not have been the original frame, however, since in 1524 the same pope paid ‘Master Baverio the painter’ for gilding the Transfiguration frame ‘completely’[24b].

Salvatore Colonelli-Sciarra (fl.1726+), The Colonna Gallery in Rome, watercolour drawing, 1730, with detail showing Raphael, Colonna Altarpiece, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 911524

The framed Colonna altarpiece appears in two 18th century versions of drawings of the Grand Gallery in the Palazzo Colonna by Salvatore Colonelli-Sciarra, one in the Colonna Collection in Rome, and one in the Royal Collection Trust in London. The two versions of Sciarra’s drawing differ slightly as to the frame, which in the Colonna drawing published by Linda Wolk-Simon[25] is simpler, with a rectilinear lower frame supported by scrolling modillions at the base, the colour being impossible to read; whilst the Royal Collection drawing shows what appears to be a gilded frame with a cornice projecting at each side, longer dependent lateral brackets, and outset corners at the base, holding a scrolling apron between them.

Raphael, Colonna Altarpiece in the frame it retained until c.1936, Metropolitan Museum, New York

Giovanni da Udine (1487-1561), detail of Pilaster IX, with acanthus foliage populated by animals & grotesques, 1516-17, Loggetta Bibbiena, Vatican. With thanks to Alberti’s Window

The altarpiece was bought by J. Pierpoint Morgan in 1901 and shipped across to New York in three sections (the main panel, the lunette, and the dismantled frame). After his death in 1913, it was presented to the Met. by his son in 1916. At some point, possibly when in Morgan’s collection, it acquired the frame above, which it retained until around 1936; although it is also possible that it was reframed by the dealer Martin Colnaghi in 1896, or by the Parisian dealer Sedelmeyer between 1896 and 1901, to make it more saleable. The result was a wall of carved giltwood, in which arabesques, grotesques and panels of candelabrum ornament cover every surface in a restless 3-dimensional realization of the painted ornament used by Raphael’s collaborators in the Stanze and Loggia of the Vatican.

Raphael, Colonna Altarpiece in the frame it inhabited between c.1936-1970s, Metropolitan Museum, New York

The wall of gold was replaced around 1936 when the altarpiece was relocated in the Museum, and a less distracting design was chosen which was much more historical in conception. This one also incorporated the only one of the predella paintings owned by the Museum – The Agony in the garden. The design was plainer and more architectural, and although it was decorated with candelabrum ornament on the pilaster panels and pedestals, this was executed in very shallow relief.

Raphael, Colonna Altarpiece in the antique 16th century frame given to it in the 1970s; the columns have since been removed. Metropolitan Museum, New York

As the only altarpiece by Raphael in North America, this was obviously a work which required a more impressive, and (if possible) a contemporary frame, which was finally acquired for it in the 1970s. The online entry mentions Antonio Barili in connection with the carved free-standing columns (which were, rather strangely, removed by the Museum); certainly, Barili is remembered for producing

‘…a rich wooden frame for a painting by Raphael of Florence in S. Maria degli Angioli outside the Porta Romana in Siena’ [26]

Raphael, Colonna Altarpiece as it stands today

The original moulding around the lunette of this present Colonna frame has been aggrandized, and the surface decoration of all the flat panels and friezes of the frame, visible in the black-&-white photo with the columns, seems to have disappeared, whilst the jutting pedestals below and cornice projections above the absent columns remain: mute witnesses to the peculiar attitude which searches out an antique frame for a prized painting and then denudes it of much of its antique ornament, whilst ignoring any sense of the need for an adequately deep predella panel to make sense of the historical appearance of the altarpiece as a whole.

The Ansidei Madonna and its ‘Venetian’ altarpiece frame

Raphael (1483-1520), Ansidei Madonna, 1505, o/panel, 216.8 x 147.6 cm., National Gallery, NG 1171

This altarpiece was probably commissioned by Nicolò, son of Filippo di Ansideo di Simone de Catrano, in memory of his father, for the family chapel in San Fiorenzo, Perugia, where it remained until c.1763. It was then bought by the Marlborough family, and spent the next 120 years at Blenheim Palace [27]until it was purchased by the National Gallery in 1885. Like Raphael’s early Baronci Altarpiece and the Mond Crucifixion, this was another altarpiece financed by wool merchants [28].

Raphael (1483-1520), Ansidei Madonna:  John the Baptist preaching, in  current reproduction frame, National Gallery, NG 6480

The Gallery also owns one of the panels from the original predella (the other panel has vanished).

Henry Tidmarsh (1854-1939), Interior view of the National Gallery with the Ansidei Madonna displayed on a draped screen, body colour and wash, c.1885, detail, Guildhall Art Gallery (Print Collection)

The Blenheim frame was the plainest which could be imagined, and a new altarpiece-style frame was commissioned from Dolman & Son. The Raphael Research project dates this to the late 19th century, but if the frame bears the stamp of ‘R. Dolman & Son’ it must have been made between 1910 and 1919 [29].

Pietro Lombardo (1435–1515), carved doorframe, 1490s, Chiesa di San Giobbe, Venice

Details of the frame of the Ansidei Madonna and the doorframe of San Giobbe

Nicholas Penny noted that this frame, and another (not the current frame) for Leonardo’s Virgin of the rocks, were based on the doorframe of San Giobbe, Venice; he suggests that casts might have been taken, and that Dolman used such a cast as his model [30].

Jacopo della Quercia (after; 1425-83), central entrance of San Petronio, Bologna, cast by Oronzio Lelli c.1886, V & A Museum

This is extremely probable when one considers the popularity of cast collections in the 19th century; for example, the Cast Courts of the V & A, which opened in 1873 and included such monumental doorways as the West entrance to Bologna Cathedral. These provided a readily accessible encyclopaedia of architecture, ornament and sculpture for artists, architects and carvers to learn from, copy and adapt.

St Catherine of Alexandria: a domestic altarpiece frame

The client who commissioned this striking painting is unknown, and although Pietro Aretino owned

‘…the image of the figure of Saint Catherine, [ b]y Raphael of Urbino’ in 1550 [31],

nobody is quite sure whether this is the same St Catherine now in the National Gallery.

