Frames in paintings: Part 1 – Gothic, Renaissance and Mannerist

by The Frame Blog

How do we know how works of art were originally framed? The older they are, the more difficult it may be to find a firm and definitive answer. Of course, there are paintings which have remained in the same frame that they started out in – the odd altarpiece which hasn’t been downgraded, sold off, suffered from a fashion makeover (mediaeval to Renaissance; Renaissance to Baroque), lost its finish and most of its fragile twiddly bits, or been stolen by Napoleon’s troops and ended up rather surprised in an Empire moulding; family portraits in fairly untouched historic houses, which have held onto their frames whilst around them Titians and Holbeins have been dispatched to the framemakers of new owners; the contents of provincial museums, where less starry artists have moved in untouched tranquillity from private to public view.

Another resource is to look at what the painters themselves can tell us about the frames they saw around them – although, of course, with a wary eye on those who paint generic gold fluff around the pictures in the interiors they’re depicting, and on the fact that frames can continue to be made in the same style for a lot longer than fashion might decree.

Here, therefore, is the first part of a collection of paintings (very far from exhaustive) from various periods and countries which contain detailed depictions of framed works, and which can tell us something about the style of frame in churches, public buildings and houses at those times, and in those places. They might be frames which had already hung in the interior in question for a considerable time, or they might be brand new and avant-garde for the period, but they are of great help to those currently trying to give authentic settings to the paintings for which they’re responsible, or to anyone who wonders what really went around the art that they’re looking at.

A 12th century garland frame

12th century Roman School, The prophet Moses, one of a pair with The prophet Amos, c.1120-30, fragment of a fresco from San Nicola in Carcere, Rome; Pinacoteca, Musei Vaticani

This compilation starts with the 12th century, and a ‘framed’ tondo in fresco which was cut with its pendant from the interior of the church of San Nicola in Carcere, Rome. San Nicola was an early church, first constructed in the 6th century from Roman spolia and formally dedicated in 1128 – around the date of the fresco. It reveals that already, at this early period, the garland frame full of symbolic fruits was in use for sacred subjects, filched from the wreaths and festoons on classical sarcophagi or mosaic roundels, but interpreting each fruit with meanings applicable to the Christian era (for more on this subject, see ‘Fruit, flowers, foliage: the symbolism of Renaissance frames’).

The fruit here seem to include pomegranates (resurrection), apples (The Fall), poppy heads (transience) and vine leaves (the Eucharist). They are coloured fairly naturalistically, anticipating by more than three hundred years the garland frames modelled in glazed terracotta and sculptural realism by the Della Robbia dynasty. This fresco’d frame perhaps indicates that there may also have been early garlands carved in stone or wood, used to frame works in other media, but now lost.

Gothic altarpieces

Lippo Vanni (fl.c.1340-75), Trompe l’oeil polyptych of the Madonna & Child with saints, 1360s, fresco, and detail, Martinozzi Chapel, San Francesco, Siena. Photo: Sailko

There is then a leap to the 14th century and Lippo Vanni’s painted trompe l’oeil altarpiece on a church wall in Siena. It is quite well known, and – in spite of having been through fire and centuries – is still a splendid record of the structure, elements, proportions and carved ornaments of a Gothic polyptych. It has two tiers, lateral buttresses like little three-dimensional pointy towers with arched windows, and a predella panel with saints and a Pietà.

Much of the finish of the frame has disappeared, but the line drawing underneath has become excitingly visible: now, the metal plates (which in real life fixed the buttresses to the top of the altar, or here to the shelf above the predella) can be seen in all their perspectival glory, and the implied weight and size of a huge carved sculpture, which needs these supports at the sides to keep it standing up, can be properly realized. At the top of the altarpiece all the carved crockets and finials are still in place, showing what so many Gothic polyptychs have lost, and providing a pattern for their potential restoration.

Taddeo di Bartolo (1362-1422), San Gimignano enthroned with eight episodes from his life, 1401, tempera on panel, Palazzo Communale, San Gimignano

Thirty or so years later, in 1401, Taddeo di Bartolo provides a similar Gothic altarpiece, scaled down quite radically for private worship, for his Life of St Gimignano. Although the polyptych itself seems to have lost some of its outer elements (possibly a cornice at the top, a plinth at the bottom, and either some supportive pilasters or another moulding at the sides), the saint’s domestic altarpiece is evidently a complete triptych, with decorative lower moulding, slender columns, gables, crockets and finials. It is mounted on a purpose-made prie-dieu, before which the worshipper can kneel, commune with the Madonna and Child and supporting saints, and pray, and which has a slanted top for a bible or Book of Hours.

Arrangements like this would also have been a feature of many secular houses – perhaps with the altarpiece standing on a chest, with an ordinary stool before it – allowing for concentration on the painted image and an intimate form of communication with Christ, the Madonna or saints. From this kind of concentration and prayer, St Gimignano draws the strength for his particular talent for exorcising demons.

Masaccio (1401-28), The Holy Trinity, c.1426-28, fresco, 667 x 317 cm., Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Sixty years after Lippo Vanni’s trompe l’oeil Gothic altarpiece, Masaccio’s trompe l’oeil fresco of the Trinity within a classical Renaissance aedicular frame uses the structure of a triumphal arch, and lays out a pattern for carved giltwood altarpieces which would contribute to the change from a polyptych of many panels, often with a gold ground and a shallow space, to a realistic perspectival space which filled the whole pictorial surface and united in one depicted interior or landscape figures which had previously occupied individual niches, and been shown at different scales.

Gothic altarpieces would, however, continue to be represented in paintings through most of the 15th century, whilst in the 1430s the actual wooden and painted retables designed for the altars and high altars  of Tuscan churches entered a period of transition towards the pure classical form of a Greek or Roman temple – following Masaccio’s model – which they would take from the mid-century. Under this shift in style, from the late mediaeval to the true Renaissance, some Gothic polyptychs which were especially valued  by their congregations would have their outer frames altered and updated (see George Bisacca, ‘The rise of the all’antica altarpiece frame’). Others might be moved to a side chapel or the sacristy, where they could remain peacefully for decades or even centuries, whilst any available funds were dedicated to providing a new, avant-garde classical altarpiece for the vacant position.

Sassetta (fl.1427-d.1450), Borgo San Sepolcro altarpiece, 1437-44, tempera on panel, 600 x 500 cm.: reconstruction (reverse of structure) [1], showing episodes from the life of St Francis

In Siena fashion moved perhaps more slowly than it did in Florence, the birthplace of Brunelleschi and Donatello. For this monumental double-sided work, which took seven years to complete, Sassetta produced sixty panels, showing on the front the Madonna and Child with saints (including the Blessed Ranieri, over whose grave in the church of San Francesco in Borgo Sansepolcro the altarpiece was to be set); and on the reverse the patron saint of the church, St Francis in ecstasy, with eight scenes from his life. The altarpiece as a whole was still in full Gothic taste, having no truck with the seeds of innovatory classicism which were beginning to sprout just to the north, although each scene on the reverse was set in a realistic perspectival space and lit by a consistent light.

