Frames and their paintings: a Polish perspective

Maciej Kaźmierczak considers the concept, evolution and study of the frame in Europe, particularly as it relates to the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw.  This article was first published, in Polish and in an English translation by Aleksandra Szkudłapska, as ‘Ramy i „ich” obrazy. Rola ram i obramień w dawnym malarstwie – zarys problematyki’, in the Journal of the National Museum in Warsaw (New Series), vo. 43, no 7, 2018, pp. 321-68 (additional images by The Frame Blog)

 Silesian School, polyptych of The Annunciation with Unicorn, 1480s, 287 x 217 cm., with multiple painted wings enclosing a carved, gilded & polychrome sculptural group of the Annunciation with saints (and unicorn), beneath a similar group of the Virgin enthroned with God the Father & God the Son, & above a predella with further carved saints; with gilded polychrome acanthus-pattern frames, with colonets & pierced foliate canopies; originally in the church of St Elizabeth, Wrocław; now National Museum, Warsaw

Until recently, picture frames have remained under the radar of art historians. Owing to 20th-century changes in theory and practice of painting and exhibiting art, the natural link between picture and frame was negated – to an extent that it was considered appropriate to display works without their frames, even in the case of Old Masters[1].  Sometimes showing unframed paintings – especially modern ones – may indeed be justified, yet this trend is a consequence of ideas that have now been recognized as misguided. An unframed picture was supposed to have a greater impact on the spectator due to the alleged purity of image and composition, without any ‘distracting’ ornamentation. The still widespread practice of publishing reproductions of paintings without their frames, unsuccessfully criticized in specialist literature, stems from the almost century-old method of art interpretation, influenced by the modernist struggle against ornamental decorations.

However, frames are beginning more often to be treated as legitimate, valuable historical objects. Nowadays, their significance has been recognized and they have been given an important place in museum practice. Historical frames are being researched and catalogued. The activity of the National Museum in Warsaw may serve as an example: between 2008 and 2009, all frames were inventoried and catalogued[2].  Before the Gallery of Old Masters was opened, many of them underwent conservation and, regarded as equally important with the pictures, became part of the exhibition’s narrative. Frames help us fully to understand not only particular paintings, but also the history and essence of images in general. The Gallery’s new concept is a good starting point for revising the hitherto prevailing view of the significance of frames, and restoring their rightful place. It questions the generally accepted opposition of ‘craftsmanship’ and ‘high art’, emphasizing this aspect of human creativity – seemingly more humble and less important, and regarded as devoid of the spark of genius. This concept is consistent with the current methodological trend in art history, which assumes a ‘return to things’ and an ‘agency of things’. This view, where the material and technological aspect of an artwork is regarded as a subject which has an impact on the spectators and their surroundings, has inspired a new approach to museum displays[3].

Maarten van Heemskerck (1498-1574), Ecce Homo, 1544, o/panel, 63.7 x 35 ins at centre (162 x 89 cm.), 76.3 x 20.4 ins (171 x 52 cm.) wings, and detail of emblem on pilaster, National Museum, Warsaw. Photo: Bartosz Bajerski

Maarten van Heemskerck’s triptych Ecce Homo, shown in the Gallery with its original architectural frame,  serves as an example of that approach. Van Heemskerk had stayed in Rome from 1532-36, and was familiar, not only with the work of local artists such as Michelangelo, but with the remnants of classical architecture which formed a background to contemporary life and thought in the city. He must have had a large share in the design of the frame, with its coffered canopy and bipartite pilasters displaying the donor’s emblem at the top: the casket of Pandora, containing hope, and the motto, ‘Hope, the comfort of the Drenckwaerts’, below which an arm wreathed in clouds holds a flagon of the water of life. The frame is thus closely bound up with the paintings which unite the donor and his late wife with the figure of Christ and the promise of resurrection., and is recognized in the entry on the work.

Pieter Nason (1612-88/90) with Jan van Goyen (? landscape; 1596-1656), Portrait of a young man against a landscape, 1648, o/panel, 37 x 30 ½ ins (94 x 77.5 cm.), and detail with fingers repainted onto frame; National Museum, Warsaw. Photo of detail: Piotr Borusowski

The frame of the Portrait of a young man against a landscape by Pieter Nason, with a trompe l’œil image of the model’s finger tips, is of equal importance to the painting, and (the original having been lost during the war) was reconstructed, based on archive photographs and historical descriptions. Similar practices are common in other Polish museums. In the context of this revival of interest in the frames of the Museum, a theoretical work concerning picture frames seems especially important – and Polish literature still provides few such publications.

The current knowledge of frames is already extensive. We can access publications which present their history from ancient to modern times, catalogues of exhibitions focusing on them, scholarly monographs concerning specific types of frames (such as ‘Medici’ frames, the Renaissance frames at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the frame catalogue of the Berlin Gemäldegalerie, etc.). Some museums and galleries have catalogued their frame collection, rightly taking pride in some of their most valuable exhibits. Historical frames can be purchased at specialized auctions in the most prominent auction houses. Knowledge of framemaking techniques and the development of profiles helps to date and interpret the paintings themselves.