Investigation of its support and materials has discovered a barbe running along the top and side edges of the panel, indicating that it was originally engaged with its frame [32]; this also indicates that the frame was gesso’d and gilded or painted (or both) – or at least that there might have been an inner frame or moulding which was gilded and was integral with the panel. Nothing more is known about the painting until it surfaces in the Villa Borghese, in a brief inventorial description. The inventory has been thought to have been made between 1615 and 1630, but, as Stefano Pierguidi suggests, is more probably a copy of the 1633 posthumous inventory of Cardinal Scipione Borghese [33]:

‘Over the doors … – Corradini’s no. 256 – A painting of St Catherine, the frame of parcel-gilt walnut with gilded egg mouldings, 2 ¾ high 2 ¼ wide. Raphael’ [34].

This positioning is also noted by Jacomo Manilli in 1650:

‘On the other wall, over the door, the picture of St Catherine the Martyr, by Raphael’ [35].

Raphael (1483-1520), St Catherine of Alexandria, c.1507, o/panel, 72.2 x 55.7 cm., speculative montage of how the parcel-gilt walnut frame, with egg-&-dart moulding below top edge, might have looked. National Gallery

These two descriptions of the painting hung as an overdoor indicate that by this time it would probably have been framed in a cassetta or moulding frame of walnut: i.e. a rectilinear form and not a tabernacle or aedicule, neither of which would have fitted so happily into this sort of position nor have helped the visibility of the work (see the watercolour of the Colonna Gallery, above). The montage above combines a contemporary walnut frame with a gilt egg-&-dart moulding, but it is only the most basic realization of a very terse description.

By c. 1800 St Catherine was in London, and a little later passed through the hands of the notable framemaker and dealer, John Smith [36], by whom it was sold in 1824 to William Beckford, author, eccentric collector, and commissioner of the extraordinary Fonthill Abbey. It only ever hung in his next house, however: Lansdown Tower in Bath.  Raphael’s St Catherine was purchased from Beckford in 1839, at which point it had quite a large frame on it – of which we know nothing more than that it was glazed, and the rails were about 6 ¾ inches deep. In 1920 it was reframed in another substantial but plain frame, very much of its period, and it stayed like this until the 1940s, when a more suitable 16th century Italian cassetta was acquired for it.

Raphael, St Catherine of Alexandria, in previous 16th century cassetta

This cassetta is beautifully carved, chronologically appropriate, and very attractive in itself, but as well as being slightly too large for the St Catherine – the sight edge has had to be infilled with an additional, rather intrusive stepped and hollowed moulding – it casts a distracting shadow at the top where the straight frame rail emphasizes the curvature of the painted panel,  and it fails to make the most of one of the more important and well-loved paintings in the Gallery.

Vittore  Carpaccio (c.1465-1525/26), Arrival of the Ambassadors, from the St Ursula cycle, 1490s, detail showing a framed painting of the Madonna & Child in St Ursula’s bedroom, from Scuola di Sant’Orsola, now Accademia, Venice

Although the commissioning client is unknown, it has been suggested that the painting was probably intended as a domestic altarpiece, making it extremely unlikely that a sacred figure on such a scale, with this vertical orientation, would have been presented in what is more likely to have been designed as a secular portrait frame, or the setting for a mythological figure or scene. The detail above, from a late 15th century work, shows one type of frame which would have been usual for a sacred image displayed in the home; other examples can be found, for example, in the early 16th century illustrations for the 15th century tale La istoria di Maria per Ravenna, which shows a tabernacle frame with apron at the base hanging beside a bed (see below); and in a maijolica bowl with what seems to be a framed relief in an interior.

 Raphael, St Catherine of Alexandria, in present tabernacle frame

 It was clear that the St Catherine needed a frame which would present her in the context of a devotional image within a private chapel or before a prie-dieu, and which would convey something of those surroundings within the Gallery. At last a very rare tabernacle frame was found which is an appropriate accompaniment for the painting. It is exactly the type of frame which a sacred picture like this would have had when it hung in a small private chapel or bedroom in Florence or Rome.

 Roman funerary altar for Claudia Ianuaria, 4th century AD, Baths of Diocletian, Rome. Photo: Anna Raia

 Donatello, Calvacanti Annunciation, c.1435, parcel-gilt pietra serena, terracotta and stucco, 420 x 274 cm., Santa Croce, Florence. Photo: Sailko

 The acquisition of the new tabernacle frame, of a size which meant that it could be fairly easily adjusted to fit the painting, was one of those rare and fortuitous occasions, marrying as it does so perfectly with all the classicizing influences which infuse Raphael’s own painting style, and which are also demonstrated in his decoration of the Vatican Stanze. The form of the frame (with segmental pediment and cornice) is taken from Roman funerary altars, such as the one for Claudia Ianuaria from the Baths of Diocletian: objects such as these were collected in the 15th and 16th centuries by artists’ patrons, and used by the artists themselves as models for drawings and designs. Donatello’s Cavalcanti Annunciation in Santa Croce is strongly influenced in its framing by such a source, and is a public, architectural and church-based version of the kind of domestic sacred painting which the St Catherine represents.

 Desiderio da Settignano, Tabernacle, 1461, San Lorenzo, Florence

Renaissance pax, 1518, with Madonna & Child, c.1445-50, gold, silver-gilt and niello, 28 x 13 cm., Kollenburg Antiquairs

These classicizing forms became particularly fashionable throughout the next century or more, and were continually refined by the sculptors, carvers and goldsmiths who used them – from Desiderio Settignano’s Tabernacle of the Sacrament in San Lorenzo to a tiny silver-gilt pax of 1518 made to frame an earlier Madonna.

 Raphael, St Catherine of Alexandria, in present tabernacle frame

The replacement tabernacle frame has had a profound impact on how the work is perceived. It is no longer a slightly awkward figure painting, but a powerful vision of the saint standing in a serene landscape, arrested by a burst of heavenly light. The landscape recedes and the woman becomes monumental. It is clear that Raphael was painting the image for this form of frame: for example, the dandelion and the bitter herbs in the foreground make no pictorial sense unless they are anchored by the sill of an architectural frame, since they would otherwise be several feet high.