Sassetta, The funeral of St Francis and verification of the stigmataBorgo San Sepolcro altarpiece (lower tier of reverse, extreme right), 1437-44, 88.4 x 53.5 cm., and detail; National Gallery, NG4763

The last scene of St Francis’s life, showing his funeral, takes place before the high altar of his church; the retable on the altar is a triptych with the Madonna and Child and two saints, and small panels above showing the Salvator Mundi and two angels. It is in the same style as the real altarpiece of which it forms part, with shaped panels which have a gold ground (like the paintings on the other side – the front façade of the altarpiece), smaller panels mounted on the crests of the large arched panels, spire-like finials and curling crockets. Instead of a pictorial predella, there are black-painted panels with delicate arabesques in sgraffito, echoed in the shaped infills above the main tier. Every element is beautifully detailed, forming a model Gothic triptych in the decorative Sienese taste.

Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464), Seven Sacraments altarpiece, 1445-50, 200 x 223 cm., and detail of painted altarpiece within it, Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp

The same careful depictions appear in contemporary Northern painting; for example, Rogier van der Weyden’s Seven Sacraments altarpiece in Antwerp, created from 1445-50, immediately following Sassetta’s work for Borgo Sansepolcro. This is a triptych comprising one continuous pictorial space, with (as it were) three doors opening upon the interior of a lofty Flemish church, where the Crucifixion is taking place miraculously at the front of the nave.

Beyond it is the high altar, with the priest raising the Host at the moment Christ’s death occurs behind him; and on the altar is a carved and stepped retable (either of stone or wood), echoing the shape of the altarpiece in which it is painted, and full of figures of saints and bishops under traceried Gothic canopies. A pillar rises behind it, supporting a sculpture of the Madonna and Child which is probably carved in wood, and is painted and gilded. This sculpture can be enclosed by a series of shutters, painted inside with scenes from (?) the life of the Virgin, and is topped by a pendant three-dimensional spire of tracery. The whole thing is executed so faithfully, with so much volume and detail, that it could almost be reproduced just from this rather occluded view alone. It bears witness to the number of contemporary altarpieces in different or combined materials, overlapped by finishes in gilding and polychromy which could appear on both wood and marble, as well as on flat painted panels. It also shows how far from static these objects could be, as they responded to liturgical needs by opening or closing themselves up from public view (see also ‘An introduction to frames with covers, shutters and curtains. Part 1: Covers and shutters on sacred works’).

Master of the Life of the Virgin (fl. second half 15th century), Presentation in the Temple, c.1460-75, o/panel, 83.8 x 108.6 cm., and detail, National Gallery, NG 706

Northern paintings seem to show proportionally more carved stone altarpieces than their Italian counterparts, and in different styles. This is a panel from a German polyptych painted for the church of St Ursula in Cologne; it shows Christ being presented to Simeon before an altar with a beautifully detailed triptych (marble; possibly even alabaster) showing the sacrifice of Isaac in the central niche. The structure of tiered pillars, shaped arches, cornice and panels of pierced filigree is described so faithfully that it seems that (as in the Van der Weyden, above) it must have been copied directly from a real model.

Master of Mary of Burgundy (1438-93), Horarium in membrana nigra scriptum usui principissae destinatum, 1470, Flanders, ‘The Virgin Mary & a lady with her prayer book’, fol.14v., Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

Another example appears, although sketchier as on a much more minute scale, in the Hours of Mary of Burgundy. Here the altarpiece may be of stone picked out in gilding, or perhaps carved in wood and parcel-gilded. It is shut, and so the worshipper sees only the reverse of the shutters, carved with the suggestion of saints and filigree canopies under cusped arches; whilst the overall shape of the whole altarpiece is a large round arched ‘nave’ with two arched ‘aisles’ on either side.

Master of the St Catherine Legend (fl. c.1470-1500), The mass of St Gregory, o/panel, 15.6 x 9.5 cm., Metropolitan Museum, New York

The same form frames a much simpler triptych in the little Netherlandish panel, The mass of St Gregory, part of a polyptych from Brussels. Again, this is carved in stone, but with no ornament of any kind; it is composed of three plain arched niches holding figures, who seem to react like the real figures of St Gregory and his colleagues to the materialization of Christ Himself showing His wounds above the Eucharistic chalice in which wine is transubstantiated into His blood.

Master of Aachen (fl. second half 15th century), Scenes from the life of Mary, 1485, with detail of the Presentation in the Temple, Cathedral Treasury, Cathedral of Aachen

Although there are Italian Renaissance round-arched frames, they never seem to be grouped in this triptych form, like a collection of bubbles or naïvely-drawn hills. A variation appears in one of the tiered wings from an altarpiece in Aachen Cathedral, which depicts another Presentation in the Temple before an altar with what is probably a carved stone triptych again (but may be carved wood). This version has a central ogival arch between two bubble-arches, its point supporting a carved figure; it has decorative pillars, finials and crockets, and a predella which may be figural rather than ornamental. It is also partly polychromed, and may otherwise be gilded rather than made of a golden stone; once again it looks like a study of an actual altarpiece.

The wings which hold the Scenes from the life of Mary have, in each case, their own characteristically northern flat frames, painted red and enriched with floral motifs in mordant gilding.

Benozzo Gozzoli (c.1421-d.1497), fresco’d altarpiece of the Madonna & Child with saints, 1452, Sant’Agostino, Montefalco

Jacopo Zabolino di Vinciolo (fl.14440-95), fresco’d altarpiece of the Madonna & Child with SS Severus Paul Peter & Fortunato, Sant’Agostino, Montefalco

Back in Italy, the 13th-14th century church of Sant’Agostino in Montefalco (south and slightly to the east of Perugia) has two mid-15th century frescos showing further trompe l’oeil gilded Gothic altarpieces, both with the Madonna and Child enthroned between saints. The altarpieces stand against a landscape background, rural or urban on the lower tier, or set in an interior, whilst the figure of the crucified Christ rises up behind each of them, seen against a night sky filled with angels. Interestingly, both altarpieces have a depicted outer case, its backboard painted blue with gold stars in one case, and deep terracotta in the other. The cases are otherwise identical, and have trompe l’oeil canopies with plain inscribed cornices seeming to project forward of the altarpieces, one of which is hung with a faux curtain, drawn back to the side. Both cases also have sides which project forward, the effect being like the guardopolvos or dustguards around a Spanish altarpiece. Presumably many wooden Gothic altarpieces in and beyond Perugia would have had similar dustguards, which have failed to travel with them as they were moved from chapel to chapel, or sold abroad, or sequestered in the town museum.

