Reframing the Renaissance: Museums and Madonnas

How do museums deal with unsuitably framed and unframed paintings? Two solutions from the V & A and the National Gallery, London.

V & A 1 Completed red ground sm

Carlo Crivelli (c.1430/35-c.1494/95), Virgin and Child, tempera on panel, c. 1480, in replica frame. V & A, Museum no. 492-1882

Over the centuries many paintings have become divorced from their original frames – more especially mediaeval and Renaissance altarpieces. In the 19th century in particular these were bought by collectors and dealers, broken up (if polytychs) into the individual panel paintings of which they were constructed, and exported, naked and unframed. Some of them were given custom-made Victorian interpretations  of the frames they might have had originally; some of them were framed in whatever came to hand; but in the 20th and 21st centuries, these solutions appear less and less satisfactory from a viewpoint which is interested in context and historical authenticity.

When the V & A acquired this Virgin and Child by Crivelli in 1882, it had no frame, and has most recently been displayed in an aedicular frame made up of antique and modern elements, which had come into the Museum in the 1930s. With the renovation of the Mediaeval and Renaissance Galleries in the V & A, there was an impetus to display the painting in a more suitable setting than this, since ‘the proportions were very heavy and did not complement the painting well’ [1].

Crivelli Madonna della Rondine N0724 sm

Carlo Crivelli (c.1430/35-c.1494), Madonna della rondine, after 1490, National Gallery, NG724

Works of art in London relevant as references for reframing Crivelli’s paintings include, most importantly, the National Gallery’s spectacular Madonna della Rondine in its original aedicular setting. This is a large altarpiece, the main panel of which – the sacra conversazione – is 59 ¼ ins (150.5 cms) high, whereas the V & A’s Virgin and Child is a small devotional image, only just over 19 ins (48.5 cm) high. Both, however, are images of the Madonna clad in Crivelli’s characteristically rich and detailed brocades, set in a shallow space, with symbolic fruits and flowers inserted in a slightly surreal way into the pictorial setting; images in which the highly ornamental nature of the composition would be echoed, as in the case of the Madonna della rondine, by the ornament all’ antica of the aedicular frame. Another relevant work in the National Gallery is Bellini’s Doge Leonardo Loredan, in a frame which, while neither original to the picture nor entire, is contemporary[2], and also (as Crivelli and Bellini were) from Venice.  Both the small-scale structure and decoration of this frame are indicative of the style in which the V & A’s Virgin and Child might originally have been framed.

The V & A had no suitable frame in their collection of the right size for their Madonna; however they did have in store a slightly too large, rather battered aedicule of the right period and style, in which every frieze and pilaster surface was intricately patterned with low-relief decoration, like the frame on the National Gallery’s Bellini, and in which the original polychromy was still visible, in a style reminiscent of the Madonna della rondine.

V & A 1 Blue on original frame sm

15th century aedicular frame in the collection of the V & A: detail of dentils and foliate frieze on the base

The Furniture Conservation studio decided to make a scaled-down replica of this frame. Whilst its style and decoration were admirably suited to the Crivelli Madonna, reproducing it would allow the structure to be given the right proportions for the painting – and reducing the frame itself would have been almost impossible, as well as undesirable, given that this was as much an original work of the Renaissance as the painting. The replica would be made almost as it would have been in the workshops of, for example, Jacopo da Faenza, the contemporary craftsman who carved the large triptych frame for Bellini’s altarpiece in the church of the Frari, Venice. The preliminary drawings, however, were produced from digital images of the model, scaled down proportionately by 10%.

V & A 2 Construction 1 sm

Building the carcase and applying the carvings

The basic construction of the frame was completely traditional, although an Asian hardwood called jelutong was used rather than native Italian woods such as poplar, pine, walnut or chestnut. Jelutong is not an endangered species, and it has a fine grain and low density, suitable for carving fine details. The overall structure was assembled using traditional wooden dowels, rather than nails, and fishskin glue, and then the hand-carved elements were applied – the capitals, dentils, and the beads/ astragal-&-bead on the entablature and base (the beads at the sight edge were moulded).

V & A 3 Woodwork complete & capitals sm

Woodwork complete (showing the capitals inset), with the moulded masks mounted on the pilaster plinths

All the low-relief decorative detail was also moulded; in the Renaissance this could have been in pastiglia, made from ‘plaster of Volterra’ (our plaster of Paris, gypsum or chalk) and animal glue (see section on pastiglia here: scroll down). Other alternatives were also available: pasta di riso, or a moulding material based on ground rice, and carta pesta (papier mâché) – although, given the comparative price of paper, this is less likely. Another option is the decoration of the Bellini frame mentioned above; this is executed in a more liquid gesso, dripped, applied by brush, or piped (like cake icing) onto the wooden surface.