Decorative borders in the Vatican Stanze

Ceiling decoration in the Stanza della Segnatura or papal library, c.1508-09, fresco, gilding, &c., Vatican, Rome

Ceiling decoration of the Room of Achilles at Skyros, Domus Aurea, Rome

The format of the ceiling in the Stanza della Segnatura is based on Byzantine and mediaeval Roman mosaics [37], with their gold grounds and multiple borders. The motifs used for the borders, however, are drawn from similar arrangements and ornaments in the Domus Aurea – Nero’s Golden House – and specifically, perhaps, in the Room of Achilles at Skyros. The Segnatura vault is divided overall into seventeen spaces for figural paintings, with a cruciform arrangement of four circles around an octagon, four rectangles in the corners, and eight trapezia filling in the gaps. All these shapes have their own frames of architectural mouldings, with coloured friezes decorated with zoömorphic grotesques and candelabrum ornament deriving from the Domus Aurea, and borders of interlaced frets and scrolling foliation from that and other classical sources.

Ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura, detail

It would be inaccurate to see Nero’s house, which was rediscovered around or just before the 1480s, as the sole spring for the decorative work in the Stanze, since much of the classical ornament – especially the scrolling foliage – had been in use for a very long time, and was consolidated with other classical forms by Donatello; but certainly the morphing grotesques, with their colour and imaginative motifs, are characteristic of this relatively new  resource, and part of a burgeoning fashion developed and diffused by artists such as Pinturicchio, Perugino and Ghirlandaio. The artists who collaborated with Raphael on the vast work of decorating the rooms in the Vatican included the Flemish or Netherlandish Giovanni Ruisch, as well as Giovanni da Udine (who seems to have specialized in painted grotesques and classicizing stuccowork influenced by the Domus Aurea), Sodoma, and Peruzzi. John Shearman points out that it is practically impossible to attribute the ornamental borders to one particular artist or another [38]; however, Arnold Nesselrath notes that,

‘The putti around the centre and the fictive structure of the vault and its grotteschi can be attributed on stylistic grounds to Sodoma, who must therefore have begun the painting. Sodoma was hired for a well-defined piece of work, since he just had to paint an amount worth 50 ducats, the same amount as Johannes Ruysch, who must be the second hand identifiable in the vault’s ornaments and monochromes. That it was Sodoma who transformed the initially circular oculus in the centre into the octagon that forms the basis for the present scheme fits Vasari’s attribution to him of the overall design…

The framing arch around the Disputa was executed together with the vault, and the plaster of vault and arch was applied simultaneously’ [39].

It can be said, therefore, that these are the original frames for the four great scenes on the walls, and for the figures in the vault, and that the artists who created them are known.

Tondo frames

After the tiny Conestabile Madonna, the earliest surviving tondo by Raphael is the Madonna Terranuova in Berlin.

Raphael, Madonna Terranuova hanging in the Sculpture Gallery of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin, photographed c.1926-33, detail of image. © Zentralarchiv, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

It seems to also to have retained into the 20th century what was probably its original frame, since it was acquired in 1854 by the Alten Museums, Berlin, together with a tondo frame described as ‘Florentine, c.1500’. This was a carved giltwood garland frame, with two branches of symbolic fruits and leaves growing from a double urn at the base, and ending at the top in a large rose, one of the attributes of the Virgin. It can be seen quite clearly in the photo above, in the hang which was probably designed by Wilhelm von Bode, the first curator of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum (now the Bode Museum).

Raphael (1483-1520), Madonna Terranuova, c.1505, o/panel, 88.7 cm. diam., Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. Photo: Sailko

During World War II the frame was stored in a depot with other works from Berlin’s museums, and unfortunately fell victim to the fire at the Flakbunker in Friedrichschain in May 1945. A rather weighty replacement frame was designed after the original in 1955 by the sculptor, Weinert, and was gilded by Sommerfeld in the workshops of the Gemäldegalerie. Photos of the antique frame from which the modern replica was made are the best remaining evidence for tondi by Raphael being framed in the Tuscan fashion, in late 15th-early 16th century garland frames which would expand upon the symbols and references within the paintings by further pointers to aspects of Christ’s life and Passion.

Raphael (1483-1520), The Alba Madonna, c.1510, o/panel>canvas, 94.5 cm. diam., National Gallery of Art, Washington

The Alba Madonna will also – most probably – have been framed originally in a carved giltwood garland, and it is not clear when it was parted from it – possibly when in 1836 it was acquired by Nicholas I of Russia, and the old setting was deemed insufficiently grand? In 1931 it was purchased by a series of dealers in London and New York, and through them by Andrew Mellon. At this point it must have received the aedicular frame with parcel-gilt and polychrome decoration which it had when given by the Mellon Trust to the NGA, Washington. This frame is almost certainly by Ferruccio Vannoni, who reframed Carpaccio’s Flight into Egypt in 1927 and Raphael’s Niccolini-Cowper Madonna in 1928, both of which also passed from the Mellon Trust to the NGA, but were acquired by the former from Duveen Brothers [40]. These designs are made in the same spirit as the 20th century Spanish frames noted earlier, by the Cano workshop, although – save for the polychrome finish – with slightly more historical reference.

Raphael, The Alba Madonna, c.1510, NGA, in present 1970s garland frame. Photo: Sailko

In 1976-77 the Alba Madonna was reframed for the Museum by Fabio Bucciarelli of Florence in a replica garland frame [41].

Painted around four years later, the Madonna della Sedia demonstrates Raphael’s dramatic mastery of the tondo form: from the Madonna Terranuova, of c.1505, which hardly allows at all for the circular shape of the panel in its composition, through the Alba Madonna five years later and its oval figure group, to this strikingly naturalistic use of the whole pictorial surface, so that the spectator seems intimately close to the Madonna and Child. It is first documented in the 1589 inventory of the Tribuna of the Uffizi, where it is described as:

‘A painting depicting in tondo form Our Lady with her Son in her arms and St. John with 4 spandrels decorated with arabesques, its walnut frame parcel-gilt…’ [42]

The ‘4 spandrels decorated with arabesques’ are reminiscent of the ornaments painted by Raphael in the corners of the panel of the Conestabile Madonna, turning it into a tondo on a square support. If he had originally presented the Madonna della sedia in this way (although with the decoration on separate spandrels), such a modest, small-scale and flat decoration would have allowed the work much more room to breathe, as would the related parcel-gilt walnut frame.