The altarpiece in Jacopo Zabolino’s fresco has gold grounds behind the figures in their niches (which may also have been true of the other fresco), and so is hovering on the brink of the old-fashioned. Both are beautifully delineated, however, with their arches, roundels, tiers, and different approaches to crockets and finials. When they were new, they must have shone out with quite as much majesty as a carved giltwood altarpiece, and without any of the expense of a carver or of a gilder’s added punchwork or pastiglia ornament.

Sodoma (Giovanni Bazzi; 1477-1549),  St Benedict  gives posthumous absolution to two nuns, from Episodes from the life of St Benedict, c. 1505-08, fresco, and detail showing painted altarpiece, Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore

In the first decade of the 16th century Il Sodoma included one of the later representations of a Gothic altarpiece in an episode from the life of St Benedict, painted in the Great Cloister of the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. This is another gold ground triptych with the Madonna & Child and saints, set on an altar in the apse of the imaginary church, and provided with a curtain rail crossing in front of the altarpiece. The frame is quite detailed, with barley-sugar columns and cusped inner contours to the arches and pinnacles, as well as finials and crockets. This may be seen as a gesture to an historical setting for the 5th century monk, but also reflects the fact that Gothic altarpieces were retained in a great many places for a very long time.

Renaissance classicizing altarpieces in Italy and Spain

Piero della Francesca (c.1415-92), Resurrection of Christ, c.1470, mural, 225 x 200 cm., Museo Civico, Borgo San Sepolcro

However, the fashionable choice for donors and patrons was, from the second half of the 15th century, to follow where Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio (with his classically-framed fresco of The Trinity in Santa Maria Novella) had led. Here is Piero della Francesca’s majestic Resurrection of Christ in the Museo Civico of Sansepolcro (previously the town hall), with its own integral painted frame.

The original location of the work is uncertain (it was moved from elsewhere in the building, perhaps as early as the 16th century [2], possibly even from an outside wall [3]), and the frame itself, truncated as it is by the present configuration of vaults supporting the ceiling, has suffered so much from restoration and repainting over time that much of what can be seen now is a reconstruction based  on the steadily diminishing original [4]. The most recent restoration has revealed the areas executed day by day during the eighteen days which the artist spent on the painting, and the image from that analysis also reveals what is left of the original frame.  One of the close-up details of a cleaning test on the left-hand tree also shows the elaboration of ornament in the capital – the elongated curling acanthus leaves standing to attention, and the rounded volume of the astragal and fillet on which the capital sits.  Perhaps there was once also a decorated frieze and ornamental upper cornice completing the entablature, and balancing the predella panel at the base, with its lost inscription.

The trompe l’oeil aedicular frame of a Madonna and Child enthroned with saints, which fills the apse  of a whole chapel interior created by Benozzo Gozzoli in fresco, has survived in its entirety (although with considerable loss of colour compared with the Piero), showing what the entablature of the Sansepolcro Resurrection might once have looked like.

Benozzo Gozzoli (c.1421-97), Altarpiece of the Madonna della Tosse, 1484, from Shrine of the Madonna della Tosse, Castelfiorentino: now Museo Benozzo Gozzoli, Castelfiorentino. Photo: Sailko

This Altarpiece of the Madonna della Tosse also demonstrates what a tremendous asset an integral frame might be in organizing a sacred composition. Its survival as a complete structure is obviously dependent on its being just a part, although the main part, of a great programme extending outwards from the painted architectural niche in which it stands. This niche fills the width of the chapel wall, and opens onto a cosmic landscape beyond it. The altarpiece is surrounded by angels who lift up a vast concealing curtain (complete with curtain rings, apparently right round three sides of it), but behind them is sky, and the angels on either side stand on little clouds floating above a billowy green sea which washes round the back of the predella. This raises the intriguing possibility that the curtain is actually a long, slender drapery which does not fall down (as it appears to) behind the altarpiece, but that the latter is a hollow open doorway, beyond which and behind the Madonna and saints is more – and more celestial – sky.

The frame is (more overtly even than most altarpiece frames) an architectural opening between the worlds, with the denizens of heaven placed very close to the threshold (and in the case of St Paul, on the right, even crossing over it into the worshipper’s space). The illusionism continues with the face of Christ as Salvator Mundi painted on a little framed panel, which has apparently been propped on the shelf above the predella, and leans against the lower rail of the altarpiece. This gives two trompe l’oeil frames in one, and must have enhanced the realism of the scene when the colours were fresh and unfaded.

The main frame is different from Piero’s in having decorative pilasters rather than stone Corinthian columns, and a painted predella with donor shields. The structure of the aedicule with all its mouldings is very clearly defined and solid, in spite of the loss of colour, and evidently accommodated the mouldings of the carved stone altar table, which is also in the museum, adding further to the realism of this very surreal composition.

Filippino Lippi (c.1457-d.1504), The Assumption of the Virgin and Altarpiece of the Annunciation with Thomas Aquinas, 1489-91, fresco with integral stucco frame, Carafa Chapel, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome

Fourteen years after Gozzoli’s painted shrine, Filippino Lippi was commissioned to decorate the mortuary chapel of Cardinal Carafa in Rome. This is another interior (on a slightly grander scale) where overall scenes in fresco surround an altarpiece to the Virgin, this time of the Annunciation with the cardinal himself inserted into the event, along with Thomas Aquinas. Here, the frame does not punch through an entrance into the heavenly dimension, but provides a window onto an historic event which is always, as it were, happening in the mind of the worshipper; whilst an earthly landscape full of disciples from several decades after that event surrounds it, and they look up to the celestial ending of the Virgin’s life.  This complex of different times is mediated by a frame which is a stage between Benozzo Gozzoli’s painted version, and a free-standing carved wooden altarpiece placed before a fresco – like, for example, Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the shepherds in Santa Trinità, Florence.

Filippino Lippi, Altarpiece of the Annunciation with Thomas Aquinas, 1489-91

Filippino Lippi’s frame is attached to the fresco’d wall, and is an integral part of it; but it is made of moulded stucco, and so is almost as three-dimensional as Ghirlandaio’s. It is also bound to the image it holds, which is part of the same painted wall as the disciples; it reflects the architecture of the room where the Virgin, her angel, the Holy Ghost, and her uninvited guests, are all communing, and is – in even more ways than is usual for a frame – inseparable from the work it holds and from its context. It could be a deliberate metaphor for the necessity of a frame, created by the artist as a message to the careless future.