Knowing and understanding the bond between paintings and their borders allows a fully-rounded approach to these works. Due to its multifaceted character and vague terminology, the subject of picture frames is a challenging one, in terms of methodology. This complexity is a result of the intermingling of the three functions of frames: purely physical (structural and protective): ornamental and aesthetic: and ideological. A frame allows a painting to be located not only aesthetically, in real space, but also in the space of its meaning. This issue remains topical, and the aim of this essay is to provide a synthetic description of the origins of modern frames (this question is essential to interpreting and understanding their functions), to attempt to elucidate the numerous meanings attributed to picture frames, and thus to reiterate the importance of the original frames of the Old Masters.

The state of research

It is worth emphasizing, yet again, that this subject has remained on the outskirts of art historical research; references to picture frames have, in the past, most often been contained in publications dedicated to furniture. In the context of the history of artistic craftsmanship, no thorough compendia of the subject have been written so far, probably due to its affiliation with high art. However, the one hundred-odd items published between the 1880s and 2015 can be considered as a solid basis for further reflection.

The oldest works were written as a consequence of the redefinition of history and art in the 19th century. In the Enlightenment, and during the eras of Romanticism and historicism, collectors developed an interest in works of mediaeval and early modern art. It was during this period that Gothic polyptychs were being separated into their constituent panels, and individual sections and sculptures were being sold, whilst historical works of art were purchased using various, often unethical channels. Pictures which had changed their frames several times over the years, later changed them again, or ended up without a frame. This destructive process was connected with the secularization of church institutions which had commissioned these works in the past. However, this was also the time when the most important European museums were founded, alongside the first specialized collections, whose owners appreciated the value of frames.

The gallery of Stefano Bardini, black-&-white photo from c.1900

First-floor room at the Museo Bardini, 2017. Photo: Alison Clarke

The first collection of that kind, displayed at the Museo Bardini in Florence and regarded as classic, was created by the collector and dealer Stefano Bardini (1836–1922)[4].  Even though, thanks to him and to other collectors sharing the same approach, many valuable frames were saved by this kind of intervention, the act of collecting in the 19th century can only be judged as ambiguous.

Guggenheim, Le cornici italiane dalla meta del secolo XV alla scorio del XVI, Milan, 1897, & plate 27: Venetian aedicule, end of the 15thcentury

The slow process leading to the appreciation of frames – if only as examples of craftsmanship, often of high aesthetic value – would not be possible without isolated, pioneering studies from the late 19th century. One of the first of these was Michelangelo Guggenheim’s Le cornici italiane…, which dealt with Italian Renaissance frames[5].  Even though his was not the first such work[6], it was Guggenheim, who (also through his activity as cabinet-maker) did most to popularize the study of picture frames. Their profile was raised to ‘attractive historical works’, which led to further specialized research[7]. Later studies by Wilhelm von Bode[8] – incidentally, a client of Bardini [9] – are also worth mentioning.

Giuseppe Morazzoni, Le cornici veneziane, 1944, and Claus Grimm, Alte Bilderrahmen, 1978

In the mid-20th century, another wave of popularity resulted in new publications on picture frames, including Giuseppe Morazzoni’s books on Venetian and Bolognese frames[10], amongst others. These publications may be considered the last manifestations of the Romantic collector’s approach to historical works of art, although they do contain many historical facts. Claus Grimm’s study, Alte Bilderrahmen of of 1978, which systematized existing knowledge and has been quoted in numerous later publications, was an important step in the research of Old Masters’ frames[11]. Grimm incorporates a broader historical context, and his many valuable illustrations are complemented by a detailed bibliography. Another work worth mentioning is Werner Ehlich’s study of picture frames in antiquity, of 1979[12].

Franco Sabatelli, La cornice italiana dal Rinascimento al Neoclassico, 1992

In the 1980s and 1990s, a new generation of scholars recognized frames as objects worth a closer look from art historians. Many scientific and popular interest books have been written since then, alongside commentaries to public and private collections, which tend to focus especially on Italian frames, which are considered pivotal to the development of the modern frame. The following books are amongst the most important: Franco Sabatelli’s La cornice italiana, and a  work by several authors, La cornice fiorentina e senese, both published in 1992[13]; the album Repertorio della cornice europea, 2003[14], by the Italian collector Roberto Lodi; and the works of Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts from 1996: A History of European Picture Frames[15] and Frameworks – Form, Function & Ornament in European Portrait Frames[16]. The Frame Blog[17], a continually updated online collection of essays, is another valuable source. Catalogues of the few important exhibitions of frames are also worth mentioning here[18]. The best-known exhibition, Italian Renaissance Frames, was shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1990[19].  It showed a collection of Italian Renaissance frames, even today considered the most valuable and interesting. What is more, it was accompanied by an extensive bibliography.