Raphael (1483-1520), Madonna della sedia, c.1514, o/panel, 71 cm. diam., Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

As it is, in the 17th century the painting was given one of the most intricate of the ‘Palazzo Pitti’ or ‘Medici’ frames [43]: a great rectangular golden frame with considerably larger surface area than the painting itself, and spandrels holding three-dimensional mascarons supported by sculptural C- and S- scrolls. The sight edge of the frame, the torus defining the top edge, and the weighty corner and centre clasps are also restless with frenetic ornament, so that the Madonna appears to be cradling her Child defensively in the midst of a spiralling tornado of golden carvings. It is another instance of the deification of Raphael, and the need to present his work like an enamelled jewel in the most precious and elaborate setting imaginable.

Portrait frames

Raphael (1483-1520), Portrait of a gentlewoman (La muta), c.1507-08, o/panel, 65.2 x 48 cm., Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino

There is no reliable provenance for this portrait before it arrives in the inventories of Ferdinando de’Medici in 1702-10, although the sitter is dressed in early 16th century Florentine fashion [44]. It seems most likely that she acquired her broad gilded frame during the 17th century, and possibly in the Medici workshops. The underlying structure, with its convex top edge, centre and corner scrolling clasps and ornamental foliate scrolls on the frieze, is not dissimilar from the frame given to the Madonna della sedia – just a less lavishly opulent, less finely-worked version. Like the latter, it has the effect of a goldsmith’s setting on a precious jewel.

 Raphael (1483-1520), Elisabetta Gonzaga, Duchess of Urbino, c.1502, o/panel, 52.9 x 37.4 cm., Gallerie degli Uffizi

Raphael (1483-1520), Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, c.1506-08, tempera/panel, 70.5 x 49.9 cm., Gallerie degli Uffizi

The portraits painted for Raphael’s patrons in his home town of Urbino may very well have been framed in parcel-gilt walnut, like the earlier settings of St Catherine and the Madonna della sedia, or in a giltwood cassetta. Like many of the major artists whose work found its way into the collections of the brother cardinals, Giancarlo and Leopoldo de’Medici, however, these paintings of the duke of Urbino and his wife have ended up in two of the Mannerist Auricular frames created out of the earlier fascination with classical grotesques. They are based, not overtly on the painted decoration of the Domus Aurea, but more indirectly on the architectural ornaments and sculpture which it inspired, from men such as Buontalenti, Pietro Tacca and Giambologna; the masks of whiskery animals, monsters and serpents which decorate their work are also influenced by the 17th century fascination with scientific discoveries in the natural world, and with the specimens collected in cabinets and Kunstkammern throughout the courts of Europe.

These are sculptural frames at their most elaborate and eccentric – pierced and intertwined fantasies of writhing, knotted three-dimensional scrolls, leaves, segmental wormlike forms, screaming masks and bulbous eyes under beetling gilded brows. Some of the frames in the collection, like the one made for Titian’s portrait of Ludovico Beccadelli c.1653, or Dosso Dossi’s Rest on the flight into Egypt, are carved with fishes’ heads, dolphins, panels of fish scales, fins and sinews and bits of gilded muscle [45].

Raphael (1483-1520), Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami, 1509, o/panel, 89.5 x 62.8 cm., frame 138 x 110 cm., Galleria Palatina, Palazzo Pitti, Florence

The Portrait of Tommaso Inghirami is another victim of the ‘Medici’ frame, although this one is softened and modulated by a slightly more fluid technique and a narrower width of rail. The monumental figure in red, set against what was originally a green curtain, holds its own with this frame much better than the Duchess of Urbino does, with her frontal pose, decorative jewellery and costume and twilit landscape background. Marilena Mosco suggests that Inghirami’s frame was made in 1660; she notes that

‘… there are grotesque masks in the corners, with sweeping whiskers, hooked noses with large nostrils, and protruding tongues’ [46].

Raphael (1483-1520), Woman with a veil, c.1512-15, o/c, 82 x 60.5cm., Gallerie degli Uffizi 

Similarly, the Woman with a veil negotiates her ‘Medici’ frame with sufficient grace, helped by her monochrome creamy-white costume slashed with gold. The wide gold border in this case provides what the Medici brothers seemed to be seeking: a method of focusing on the painting and isolating it from the works around it, with the added possibility of symbolic meaning in the motifs wound into the carving. However, this is a frame from elsewhere which has been adapted for the portrait, and has been shorn at the same time of the projecting leaves, masks and clasps which would originally have decorated the corners.

Raphael, Woman with a veil, raking detail of frame

The screaming, batlike winged monsters at the centres remain, their wings morphing into leaves which reach from end to end of each rail; however, the frame may originally have been about twice its present size.

Raphael (1483-1520), Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, 1514-15, o/c, 82 x 67 cm., in it French Renaissance-style frame, Musée du Louvre 

Raphael, Baldassare Castiglione in exhibition frame

The beautiful portrait of Baldassare Castiglione is normally shown in the Louvre in an equally impressive carved and gilded French Louis III collector’s frame of distant Venetian heritage (described in detail in ‘Reframing Raphael: the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione’). When it travelled to London for the recent Raphael exhibition at the National Gallery, it was very disappointing to find it imprisoned in a loud and unfortunate travel frame. The subtleties and textures of the black and silvery-grey costume had little chance to compete against this coarsely-cut black and gold frame with its prominent barber’s pole stripes. Comparison of these two settings does, however, point up with glaring clarity the difference made to a painting by its frame.

Amongst many Madonnas…

 …none have escaped reframing, and some have travelled through several frames. The Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, can thank the curation of Wilhelm von Bode in its earlier incarnation as the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum for his programme of reframing, which saw great efforts made to buy chronologically and stylistically appropriate frames where necessary (although, where antique versions were unobtainable, some of the replicas made were perhaps less successful).