It also provides a very exact and clear pattern for a Renaissance altarpiece frame, with its vertebrate candelabrum ornament on the pilasters, and undulating chain of cherubs, leaf-buds and shields on the frieze. The extraordinary crest, with its fluted scrolls, profiles of Green Men, burning torches and central basket of fruit, couldn’t exist on a regular carved wooden frame without a backboard to support it; but here the airy dance of pierced ornament, hung with loops of husks, is set off against the length of drapery held up by the cherubs in the surrounding fresco.

Painted altarpiece and integral frame, Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral, Parma. Photo: with thanks to Marc O. Manser

Another, very different pattern for a Renaissance altarpiece frame is found in this life-size painting, in watercolour or body colour, of a complete polyptych, enshrined in its own outer classicizing frame. It includes meticulous studies of trompe l’oeil carved architectural mouldings, capitals, vertebrate candelabrum ornament on the pilasters, undulating arabesques on the frieze, and a pediment supported by Roman garlands, with the rosetted volutes copied in their frames by Donatello and Mantegna, for example.

A work like this might have been the solution for a less wealthy donor, group or guild – a whole framed altarpiece without the need to employ a carver or gilder, or the expense of erecting a large, heavy structure on an altarpiece; a polyptych complete in every part, from its pediment with the Holy Spirit, down to the inscribed predella panel. Perhaps there were many other paper altarpieces at one time, of which this is a fragile but lucky survivor.

Agostino Carracci (attrib.; 1557-1602), The last communion of St Francis, late 16th century, Dulwich Picture Gallery

Carracci sets his painting of the dying St Francis inside a Mannerist church, with a proto-Baroque Madonna on the altar, the frame of which (if we could see the top) would probably be less plain that its sides appear. It would – conjecturally – be a Michelangelesque structure, with outset corners and non-classical pediment, like the doorways on either side of the altar. There are few Mannerist altarpieces memorialized in paintings, and those in illuminated MSS are too fantastic for truth, so it’s a pity that this one is truncated at the top.

Fray Juan Sanchez Cotán (1560-1627), trompe l’oeil altarpiece frame with SS Peter & Paul, c.1618, Sala de Profundis, Monasterio de la Cartuja, Granada

Later, in roughly 1618, the Renaissance mutating into Mannerism is embodied in the extraordinary full-scale trompe l’oeil altarpiece frame which Juan Sánchez Cotán created for his painting on canvas of SS Peter and Paul on a wall in the Charterhouse of Granada. When the artist and art historian Antonio Palomino saw it in 1712, he described it as,

‘A marvellous thing, and the greatest achievement of the art of perspective’ [5].

It is a late interpretation of a Renaissance classicizing frame in the style of Philip II’s El Escorial, with free-standing columns on projecting pedestals, a canopy with a narrow coffered ceiling, a crest with the papal arms and acroteria finished with balls.

Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-73), The five orders of architecture, Venice, 1583 ed., engraved frontispiece, Accademia Nazionale di Scienze, Lettere e Arti, Modena

Nuria Jiménez, who has written the most recent and fullest study of Cotán’s astoundingly illusionistic frame (look at the shadows on the wall at the left), believes that it is based closely on the engraved frame of Vignola’s portrait in the frontispiece to the 1583 Venetian edition of his Five orders of architecture, and suggests that it was a copy of the latter work which Cotán owned, rather than Vignola’s Two rules of perspective, as is generally accepted [6]. She also mentions an altarpiece by Juan Gómez in the Escorial – the Martyrdom of San Bernabé – which Cotán may have seen, and the carved frame of which was also based on the Vignola frontispiece.

The painting which Cotán’s frame holds (or is the background for) is a physical canvas by him in a moveable frame, with an image of the two saints which has also been copied from a composition by another painter. The whole work is sited in a relatively small room, the Sala de Profundis, on a wall immediately outside the entrance to the refectory of the monastery, and the place where the monks prayed before eating (it is also used for laypeople to meet members of the community). Its position means that the use of a flat trompe l’oeil painting on the wall cuts down all the incursion into the available space which a real architectural frame would produce – pushing the altar and daïs much further forward – but without losing any of the monumental grandeur which such a frame conveys upon the altarpiece, and on the room itself. It is a case where the expression ‘tour de force’ can be used with complete accuracy, and it provides a peculiarly dynamic realization of a Vignolan design.

Renaissance altarpieces in the Netherlands

Flemish School, The consecration of a bishop, early 16th century, fragment of a polychrome retable, Museum of St Saviour’s Cathedral (Sint-Salvatorskathedraal), Bruges

This sculpture contains the nearest thing possible to an originally framed altarpiece, since it is a wood carving containing a miniature framed triptych, almost certainly made by a carver who produced his own full-scale frames for painted works. The tiny central panel – the decapitation of a saint – may, like the rest of the polychromy, have been executed by a painter with whom he worked.

The altarpiece is interesting in that it comprises a round-arched panel, while the two wings, rather than being halves of another round-arched form, are shaped as halves of an ogee arch, which would cover the pointed crest above the arch of the main panel if they could shut. The hinges of the triptych, crockets and predella are all faithfully reproduced; and – because the whole thing was made by a carver rather than on a flat surface by an artist – it is altogether the most authentic of surviving replicas.

Joos van Cleve (c.1485-1540/41), Annunciation, c.1525, o/panel, 86.4 x 80 cm., Metropolitan Museum, New York

The online entry for this Annunciation by Van Cleve notes that it is

‘one of the most important painted examples of what a domestic interior in early-sixteenth-century Antwerp must have looked like’, indicating that ‘from documentary evidence’ this ‘detailed depiction documents actual domestic interiors in Antwerp’.

Even so, the little triptych at the back, placed on a cabinet in illustration of contemporary inventorial evidence as it is, may be slightly more embroidered in its details than the carved wooden triptych in the Sint-Salvatorskathedraal sculpture.

Joos van Cleve, Annunciation, detail

Van Eyck (pre-1390-1441), Diptych of the Annunciation, c.1433-35, 39 x 24 cm. each, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza

It is very convincingly painted: the grisailles in their red borders on the outside of the shutters look back to the faux-marbre painted frames of, for example, Van Eyck’s Annunciation of around eighty years earlier, and the cusped ogee arch of these shutters and the inner red-gold frame are exact reproductions of so many in Netherlandish altarpieces. The shaped and inscribed predella, and the foreshortened open shutter, sill and painting within are equally well observed; and the only fantastic touch is in the filigree whirls of the crockets, which seem to have been lifted from designs for jewellery. Otherwise, as the Museum’s entry for the painting suggests, it provides very good evidence for the appearance of a domestic altarpiece in 16th century Flanders.