V & A 4 Mould and cast  sm

The frame with moulded ornament applied to the sight edge & inner frieze; inside, the yellow mould for the pilaster ornament, with the cast taken from it, above

The V & A Furniture Conservation team used moulded compo (or composition) for their Crivelli frame; this is a later variant on pastiglia, common in European framemaking from the late 18th century, and includes linseed oil and resin in its ingredients. Moulds for the ornament, which these days are made from dental impression material rather than carved wood or clay, were taken from the original aedicular frame being used as the model; the three masks on the pilaster plinths and predella panel of the base just fitted the scaled-down structure of the Crivelli frame, but – since the new frame was only 90% the size of the model – the ornamental panels at top and base and on the pilasters needed to be adjusted slightly. This was done by cutting out material at the junctions of decorative elements, and joining them with free-hand modelling.

V & A 5 Gessoed & ungessoed areas sm

Gessoing the carved wooden elements; the moulded pilaster panels ungessoed

The moulds picked up every detail of the ornamental panels on the model; this included the fine punchwork on the background, which would originally have been executed by hand after the frame had been gilded. This meant that when the carved wooden parts of the frame were covered with size and then with a layer of liquid gesso, to smooth the surface and prepare it for gilding, the moulded panels were left bare, to avoid clogging the punchwork and other details. The gessoed areas were then rubbed down with very fine-grade sandpaper.

V & A 6 Details of bole & colour test sm

Details with yellow bole; red bole; sheet of colour tests for bole inset

The next stage was preparing the surface to be finished with gilding. Gold leaf is adhered to a surface painted with bole, or gilder’s clay, diluted with animal glue; when dry this is burnished to a smooth glossy finish. Bole is more commonly known in its red form, which gives warmth to the leaf and gradually emerges through worn gilding over time; however there are other colours, such as the blue-grey bole used on – for example – early 19th century British frames, when the Napoleonic wars prevented the import of red bole. The two shades used in this case were yellow, followed by red; this combination meant that there would be a very slight variation of tone between the warmer and cooler areas of the ornament, and that the cooler yellow bole would underlie the parts to be painted blue.

V & A 7 Polishing & sizing bole sm

V & A 8 gilding sm


The frame was gilded all over with leaf gold in its purest form – that is, unalloyed gold is 24 carat, and the gold leaf used on the replica Crivelli frame was 23 ¾ carat – so that the finish was as close as possible to that used by Renaissance craftsmen.

V & A 9 Application of blue sm

Applying blue paint

Blue paint was then matched to the polychromy on the 15th century model, and applied to details of the dentils, the capitals and the ground of the three masks. This shade would also harmonize with the ultramarine in the sky of the Crivelli painting.

V & A 11 Distressing & toning sm

The gilded frame, distressed across the predella panel at the base, bright elsewhere, with a comparative toned/ untoned area inset

This was not the final stage of the finish, however: gilding is almost intolerably bright when applied in a unbroken veil, and needs to be softened for modern interiors with their uniform, brilliant lighting – so different from the pools of candlelight which would have illuminated a private altar at the end of the 15th century. The gilding on the Crivelli frame was first distressed with bristle brushes, to simulate the wear and tear of time, and then toned with a translucent wash of dark pigment, reproducing the patina of age.

V & A 12 Microclimate access & batteries sm

Completed frame, showing access to the monitoring system (top) & the batteries behind the gilt beads at the sight edge (below)

All these stages (except for the distressing) would have been recognized by the creators of the original frame – the model; they would not, however, have recognized the electronic secret inside the body of the frame. The V & A, unlike the National Gallery, does not have any control over its internal atmosphere and the climate in which its collection exists. So the replica Crivelli frame was constructed with a monitoring system for its own microclimate, which would be created as soon as the painting was sealed into the frame; this will continuously check the humidity and the temperature inside the Madonna’s small world.

V & A 1 Completed red ground sm

Carlo Crivelli, Virgin and Child, c. 1480, in completed replica frame

This replica frame for the Crivelli is one solution to the problem of reframing paintings which have lost their original settings; it is also a testament to the care and craftsmanship of the V & A’s Furniture Conservation department. Reproducing a frame in this way, to traditional methods (as far as possible), is a labour- and time- intensive process; any flaw will also become more visible with the passage of time (in other words, it is easier to date reconstructions as years go by and they appear more visibly products of their own era). However, this provides a (literally) tailor-made solution in an appropriate style, which is individually adapted to the painting it contains, and presents it in the best possible way if no original frame is available. The Virgin and Child glows out from its intricately- patterned gilded setting, the areas of polychromy giving it balance and unity, and the multiple runs of shallow ornament echoing the Madonna’s painted brocades.