Raphael, The Colonna Madonna hanging on the left above the Madonna & Child with SS Hieronymus & Francis, and The Solly Madonna at lower right, in the Sculpture Gallery of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, Berlin, photographed c.1926-33, detail of image. © Zentralarchiv, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin 

The photograph which illustrates what may be the original tondo frame of the Madonna Terranuova also shows three rectilinear Madonna panels, one of which certainly and another possibly owe their beautiful and appropriate antique frames to Bode’s intervention.

Raphael (1483-1520), Madonna & Child with SS Hieronymus & Francis, c.1502, o/panel, 35.3 x 29.8 cm., Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

La istoria di Maria per Ravenna, last decade of the 15th century; woodcut illustration, probably early 16th century  

The particular example of the Madonna & Child with SS Hieronymus & Francis is singled out in the article he wrote on his approach to framing the Museum’s collection, where he states that,

‘…it should be possible to acquire or to reproduce frames so successfully that they will be taken for the originals… this effect seems to me almost completely realized in, for example… the tabernacle on [Raphael’s] small Madonna & Child with saints[47];

In this case the effect almost exactly replicates (for instance) the Madonna panel hanging in a bedchamber in one of the woodcuts illustrating the late 15th century La istoria di Maria per Ravenna, providing the perfect example of a sacred work as it would customarily be used in such a personal space.

 Raphael (1483-1520), The Solly Madonna, 1500-02, o/panel, 54.3 x 40.6 cm., Gemäldegalerie, Berlin 

The 16th century frame of The Solly Madonna may also owe its choice to Bode; it is so apposite in its harmony with the colouring of the painting, in the delicacy of the scrolling ornament in mordant gilding on the frieze, echoing the embroidery of the Virgin’s veil, and in the carved roses in the corners, her attribute. This is a design which manages to be both unobtrusive in these latter attributes, and at the same time very rich through its accretion of ornament; the symbolism it expresses is also visible whilst being paradoxically low-key: that is, the cruciform pattern across the composition, generated by the four roundels in the centres of the rails, and the diagonal cross focusing on the roses. The painting is evidently in this frame in the photo of the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, above, taken in the years around Bode’s death, and almost certainly recording a hang which he designed.

Raphael (1483-1520), The Colonna Madonna, c.1507-08, o/panel, 79 x 58.2 cm., Gemäldegalerie, Berlin 

The Colonna Madonna is visible on the upper left in the same photograph, but in a very different frame from the one that it has now; this earlier frame may possibly have been found for Bode by the Florentine dealer, Stefano Bardini [48]. It seems to be a slender Mannerist design, the undulating contour produced by shaped brackets at the sides, and with a cornice at the top. Bode must have regarded this frame as a temporary – and probably not a satisfactory – solution,  writing of it,

‘…We also know the whereabouts of the original polychrome aedicular frame of Raphael’s Colonna Madonna, but unfortunately the owner of the frame is convinced that the old copy of our painting inside the frame is the original and he won’t sell the frame without it [49].

It was reframed by the Museum in the beautifully carved 16th century parcel-gilt walnut frame seen above, from Paul Mitchell Ltd,  the frieze decorated with a vertebrate grapevine bearing small bunches of Eucharistic grapes, the branches of the vine overlapping at the corners to produce a cruciform effect: another very subtle use of effective symbolism.

Raphael (after), Madonna & ChildThe Colonna Madonna’, c.1848-58, enamel on porcelain, 74.2 x 58.3 cm., 19th century German giltwood frame, Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 404017 

Raphael’s Colonna Madonna was apparently a favourite of Prince Albert, who gave an enamelled porcelain copy of it, above, to Queen Victoria on Christmas Eve 1858. Interestingly, the frame made for it in Germany is evidently based on the massive altarpiece frame for the Sistine Madonna (see below) which had been designed and carved three years earlier, and pays tribute in its classicizing design to the more historical approach to framing Old Masters which began to emerge in the 19th century.

Raphael, Small Cowper Madonna hanging in 1917 in the Raphael Room, in the collection of Peter and then Joseph Widener at Lynewood Hall, Pennsylvania 

Two more Madonnas, once in the collection of the Earls Cowper and hung at Panshanger House in Hertford, have made their way to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The Small Cowper Madonna passed in the interim through the Widener collection at Lynewood Hall, where it hung in the Raphael Room – an extension of the glorification of the artist into the New World, and another reflection of the room in the Dresden museum where the Sistine Madonna stood.

The frame given to it here was almost certainly applied to it by the dealer Joseph Duveen, who bought it from the heirs of the Cowpers in 1913 and sold it the next year to Peter Widener, since the frames at Panshanger seem almost uniformly to have been in French Baroque or NeoClassical style (see below). The Widener frame is another historicizing design based on the 15th and early 16th century Florentine tabernacle frames with segmental pediments and carved aprons, mentioned with reference to the framing of Raphael’s St Catherine of Alexandria (above), and was probably produced in Florence by one of Duveen’s stable of carvers, or bought from Bardini [50].

Raphael (1483-1520), Small Cowper Madonna, c.1505, o/panel, 59.5 x 44 cm., National Gallery of Art, Washington 

The painting has now been housed in a much more appropriate antique cassetta, with a deep entablature profile, five orders of ornament and the appearance of a rich brocade. The frieze is decorated with a centred pattern of foliate S-scrolls which creates a dancing rhythm around the pensive Madonna, contrasting with her expression and pointing up the present charm of her Child as against His dark destiny. The band of acanthus leaves beneath the top edge, with their central V-shaped vein and the quatrefoil effect produced by the ogee moulding, give the effect of butterflies surrounding the contour – the emblem of Psyche and the human soul.

Raphael, the Niccolini Cowper Madonna hanging at extreme lower right in the Picture Gallery at Panshanger House

The second Cowper Madonna can be seen at Panshanger on the right-hand edge of the photo, above; it was housed there in a 19th century wide gilded ogee frame with enriched corners, reflecting the conventional collector’s approach of the 18th and 19th centuries – one of what Peter Schade describes as

‘…witnesses to a time when French 18th century frames were the norm for Old Master paintings of any period’. 