Illustrations of Gothic and Renaissance frames

Guillaume Hugueniot (fl.1465-72), ‘The Annunciation’, Heures de Pierre de Bosredont, c.1465, MS G.55 fol. iii v, vellum, written for the Grand Prior in the Champagne for the Knights of Rhodes, The Morgan Library

At the other end of the size scale from frescos and even easel paintings, representations of aedicular frames are found in illuminated manuscripts – as already demonstrated by the Hours of Mary of Burgundy. Here, as well as appearing on altarpieces in church interiors, they are used as the borders for texts, or to frame miniatures, as if they were complete painted altarpieces. This particular example, which seems to be a fantasy of baluster columns, scrolling pediment and apron, delicate drops and pierced foliate curlicues, and could pass at first glance for a mid-16th century Italian Mannerist frame, is more probably related to the vanished forerunners of the surviving early 16th century altarpieces made for the Confrérie du Puy Notre-Dame d’Amiens. It echoes the carved prie-dieu at which the Virgin kneels, and presents the whole scene as if it is a domestic altarpiece hanging in a private chamber; however, it is unlike the painted frames described above in that it is more a fantastic and eye-catching flourish than a realistic image of a frame.

Ioan Todeschino (fl. 14..-1503?), ‘St John the Evangelist’,  Horæ ad usum Fratrum Prædicatorum, or the Heures de Frédéric d’Aragon, 1501-02, vellum, 24.5 x 15.5 cm., Bibliothèque nationale, Paris (btv1b8427228, fol. 66)

The frame around (for example) the miniature of St John busily writing down his Revelations in the Heures de Frédéric d’Aragon is a much more believable representation of a cassetta with added cornice and plinth – at least, if the extraordinary outer frame of vase ornaments and jewelled brooches can be ignored.

The Rothschild Prayerbook, c.1505-10, Ghent or Bruges, and detail, Christie’s, 29 Jan 2012, Lot 157

The book of hours known as the Rothschild Prayerbook includes both miniatures of church interiors with altarpieces, and miniatures set into fantastic Gothicizing altarpiece-like borders. The illuminators were Alexander and Simon Bening, and Gerard Horenbout. This painting shows a shaped Flemish altarpiece in a gilded moulding frame with crockets, mounted a significant height above the altar, so that as much as possible of it can be seen by the congregation; the curtains around and behind it are drawn back for the service.

The Rothschild Prayerbook, c.1505-10, Christie’s, 29 Jan 2012, Lot 157

Another illustration has a wall-hung shrine with a polychrome figure sculpture (probably of the Queen of Heaven), mounted on the internal face of an arch and barely visible in perspective. Pulled out a little, the details of the carved giltwood filigree canopy and apron can be seen quite clearly, considering its tiny size.

The Rothschild Prayerbook, c.1505-10, Christie’s, 29 Jan 2012, Lot 157

Some of the framed miniatures are set in Gothic, portal-like structures like those illustrated from the two earlier books of hours; this one is supported by inner and outer buttresses full of niches with static sculpted saints, whilst more lively figures climb and pose amongst the pierced, cusped arches and little hanging platforms. These frames are halfway between realistic trompe l’oeil altarpieces and decorative imaginary borders. Inside this one, a more believable grey stone altarpiece can be seen, standing between its green curtains on an altar.

Giulio Clovio (1498-1578), ‘Adoration of the Magi’, Book of Hours (Manuscript Farnese), 1546, Rome MS M.69 fol. 38v, vellum, written for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, The Morgan Library

The difference between a framed picture painted on a wall or in a panel, and one painted in a book, soon forces itself on the attention; the scenes in frescos, painted wooden altarpieces and domestic panels are striving for realism even when they are depicting the celestial, whereas the miniatures in Books of Hours are there to focus the mind on the subject in a text, by the use of realistic scenes but also by tricks and sweeteners to hold the attention of the solitary contemplative. They may use the convention of a frame as a tapestry may also do, but they don’t provide credible patterns for physical carved giltwood frames in the same way that a fresco or a painting on panel or canvas usually does. There is a lot more going on in a church service to keep the attention focused, and the worshipper is actively involved, so the frame in these conditions is there to present the sacred images it houses in a way which conjures a vision of the Celestial Church within the building itself, rather than to hold the wandering mind.

Co-habiting styles

Carpaccio (c.1460-1526), The vision of Prior Ottobon: apparition of the ten thousand martyrs of Mount Ararat in San Antonio di Castello, 1515, o/c, 121 x 174 cm., detail, Gallerie dell’Academia, Venice. Photo: Sailko

Sometimes the changing times cause quite different visions of the Celestial Church to appear together – even side by side. In Carpaccio’s scene of ten thousand Christian martyrs materializing in the church of San Antonio di Castello (destroyed by Napoleon and now the site of the Venice Biennale), Gothic and Renaissance altarpieces are seen, unusually, close together. This gives two instances of gold ground polyptychs, with their predella panels, pinnacles and finials still in place – although without any apparent lateral buttresses – displayed, interestingly, against painted backboards rather than against the bare wall. The classicizing altarpiece alongside them is an architectural marble structure, with panels of differently-coloured inlays and an integral stone altar. It is built into the wall of the church, and has a decorated surround with sculptural roundels and shaped panels, and inscriptions which may be memorials.

All three co-exist in a way which may seem haphazard enough for reality, and the painting was in the collection of the church until 1807, so it is presumably an authentic record of fashions in altarpiece-framing across historical eras.

Early depictions of integral, engaged and simple frames for small panels

Fra Angelico (1395-1455), Pala di San Marco, 1438-43, tempera/panel, main panel: 220 x 227 cm., plus two small lateral panels, displayed after recent restoration, San Marco Museum, Florence

Other kinds of frames, apart from the aedicular sort – Gothic or Renaissance – were of course available from a very early period, and they begin to make themselves felt within paintings in the same way as their more ornate brothers. These are the ancestors of the frames we most commonly use today, with four identical rails (give or take a circular frame for a tondo painting or a small arched example), and are first depicted as a flat border or a frieze between minimal mouldings.

The earliest physical version of this type was an integral frame, formed out of the same piece of wood as the pictorial surface (which was excavated, leaving a raised border, sometimes with carved mouldings around it); then it became an engaged frame, where the border or elements of it were made separately, attached, and bound to the panel with an overlay of fabric, gesso and gilding; and finally it became the modern moveable frame of four rails into which the panel or canvas slipped and was fastened in such a way that it could be easily removed.