Another solution for an unhappily-framed painting is to wait (perhaps for many years) for the perfect piece to emerge, like a fairy-tale prince, onto the market; yet a third is to look out for a prince who may be in disguise…


Luca Signorelli (c.1440/50-1523), The adoration of the shepherds, c. 1496, 84 10/16 x 67 ins (215 x 170.2 cm), National Gallery. NG113

The National Gallery purchased this large altarpiece by Signorelli in 1882. It comes from Città di Castello, where Signorelli was very active – specifically from the church of San Francesco, a church which was remodelled in the Baroque style during the first quarter of the 18th century. It was probably at that point that The adoration… was acquired by a local family, who later sold it to Stefano Bardini, the Florentine collector and dealer. Bardini dealt in works of art from the age of 16, and seems to have bought the Signorelli in his early twenties, selling it to the National Gallery a few years later. Bardini collected frames, but the Signorelli had almost certainly lost its altarpiece setting when it left the church of San Francesco; it has hung in the National Gallery until recently in a very unsuitable Mannerist-style fluted moulding frame which deprived it of all authority and presence.

It is not easy to find a late 15th century altarpiece frame with an opening seven feet high and five feet across, and if such a thing existed in good condition, its price would almost certainly be prohibitive. However, Peter Schade, head of the National Gallery Framing Department, has a bloodhound’s nose for a good frame, and tracked down an aedicular altarpiece frame of the right period and style – but one which had undergone a rather unusual conversion.

NG 2 Bed 1

Altarpiece converted to bedhead, with pilaster plinths as bedside tables

NG 3 Bed base

Predella panel as the support for a computer desk

This is perhaps not the best use of a genuine Italian Renaissance altarpiece frame: as part of its conversion into a bedhead, the plinths supporting the pilasters were removed and transformed into rather more secular supports for two bedside tables (above, either side of bed), whilst the ornamental predella panel between them was used as the fascia of a computer desk at the foot of the bed.

NG Signorelli detail of ornament

Detail of restored and altered frame on Signorelli, The Adoration…

The frame needed not only to be reassembled from the set of bedroom furniture it had become; it had to be extended vertically to fit the Signorelli. This was done by inserting a plain segment of pilaster above the existing capital, supporting a further block with simple mouldings to carry the entablature. A similar plain block was inserted at the bottom on either side, between the foot of each pilaster and the top of the original plinth. This added more than a foot to the height of the frame, and without distracting the eye, since the two plain blocks at top and bottom balance each other well. The overall structure was in a good state of preservation and the ornament had survived remarkably intact, considering how it had been treated.

NG 6 predella panel sm

Detail of a swag of symbolic fruit, cherub’s head and vases on the predella or base panel

The base, which had been so rudely separated from the main structure, is, like the entablature, beautifully ornamented. On the predella panel there are four-winged cherubs with swags of symbolic fruit, echoing the cherubs set between cornucopiae in the frieze of the entablature. The fruit and the horns of plenty now suggest the gifts brought by the shepherds, and the potential gifts brought by the worshipper, as well as symbolizing various aspects of Christ. The cherubs expand on the single angel seen in the painting, and express the adoration of the celestial as well as of the temporal world.

NG 5 left pilaster plinth sm

Detail of left pilaster plinth at the base of the frame

The pilaster plinths at either end of the predella retain the original donor shields, applied over a panel of faux marble, decorated with delicately scrolling flowered sprays. The surface of the whole frame was cleaned, and the finish of the new elements brought into harmony with the patina of these original parts.

NG 7 Signorelli finished ed sm

Signorelli, The adoration of the shepherds, c. 1496, in its aedicular frame

The painting gains physically from the new vertical emphasis of the structure, and from the greater width of the individual rails; it gains symbolically in the significance given by the architectural form of the frame. Now, once more, the spectator seems to be seeing the adoration of the Christ Child as though through the doorway of a church or temple, which has opened onto a scene both intimate and celestial. This fact adds the possibility that the viewer might actually be able to participate, along with the shepherds, by crossing through the doorway; the altarpiece, set in an aedicular frame, brings alive the story it depicts, and seeks to involve the worshipper in the reality of the painted scene.

NG 7 Signorelli before and after sm

With grateful thanks to Zoë Allen (Senior Furniture Conservator: Frames), Tom Barrow (Frames Conservator), Christine Powell (Senior Furniture Conservator: Gilding) and Tim Miller (Furniture Conservator) of the V & A Furniture Conservation studio; and to Peter Schade and Hazel Aitken of the National Gallery

National Gallery reframings: Mannerist frames > here

National Gallery reframings: a Venetian pastiglia frame> here

V & A: The iconography of a 15th century frame > here

National Gallery: reframing Mantegna> here

National Gallery frames: an interview with Peter Schade> here

National Gallery exhibition: Sansovino frames> here


[1] See Zoë Allen, ‘Conservation Case Studies: Building a Frame for The Virgin and Child by Carlo Crivelli’.

[2] The entablature of the frame on the Bellini is not original; and such a portrait would probably not have been housed in an aedicular frame. See Nicholas Penny, A closer look: Frames, 2010, National Gallery London, p.40