Raphael (1483-1520), ‘The Niccolini-Cowper Madonna‘, 1508, o/panel, 80.7 x 57.5 cm.; frame by Ferruccio Vannoni, 1928, National Gallery of Art, Washington

It was likewise sold to Duveen in 1928, and he arranged for it to be reframed by Ferruccio Vannoni in Florence in this elaborately decorated gilt and polychrome aedicule, which originally sported a segmental pediment and an apron as well.  Karen Serres, describing Vannoni’s work for Duveen, remarks that,

‘…Vannoni’s frames are instantly recognizable and can appear excessively decorative. The elements of Renaissance frames are present, but reproduced in an exaggerated way: the carved ornament shows a crispness that seeks to outdo its models, while the minutely rendered painted elements are emphasized with a dark outline. The frames are rarely distressed and look incongruously fresh [51]’.

This is evidence for the truism that any historical replica, however close to the original it may appear when made, inevitably dates as time moves on and, like Bode’s replicas, becomes a monument to its own period; just as Renaissance tabernacles and aedicular frames are incontrovertibly of the 15th and 16th centuries, and not coaeval with the classical altars, arches and doorways they are imitating.

The Sistine Madonna

This is another grand altarpiece which has had its fair share of different frames. It was commissioned in 1512 by Pope Julius II as the high altarpiece for the church of San Sisto in Piacenza, and remained in situ until sold in 1754 by the Benedictine monks, whose church it was, to the King of Poland. There appears to be no record of how it was framed in the church at Piacenza, and in Dresden, where it was taken by Augustus III, it seems merely to have been given a rectilinear moulding frame and hung as part of a jigsaw puzzle of other works in the collection [52].

Raphael (1483-1520), The Sistine Madonna (c.1512-14) in Room A of the museum wing designed by Gottfried Semper, 1855, Photo: c.1920-30, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden

In 1855 it was reframed in an interpretation of the type of structure suggested here as the original frame of the Colonna Altarpiece, and also related to the new frame for St Catherine: a classicizing aedicular form with a scrolling segmental pediment and pilasters with candelabrum ornament. It was placed on an inscribed altar-like plinth, and housed in a room of its own in the museum in Dresden which would become the Gemäldegalerie; the whole manner of its display tending to glorify the painter, rather than the Madonna and her Son.

Yuly Yatchenko (b.1928 in Ukraine), With a dream of peace: The salvation of the masterpieces of the Dresden Gallery by Soviet troops in 1945, detail, location not specified

During World War II, the altarpiece was discovered by Soviet troops in the tunnel in which it had been stored to save it from destruction. A detail of Yuly Yatchenko’s painting showing this discovery includes the frame, which may be part of the 1855 altarpiece setting retained for protection – probably with pediment, cornice and plinth removed.

Raphael, The Sistine Madonna in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, after its return from Russia

The painting was taken from Dresden to Moscow, and displayed there in the Pushkin Museum; after a major exhibition organized around it in 1955, it was returned to Germany where it hung in one of those gilt and polychrome moulding frames which seem to have been covered in wrapping paper.

Lorenzo Costa (c.1460-1535), Madonna & Child with saints (Pala Ghedini), 1497, 220 x 140 cm., San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna

Raphael (1483-1520), The Sistine Madonna, c.1512-14, o/c, 265 x 196 cm., Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. Photo: with thanks to Steve Shriver 

In 2012, the 500th year since its commission, it was given a carved giltwood aedicular frame  based on Lorenzo Costa’s 1497 Madonna & Child with saints in the church of San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna. It is rather puzzling as to why the Museum should have chosen this model for an altarpiece which was commissioned in Rome for a church on the very northern boundaries of Emilia-Romagna (nearer to Milan than to Bologna); a model made fifteen years earlier than the commission, and in a style which it would be difficult to link even to the putative type of the frames now missing from Raphael’s works. Coincidentally, the one original Raphael frame also in San Giovanni in Monte is that of St Cecilia (see below), which is very close in time to the Sistine Madonna, and utterly different in style from the frame on the Costa.

Pietro Antonio Avanzini (1656-1733), copy after Raphael, The Sistine Madonna, 1728, in Baroque leaf frame; probably framed for the monastery after the sale of the original painting in 1754; San Sisto in Piacenza

However, the modern setting of the Sistine Madonna is definitely outsculpted (as it were) by the vast Baroque leaf frame given to a copy of the painting in its native church. This frame must have been made for the monks when the original Raphael and its frame were sold in 1754  – possibly at the expense of Augustus III of Poland, although he had already paid them the world’s highest price for a painting. It is a very strange combination: the static classicism of the Madonna and saints caught in a frenetic, writhing, golden jungle of serpentine scrolls which sprout acanthus fronds, leafy festoons, cherubs and sunflowers on every side. It is also an excessively large frame; it is over 10 metres tall – more than 33 feet – and towers over the choir stalls beneath it.

The copy of the painting was executed by Pietro Avanzini in 1728 [53], well before the original was sold, but was probably framed when it entered the church after the sale. It is, again, a testament to the adoration which the painter attracted well beyond his lifetime: a setting designed to venerate and celebrate Raphael the legend, rather than to enhance the altarpiece as a sacred work, and this may increase the likelihood of its having been paid for by Augustus – a monarch who was obsessively determined to acquire an important work by Raphael at almost any cost. Unfortunately (since it is an amazing sculpture in its own right, whatever its suitability for the painting), the name of the carver seems not to have been published anywhere.

St Cecilia: vertical aspiration

 Raphael (after; 1483-1520), The ecstasy of St Cecilia, c.1514, copy of painting in the original frame still in situ in the Dall’ Olio Chapel, San Giovanni in Monte, Bologna. Photo: Robert Hlavatý

The frame for The ecstasy of St Cecilia is the one original carved giltwood frame for Raphael’s work which has survived, and it remains in the church for which it was designed – San Giovanni in Monte in Bologna – whilst the painting has been transferred to the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna. It had been commissioned by Beata Elena Duglioli dall’Olio for the family chapel in the church, but was looted by Napoleon in 1793 and spent twelve years in Paris. When it was returned in 1815 it was installed in the museum and a copy of the frame was made for it; the original frame remains in the chapel, and holds a 19th century replica of Raphael’s altarpiece.