Fra Angelico, Pala di San Marco, 1438-43, detail of Crucifixion pax

An early instance of this kind of frame in a painting is that of the Crucifixion pax, poised in front of Fra Angelico’s Pala di San Marco just at the point where it would appear to sit on the vanished frame, exactly as with Benozzo Gozzoli’s panel of Christ’s face in the Altarpiece of the Madonna della Tosse, above. This is an example of an integral frame, made all in one piece with the panel it surrounds and gesso’d and gilded overall. It casts a shadow and a reflection of its shining surface on the bottom edge of the painting, and the shadow may have continued over the original physical frame of the altarpiece in a further piece of trompe l’oeil. The predella panels, now scattered, included an entombment of Christ which would have been placed directly beneath the Crucifixion, and possibly the carved giltwood inner frames of this and the other predella panels would have reflected the painted frame of the pax.

Turning to the miniatures in illuminated MSS again, it is possible to see various representations of these framed panels being painted. These are notably in the copies of Boccaccio’s De claris mulieribus, which includes amongst its Famous women the stories of the classical artists, Thamaris and Marcia.

Giovanni Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus, translated into French as Livre que fist Jehan Bocace de Certalde des clères et nobles femmes, lequel il envoia à Audice de Accioroles de Florence, contesse de Haulteville, 1401-1500, fol. 86 recto: Thamaris painting the Madonna & Child, and detail; Bibliothèque nationale de France

Thamaris was an ancient Greek artist, who painted an image of the goddess Artemis which was treasured for a long time by her worshippers (although in the miniature above, the virgin Artemis has become the Christian Virgin). The panel here can be seen in some detail – its thickness, with the carved-out picture surface; the red bole or gilder’s clay which is painted over the whole object, including the sides; and the gilding which covers the front face, including the framing border. There is even a metal hanger already in place. The inscribed haloes of Mother and Child may also indicate punchwork in those details and probably also on the frame.

Giovanni Boccaccio, Des  clères et nobles femmes (De claris mulieribus in an anonymous French translation), Paris, 1st quarter 15th century, illustrated by the Master of Boethius, Royal 20 C V, fol. 90 recto: Thamaris painting the goddess Artemis; British Library

In another depiction of Thamaris, she is actually painting Artemis as Artemis, but appears to be doing it straight onto an unprepared oak panel (or perhaps the gesso is just rather grubby, or Thamaris has painted it with a wood-grain finish). The carved-out border has become more sophisticated, with a stepped moulding down to the painting surface, whilst the whole piece is dominated by the large raised ogival arch on top, pierced with a hole for hanging it.

Giovanni Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus, translated into French as Livre que fist Jehan Bocace de Certalde des clères et nobles femmes, lequel il envoia à Audice de Accioroles de Florence, contesse de Haulteville, 1401-1500, fol. 101 verso: Marcia painting her self-portrait, and detail; Bibliothèque nationale de France

Marcia, daughter of the Roman Varro, both painted and carved in ivory, and was most noted for the famous self-portrait for which (in the 15th century illustrations) she used a hand-held looking-glass, the only commonly available glass at the time. Her wooden panel is also shown in three-dimensional clarity, with its (quite deep) framing border. This is only gesso’d, not gilded, however, which may suggest that Marcia will paint it, too – possibly with a faux stone finish, like Van Eyck’s frames.

Giovanni Boccaccio, De claris mulieribus, translated into French as Des clères et nobles femmes, c.1450, p. 40: Marcia painting her self-portrait, and detail; MS 33, Spencer Collection, New York Public Library

In a mid-15th century version of Marcia and her self-portrait, the frame is different again. It has grown two ornamental mouldings: a raised astragal at the top edge and one at the sight edge, with a cavetto or hollow down to the painting surface; the whole border is probably gilded. The early tray-like shape, with a lowered area for the picture and a higher flat edge to protect it, develops fortuitously into a conventional decorative frame in this disparate collection of MSS miniatures, like a sort of animated history of the previous two centuries.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (1448-94), The announcement of death to St Fina, 1477-78, Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano

Returning to framed paintings in frescos, the room in which St Fina is visited on her deathbed by the angel-borne Pope Gregory has a framed quotation of the pope’s words hanging on the back wall. It could easily be a framed sampler, hanging on a wire from a nail in a Victorian parlour; the moveable cassetta is a familiar old friend by the late 1470s, adaptable to different shapes and uses.

(Left) Perugino (1448-1523), Self-portrait, 1496-1500, Sala delle Udienze del Nobile Collegio del Cambio, Perugia; (right) Pinturicchio (c.1452/54-1513), Self-portrait, 1501, Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello. Photo of latter: with thanks to Peter Schade

By the turn of the 16th century, artists were using the example of Marcia and her self-portrait as their seal on a scheme of frescos – more than a signature, a complete identification in a giltwood ‘frame’ with a carved profile of choice, above a (framed) name plaque, and even with a decorative form of hanging. Perugino’s frame is notable for its very clearly defined moulding – a central ogee which is deeply cut on the outer side, where it is tight against the flat top edge: a profile which turns up on so many 15th century sacred panels, often with a rainsill at the bottom.

Lucas Cranach the elder (1472-1553), Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as St Jerome in his study, 1526, o & tempera/panel, 115 x 79 cm., Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota

A plain architrave frame holds a Madonna & Child in this slightly later interior by Cranach; the interesting aspect of the painting is the way it is hung on the wall next to the window, but very slightly projecting beyond it into the window niche. This is probably not something which would be seen today, and there seems to be no compelling reason for it; the panel isn’t better lit, and it is less well protected by sticking out like that. There’s a lot of room to its left, and the Cardinal could still see it quite easily if it were shifted along a few inches. Perhaps it hangs from an old hook, positioned for a narrower painting?

Fernando del Rincón (b.1460), Miracle of SS Cosme and Damian, c. 1510, o/panel, 188 x 155 cm., and detail with Madonna tondo, Museo del Prado

Other forms of frame and an increased use of ornament were also burgeoning. Here is a Spanish Madonna & Child in a tondo frame, represented in quite detailed fashion with its two concave mouldings, separating fillets, outer contour of beads, and punchwork texture. It is displayed on a wall covered with embossed gilded leather, as if to give a worthy setting within a domestic interior for the image of the Madonna, and produces the effect of a heavenly vision appearing in an aureole to oversee the two saints beneath her.

Jean Bourdichon (1457-1521), St Luke from the Horae ad usum Romanum, or Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne, 1503-08, fol. 19v, Bibliothèque nationale

Bernard Van Orley (c.1492-1541/42), Trompe l’oeil with painting of the Man of Sorrows, reverse of the Birth of John the Baptist, 1514-15, o/panel, 63.5 x 76.2 cm., Metropolitan Museum, New York

Small arched panels might also be depicted, giving what must be quite faithful depictions of sacred images designed, like the tondo above, for domestic settings, or for private places of worship in convents and monasteries. Like the illustrations of Thamaris painting Artemis/the Virgin, or Marcia painting her self-portrait, these frames might also include more or less elaborate hangers (a metal ring on St Luke’s panel, and an integral carved element on a hook for the Man of Sorrows). Both these panels have quite deep mouldings with a rainsill at the base.

Frames in secular paintings

Giovanni Cariani (c.1485- post 1547), Portrait of a man holding a framed portrait of a woman, c.1510-15, o/c, 69.9 x 59.1 cm., Freeman’s Auctions, 14 June 2016, Lot 32

This is an early 16th century Venetian portrait within a portrait, a composition which usually signifies that one partner of the two sitters has died: in this case, the woman might have been the betrothed of the man, dying before marriage, the short-lived new bride, or the wife who died in childbed. Her portrait is framed in a walnut cassetta with finely-cut astragal mouldings, and a deeply-stepped sight edge with echoing mouldings. The frame, in fact, has been painted with even more attention than has been given to the rather cursory profile inside it; the shadows and changing colour and tone from top to bottom have been meticulously carried out, even to the suggested mitre in the top right-hand corner.

The little portrait may not have been painted to scale, but if it were, the size indicates a portable picture which could be put into a protective bag and carried about with the owner, ready to be propped on a cabinet or table in any room; the romantic version of the portable sacred painting.

Bernardino Licinio (1489-1565), Portrait of a widow with that of her dead husband, c.1525-28, o/c, and detail, Pinacoteca del Castello Sforzesco, Milan

Another version of this type of memorial portrait (one for which there has been a great call through centuries of ill-health and early deaths) was painted a decade or two later by Licinio. This frame is far less detailed – raised mouldings on either side of the gently concave rails are only suggested – but again it seems to be made of walnut: whether because this was the wood commonly used for family portrait frames in northern Italy, or for mourning portraits, or because at that time a gilded frame might have indicated a higher rank, or have been reserved for sacred paintings, is unclear.

Dirck Jacobsz. (1496-1567), Jacob van Oostsanen painting his wife Anna, c.1530-50, o/panel, 62.1 x 49.4 cm., Toledo Museum of Art

This may be a memorial portrait of both sitters by their son, since his father, Jacob, died in 1533, and his mother Anna a few years later. Both parents – equally realistically present – regard the viewer (who must also have been their son, when he was painting it), creating a sort of collision of existential layers of time, like a sort of cross-section of the multiverse. The frame, however, lacks comparative realism, especially when seen in conjunction with Cariani’s and Licinio’s: its perspective isn’t the same as that of the easel ledge which supports it, and it is far too weedy to contain a panel deep enough for the size of the mother’s portrait. It has evidently been reduced to an unbelievably narrow and shallow moulding in order to reveal the back of the easel, making clear the fact that the startlingly trompe l’oeil face of the mother is a painting, and not a face at an open window.

Georg Pencz (c.1500-50), Portrait of the Nuremberg goldsmith, Jakob Hofmann, 1544, o/c, 134 x 105 cm., Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, Germany

Georg Pencz’s painting contains not another memorial portrait but a convincing reflection of the sitter’s profile in a looking-glass, set into a little aedicular frame of gold (or perhaps silver-gilt or gilded bronze) which advertizes Hofmann’s skill as a goldsmith. It is the equivalent of portraying a sculptor with a marble bust, or a painter at his easel (like the previous work), and it is unusual in having such a 19th century air of reality about the reflection in the glass, and also about the style of the frame, that this part of the portrait might have been painted by Alma-Tadema [7].

The frame is deep and weighty, with far more depth than the frame in the Van Oostsanen double portrait; it even has an inner black frame holding the mirrored plate – possibly of black stone, as this is a goldsmith’s work (jasper, basalt, marble or onyx?), or perhaps ebony – which is stepped and canted. The whole thing is like a little portable altarpiece, save that here the god is vanity. The pediment holds a palmette, instead of a divinity, and the friezes at top and bottom hint at inscriptions. Strangely the hanger seems to be a loop of hide, rather than metal. The preciousness of the frame is connected with the development of flat plates for looking-glasses in Germany, which had been sought after since Theophilus Presbyter’s On divers arts of the 12th century, followed by the creation of a guild of looking-glass makers in Nuremberg in the later 14th century [8]. Flat rectilinear mirrored plates were being produced by the mid-15th century, but this painting is perhaps the earliest surviving depiction of one of them (rather than a round hand-glass) in a painting.

Catharina van Hemessen (1528-post-1587), Self-portrait, 1548, o/c, 33 x 26.5 cm., The State Hermitage Museum

From memorial portraits and paintings of other artists is a short step to the self-portrait, and there have been enough of these executed through the centuries to demonstrate that a large percentage of artists like to finish a picture in the frame, in order to get the balance of tone and colour with those of the border correct. It is proof, if any were needed, that those artists at least regard the frame as an inseparable part of the complete work of art, since the process of painting has incorporated it with the image itself.

Catharina van Hemessen is working on a panel or canvas in a frame with a deeply canted profile and linear mouldings, and a correspondingly deep and flat back edge. Like Hofmann’s golden frame, it has a substance and solidity (if rather wobbly) at the other end of the scale from the Van Oostsanen frame. Its finish is rather mysterious, however; it hasn’t been gilded and isn’t made of ebony or pearwood, so it must either have been painted grey or is still ‘in the white’ – i.e. its coat of gesso is waiting until the painting is complete to be gilded. The artist reveals another advantage of working on a picture in the frame – it makes it easier to use a mahl stick to support the painting hand if there’s a place to rest the end of it, such as on the edge of a frame.

Mannerist frames in paintings

Example of a ‘Sansovino’ frame on Titian (fl. 1506-d.1576), Portrait of a Girolamo Fracastoro, c.1528, o/c, 84 x 73.5 cm., National Gallery NG3949

Happily (and rather unexpectedly) there are a few representations in paintings of the ‘Sansovino’ frame, all originating in the Veneto, close to the origins of the style itself, and – in the case of Battista Zelotti [9] –  adding some more varied Mannerist designs (Mannerism being the 16th century’s dynamic and playful distortion of classical proportions, and the use of exaggerated ornaments and counterpointed geometrical shapes).