Raphael (after), The ecstasy of St Cecilia, copy of painting in the original frame

The painting appears to have been largely executed by Raphael himself, and the design and placing of the frame reveal the same focused attention; it is set relatively high on a plinth behind an altar table which is standing on top of a step. The frame is not an aedicular design, but an elaborately designed wide cassetta with fine, densely carved and gilded scrolling foliate ornament on a blue ground. In fact, the blue ground of the friezes throughout all the framing elements is designed to echo the sky in the painting, and the light floral carvings appear to tumble down them in accord with the musical vision. However, the frame seems to have been heavily restored, re-painted and re-gilded, and it is therefore difficult to judge the subtlety of the relationship of painting and setting.

The altarpiece is raised on a stepped plinth with two decorated façades, the lower one with a sgraffito design in blue and gold, and carved shields at the sides bearing coats of arms; and the upper having a carved floral design similar to that on the main frieze above it. The frame is surmounted by a carved, gilded and polychrome crest, shaped in a loose rendering of the classical segmental pediment with scrolled ends (as illustrated above by Donatello, et al.), and holding an inscribed cartouche. At the very top centre a lamp or torch holds a burning flame which is blown upward to the sunlight above it; this symbolizes life, reversing the Renaissance funerary motif of an extinguished torch. Niches, possibly later, in the altar wall on either side of the plinth supporting the painting echo the decoration of the frame with their simplified undulating gilt vine on a blue ground.

Because of this arrangement, the eyeline of the worshipper would have been roughly at the level of the discarded earthly musical instruments. The vision of the heavenly musicians would have appeared logical in its painted foreshortening, seen as it should be, from below, and the oval shape would have echoed the round window or oculus, high up in the chapel. These calculations seem to be deliberate and precisely executed. Everything pulls the eye upward – from the narrow vertical bay of the chapel itself, and the answering verticality of the painting, to the frame which enhances this in its plain structure, with all auxiliary decorative elements removed to the space below and above it, and finally to the flaring gold torch perched at the top – a frail human light reaching for the heavenly light in the window.

Raphael, The ecstasy of St Cecilia, original painting (c.1514, 220 x 136 cm.) in a copy of most of the frame, with details, Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna

Much of this is lost in the current display of Raphael’s actual painting in the museum. The double-stepped plinth (which has been copied along with the frame to the top of the cornice) is raised fractionally above the ground on an added black plinth, but it does nothing for the assumed eyeline of the painting: a spectator would have to lie on the ground to be able to see the work as it should be seen.  Similarly, the loss of the pediment and lamp, with its aspiring flame, has truncated – amputated – the vertical push of the work, with its mini thrusting rocketlike niches on either side of the base. As Luitpold Düssler  put it,

‘[the painting]… has lost much of its effectiveness and expressive power through being moved from the St. Cecilia Chapel in S. Giovanni in Monte, the place for which it was intended and suited. … the copy which is now in the chapel has the original frame by the Bolognese A[ndrea] Formigine [54]’.

As it stands, the framed painting is rendered squat, dumpy, unaspiring, and is far too close to the spectator. These faults were amplified in the recent exhibition, where Cecilia was almost on a level with those gazing at her, and set much too close for any mystical power to be generated.

The design of the original frame is innovative and elaborate; it has been suggested that it might have been instigated by the artist himself, although it has also been given to Giovanni da Udine [55]. We know of Raphael’s interest in decorative schemes from his work on the Stanze Rooms at the Vatican, where he and his colleagues deployed elaborate versions of the very newest grotesque inventions, and his partnership with Giovanni may have continued into other commissions, such as this.

Girolamo Siciolante of Sermoneta, Madonna & Child with saints & donor, 1548, San Martino, Bologna 

The  attribution of the manufacture to Andrea Marchesi, il Formigine (1480-90-d.1559), is based not only on the latter’s position as architect and woodcarver in Bologna itself, but on the evidence of, for instance, the amazing fortress-like altarpiece setting for the Madonna & Child with saints by Girolamo Siciolante of Sermoneta, which was commissioned by Marco Malvezzi in 1548 for the church of San Martino. This has an inner frame consisting of a flat frieze, a scrolling flowered and foliate pediment, and all-over surface decoration of finely-carved scrolling, undulating, and vertebrate foliate ornament, finished in gold on a blue ground: all of which is very close to the style and technique of the same elements in the St Cecilia frame.

Giovanni Barilli has also been suggested as the author of the frame, but there seems no reason for the Beata Elena to have chosen a Sienese carver about whom nothing is known, save for his being mentioned in connection with the Stanze by Vasari, when she had il Formigine and his son Jacopo on her doorstep. The attribution of the design of the St Cecilia frame to Raphael also seems exceedingly unlikely when there was imagination and skill of this order in the Marchesi family.

There are many more paintings by the workaholic Raphael than can be included here, and many more frames which have held each of them; this article presents a core of different settings for different kinds of work. It is always worth looking at the frames given to Raphael’s pictures to see what they may indicate about the museum or collector responsible for putting the two together.


Peter Schade, Head of the Framing Department, has worked in the National Gallery, London, since 2005. He is responsible for the frames of the more than two thousand paintings which make up the UK’s major collection of European art.


[1] Hugh Chapman et al., Raphael: from Urbino to Rome, exh. cat., National Gallery, 2004, cat. nos 18-19, pp. 104-05

[2] Vasari, Lives of the great artists, trans. Hinds, on Dello Delli

[3] See the Raphael Research Resource under the section for the Mond Crucifixon

[4] See more on symbolism in ‘Fruit, flowers, foliage: the symbolism of Renaissance frames’.  All the frames of the Mond Crucifixion can be seen in the Raphael Research project under ‘Images of frames’. The current garland frame was made by Arnold Wiggins & Sons 

[5] Chapman et al., op. cit., cat. no. 21, p. 109

[6] See ‘19th & 20th century Italian framemakers: articles in The Burlington Magazine’ 

[7] Raphael (Raffaello Santi)… Madonna and Child (Madonna Conestabile) 

[8] Chapman et al., op. cit., cat. no 32, p. 132

[9] For Bardini see ‘Framing relief sculptures’ and ‘Stefano Bardini: dealer, restorer and collector of frames