Battista Zelotti (1526-78), The choice of Hercules, 1561-65, fresco above the door, the Great Hall, Villa Godi Malinverni, Vicenza. Lower photo: Web Gallery of Art

Zelotti was employed to paint frescos in some of the villas built by Palladio in and around Vicenza, where he worked occasionally with Alessandro Vittoria, the Venetian stuccoist. Vittoria was inspired by earlier stuccowork in the Château de Fontainebleau to create ceilings framed by massive sculptural scrolls, clasps, festoons of fruit and other outsize architectural ornaments in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice (from 1559). Zelotti’s frescos – which usually covered whole interiors – married Palladian architecture and Mannerist ‘paintings’ with trompe l’oeil frames, uniting the various influences in which he swam into a magnificent gallery of gilded settings. The painted frame of his 1560s Choice of Hercules in the Villa Godi Malinverni has a lot in common with the giltwood frame (1560-80) of the Titian portrait (above) in the National Gallery, from the open swan’s neck pediments, festoons of fruit, lateral scrolls, vestigial bits of pilasters and pedestals, to the three-dimensional scrolling clasps centred with mascarons.

Battista Zelotti (1526-78), St Jerome in the desert, 1564-66, fresco above the door, Room of Venus, Villa Emo Capodilista, Fanzolo

There are equally striking trompe l’oeil frames in the Villa Emo, Fanzolo, between Castelfranco Veneto and Montebelluna. For example, the frame of Zelotti’s St Jerome, which has elements of a graphic cartouche underlying the Sansovinesque style, while the gigantic sculptural scrolls clasping the centres of the rails, along with the use of egg-&-dart and the draped head at the top, are direct quotes from Alessandro Vittoria’s ceiling stuccos in the Palazzo Ducale.

Battista Zelotti (1526-78), Ecce Homo, Room of Jupiter & Io, and Holy Family, Room of the Arts, overdoor frescos, Villa Emo Capodilista, Fanzolo

Further examples in the Villa Emo – notably those belonging to the two overdoor paintings of Christ as the Man of Sorrows and The Holy Family – include very accurately observed Mannerist frames: this particular couple share shallow fluted tympani, enriched architectural mouldings, and festoons of fruit. They sit against faux stone niches composed of round-headed arches inside broken triangular pediments, in a very Michelangelesque pile-up of warring portals.

Titian (fl. 1506-d.1576), Jacopo Strada, 1567-68, o/c, 126 x 95.5 cm., Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Here is another portrait of a man who, like Pencz’s  Jakob Hofmann, is himself involved in making things. He is, in fact, another goldsmith, but also an architect and a dealer in antiquities; so the framed inscription on the wall above his shoulder is, in a sense, his shop sign.

‘JACOBVS DE STRADA CIVIS ROMANVS  CAESS. ANTIQVARIVS ET COM. BELIC. AN. AETAT LI ET C. MDLXVI’, it says, which translates as ‘Jacopo Strada, Roman citizen, antiquary and minister to the [Holy Roman] Emperor, aged 51 in 1566’.

Whilst he is caught in the act of pressing a classical sculpture on some innocent client, this sign is not similarly classical; it is in full-throttled Sansovinesque style, formed completely from scrolls which curl in every direction and are enriched with ornament, and pierced and threaded with other mouldings. At the top and bottom centres are a male mascaron and a tête espagnolette, the latter trailing two festoons, and the whole thing is finished in an especially rich and glossy red gold. Like the four rows of Belcher chain which Strada wears, his fine linen chemise, pink silk top, velvet doublet and casual fur, the frame projects his successful, fashion-conscious, avant-garde persona.

Venetian School, A woman dressed as Cleopatra, second half 16th century, o/c, 146.5 x 126 cm., and detail, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

The richly caparisoned (so to speak) woman and bedroom in this painting emphasize the fashionability of the ‘Sansovino’ frame for a looking-glass, as well as for a picture or inscribed panel. In this case, it seems to have been made en suite with the thronelike armchair in which the woman sits (asp clasped negligently in hand), since it shares details such as the rosettes decorating the volutes in its apron with those carved at the top of the sides of the chair and seen in profile, the daisy-shaped nailheads which fasten the leather upholstery to those side posts, and the quatrefoil rosettes on the arms. It also has a tête espagnolette in the centre of the apron, reflected in the tiny masks on the finials of the chair and the grotesque profile held in a volute on its one visible foot, peeping out behind the silk skirt. The winged female caryatides (or angels) may also be echoed in the cherub’s head on the arm of the chair.

There were cassoni or household chests in ‘Sansovino’ style, just as there were stuccowork ceilings, panelling, and bibelots such as hand-glasses and jewellery (see, for example, the designs of Étienne Delaune). There were also embossed and gilded or coloured leather hangings for the wall, which seems to be the case in this painting – the gilded ‘Sansovino’ frame in this picture hangs on a wall covered with leather stamped or painted with a design of scrolling cartouches and masks, showing that it is only one object in a whole Mannerist interior, and adding to the sense of its accurate depiction.


[1] Credit for image: reconstruction by Machtelt Israëls, James R. Banker, Roberto Bellucci, Rachel Billinge, George Bisacca, Ciro Castelli, Cecilia Frosinini, Christa Gardner von Teuffel, Babette Hartwieg, Elisabeth Ravaud, Andrea Santacesaria, Carl Brandon Strehlke, Dominique Thiébaut, Serena Urry et al. Three-dimensional drawing by Andrea Santacesaria, Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence. Rendering by Giacomo Tenti, Culturanuova, Arezzo. © Villa I Tatti, The Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies: see the Harvard Magazine for November/December 2009.The reconstruction was undertaken and illustrated for the book Sassetta: The Borgo San Sepolcro Altarpiece, ed. Machtelt Israëls, 2009; the drawing has been further adapted here (with apologies) with clearer images of the painted panels

[2] The history blog, 1 December 2014

[3] Redazione ANSA, 28 March 2018

[4] See Antonio Carnevale’s interview with Umberto Senserini of Florence’s Opficio delle Pietre Dure, who worked on the restoration of the painting from 2015-18, CFArts, 11 December 2015

[5] Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco (1655-1726), in El museo, pictórico y excala óptica, 1724, quoted by Nuria Martínez Jiménez, ‘“A marvellous thing, and the greatest achievement of the art of perspective”: The trompe l’oeil altarpiece by Fray Juan Sánchez Cotán in the Cartuja, Granada’, in La pintura ilusionista entre Europa y América, José Manuel Almansa Morena, et al., eds, Universo Barroco Iberoamericano, 2020, pp. 69-84

[6] Ibid., pp.79-80

[7] Most early paintings which show reflections in looking-glasses do so at completely bizarre angles, which have no truck with either nature or trigonometry

[8] See ‘An introduction to frames with covers, shutters and curtains. Part 3: Curtains and covers on secular paintings and looking-glasses

[9] Zelotti’s trompe l’oeil frame for his Choice of Hercules is pointed out in The Sansovino frame, by Nicholas Penny, Peter Schade & Harriet O’Neill, exh. cat., National Gallery, 2015. See also ‘Frames in focus: Sansovino frames – an exhibition at the National Gallery, London