[10] For Zen see the Dictionary of 19th century antique and curiosity dealers, published online by the Regional Furniture Society, p. 191 

[11] Chapman et al., op. cit., cat. nos 33 and 34, p. 134-37

[12] Ibid., quoting from Gabriel-Jules, Comte de Cosnac, Les richesses du Palais Mazarin, Paris, 1885, p. 330: ‘n. 1177 – Raphael – un autre qui se ferme en deux en forme de couverture de cuir, d’un costé est représenté Sainct Georges à cheval qui combat avec le dragon, et dans l’autre Sainct Michel qui combat aussi un monstre, le tout faict par Raphaël

[13] See ‘Framing portrait miniatures in Paris and London’ 

[14] See the Raphael Research project for the provenance of both panels 

[15] Chapman et al., op. cit., cat. no 35, p. 140

[16] Ibid., cat. no 59, p. 190

[17] Ibid.

[18] Nicholas Penny, ‘Raphael’s Madonna dei garofani rediscovered’, The Burlington Magazine, 134, 1992, pp. 80

[19] See ‘19th & 20th century Italian framemakers: articles in The Burlington Magazine’ 

[20] Linda Wolk-Simon, Raphael at the Metropolitan: The Colonna Altarpiece, 2006, p. 32, quoting from the Visitationes Oddi, 1661, Archivio Diocesano, Perugia, by Marcantonio Oddi, Bishop of Perugia 

[21] Ibid., p. 21

[22] See, however, ibid., pp.19-21

[23] Ibid., p. 16

[24] Ibid., p.45; ‘…originale dj raffaelle d’urbino con sua cornice con fondo color dj noce, e riporti, e festoni intagliati dorati…’.

[24b] See ‘National Gallery, London: the reframing of Lazarus’ for the quoted references to the Transfiguration frame, which come from John Shearman, Raphael in early modern sources, vol.1; I am indebted to Sheryl Reiss for her help with these references 

[25] Ibid., p. 46

[26] Treccani Dizionario biografico degli Italiani, vol. 6 

[27] Key to Umbria 

[28]  Donal Cooper & Carol Plazzotta, ‘Raphael’s Ansidei altarpiece in the National Gallery’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 146, no 1220, November 2004, p. 720

[29] See the National Portrait Gallery, Directory of British Picture Frame Makers, under ‘C’ for James Criswick, Reginald Dolman having gone into partnership with James Criswick the younger in 1861/62 

[30] See under ‘Images of frames’, Raphael Research project, Ansidei Madonna 

[31] Chapman et al., op. cit., cat. no 74, p. 222

[32] With thanks to Carol Plazzotta

[33] Stefano Pierguidi, ‘In materia totale di pitture si rivolsero al singolar Museo Borghesiano: la quadreria Borghese tra il palazzo di Ripetta e la villa Pinciana’, Journal of the History of Collections, vol. 26, no 2, June 2014, pp.161-70

[34] Quoted in Raphael Research project under Provenance, from the inventory held in the Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Archivio Borghese, busta 470, fols 23-24: ‘Sopra le Porte […]. – Corradini’s no. 256 – Un quadro di s.ta Caterina cornice di noce tocca d’oro con ovili dorati, alto 2 ¾ largo 2 ¼. Raffaelle’

[35] Ibid., quoting from Jacomo Manilli, Villa Borghese, 1650, p. 112: ‘Nell’altro muro, sopra la porta, il quadro di S. Caterina Martire, è di Raffaelle’

[36] More about John Smith in ‘The clue is in the frame: or what a label can reveal’ 

[37] See David Rijser, ‘Tradition and originality in Raphael: The Stanza della Segnatura, the Middle Ages and local traditions’, in The quest for an appropriate past in literature, art and architecture, 2019, pp. 106-126 

[38] John Shearman, ‘The organization of Raphael’s workshop’, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, vol.10, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Centennial Lectures, 1983, p. 44; see also Chapman et al., op. cit., p. 284

[39] Arnold Nesselrath, ‘Raphael and Pope Julius II’ in Chapman et al., op. cit., p. 284, and see notes, p. 293

[40] For Ferruccio Vannoni (d. 1965), see ‘19th & 20th century Italian framemakers: articles in The Burlington Magazine’ 

[41] With thank to Gretchen Hirschauer, Curator of Italian and Spanish Paintings, National Gallery of Art, Washington

[42]1589 Inventario di tutte le figure, quadri et altre cose della Tribuna, cominciando da man destra della porta, da basso’, Biblioteca degli Uffizi, ms. 70, Fondazione Memofonte, p. 29: ‘Un quadro ritrattovi in asse in tondo una Nostra Donna col figliolo in braccio e San Giovanni con 4 canti di broccatello, sua cornice di noce tocco d’oro, alto braccia uno 2/3 e largo braccia uno 0/2, di mano di Raffaello, n. 1’


[43] For the ‘Medici’ or ‘Pitti’ frames, see Marilena Mosco, ‘Anthropomorphism and zoömorphism in the “Medici” picture frames’, Auricular Style: Frames 

[44] See the museum catalogue entry 

[45] Marilena Mosco, op. cit

[46] Ibid.

[47] See ‘Wilhelm von Bode: framing the Old Masters in Berlin’ 

[48] For Bardini, see note 9

[49] ‘Wilhelm von Bode…’, op. cit

[50] For some of Duveen’s craftsmen, see ‘19th & 20th century Italian framemakers: articles in The Burlington Magazine’, op. cit., notes 19 & 40 

[51] Ibid., quoting Karen Serres, ‘Duveen’s Italian framemaker, Ferruccio Vannoni’, The Burlington Magazine, May 2017, pp. 372

[52] See Alessandra Galizzi Kroegel, ‘“Make space for the great Raphael”: On the exhibition policies for Raphael’s masterpieces’,, March 2015, p. 4, fig. 5 

[53] Luitpold Düssler, Raphael: A critical catalogue of his pictures, wall-paintings and tapestries, 1971, p. 37

[54] Ibid., p. 40

[55] Düssler, ibid., notes that Giovanni da Udine painted the musical instruments abandoned at the bottom of the composition