Bohdan Marconi, O sztuce konserwacji, 1982, and Teresa Mielniczuk, Bohdan Grzegorzewski, Historia ramy do obrazu, 1998

As for Polish source literature, Bohdan Marconi’s book on the aesthetic aspects of framing, O sztuce konserwacji (On the art of conservation),  was a pioneering work – although it contained several inaccuracies, especially in the non-systemic and arbitrary deliberations concerning types of frames [20]. Teresa Mielniczuk and Bohdan Grzegorzewski’s popular interest book, Historia ramy do obrazu (The history of the picture frame), also contains many generalizations[21]; however the authors did include several valuable examples from the collection of the National Museum in Warsaw[22]. The relationship between frames and paintings was analyzed in older publications on the theory of art.; for instance, in his classic compilation of source texts, Teoretycy, historiografowie i artyści o sztuce, 1600–1700 (Theoreticians, historiographers and artists on 17th century art), Jan Białostocki includes Giulio Mancini’s set of picture framing rules addressed to collectors [23], whilst Andrzej Rottermund’s essay, ‘Obraz i rama we wnętrzach paradnych europejskich rezydencji nowożytnych’ (‘The painting and frame in European palaces’), remains one of few scientific publications[24].  It focuses, however, not so much on frames as on the spaces where paintings are shown.

Jósef Rajecki , Abbot Mikołaj Antoni Łukomski, 1747, o/c. Photo: J. Nowinski

An holistic interpretive approach to the Gesamtkunstwerk of frame plus painting has recently been published in an essay by Janusz Nowiński, ‘Portret opata-mecenasa Mikołaja Antoniego Łukomskiego, pędzla Józefa Rajeckiego i rama jemu dedykowana’, which considers the portrait of Abbot Mikołaj Antoni Łukomski by Jósef Rajecki, and its inscribed carved and polychrome frame [25].

Publications on picture frames are usually designed like inventories, with short descriptions repeating the same basic information (which is not always confirmed by the evidence). Detailed photographs provide an insight into the state of preservation (allowing the reader to develop an eye for old wood texture, missing fragments or abrasions in the polychromy or gilding), as well as structure and technique (methods of joining the rails, differences dependent on the time and place of manufacture, as well as knowledge of gilding techniques, help to date the work and determine its provenance [26]). It is also a standard practice to include reproductions of frame profiles in 1:1 scale.

Maria Thullie, ‘O ramach utraconych i zachowanych’ (‘Lost and surviving frames’), Cenne Bezcenne Utracone, no. 1/70 (2012), pp. 26-29

However, the question of the link between the painting and its frame is rarely analyzed – although awareness of the rôle played by frames seems at length to be reaching wider circles, as we see in the gradual increase of articles in publications ranging from glossy magazines on interior decoration to specialist journals (above). This relationship of painting and frame, often very close, is today perceived primarily on a visual level – for example, observing whether the form and colour of the frame harmonizes with the painting – whereas it was seen as far more complex in the past. This subject still requires more research and popularization.

The bond between the painting and the frame is mentioned by only a handful of philosophers and theoreticians, usually merely in passing (for example by José Ortega y Gasset in his ‘Meditations on the frame[27], or by Hans-Georg Gadamer in Truth and method [28]). Meyer Schapiro devotes a couple of sentences to the question in his 1969 essay, ‘On some problems in the semiotics of visual art…’ [29], and Mircea Eliade’s theory of sacred space, The sacred and the profane – although half-a-century old – still gives a convincing explanation of the basic mechanisms which accompany the act of framing.[30] Combining the history of picture frames with the psychological aspect of ornaments and decorations, described by Ernst H. Gombrich,[31] still remains to be developed as a subject. The only publication devoted to the ideological meaning of the frame (and not just those meant for physical paintings) is The rhetoric of the frame (1996), edited by Paul Duro: it deals with the visual frame of gender, memory, fantasy, and the world as shown on old maps.[32]

Master of Mary of Burgundy (attrib., 1469-83), Book of Hours of Engelbert of Nassau, c.1470-90, Adoration of the Magi, MS. Douce 219-220, 2 vols, fol. 145v, Bodleian Library, Oxford

On the theory of the image, and also its borders as delimited by the frame, Ernst Michalski’s philosophical concept of the ‘aesthetic borderline’ in Die Bedeutung der ästhetischen Grenze für die Methode der Kunstgeschichte (The importance of the aesthetic border for art-historical methodology) may serve as a reference point[33], as may Hans Belting’s anthropological approach to images[34] or – much more precisely, and directly connected to frames – the reflections on margins in Victor I. Stoichita’s The self-aware image (one example cited being the painting with its border of shelves and still life, above) [35].

Because the previously symbiotic relationship between the painting and its frame has become blurred, nowadays the most we are able to manage to discern is the aesthetic aspect of the frame, the beauty of its ornaments and the technical mastery of its creators, the carver and the gilder. Sometimes we notice how its form and colour harmonize with the painting, and are only rarely aware that the results of wear and tear, and the patina, which are visually pleasant, actually distort and even obscure the original appearance of the frame.

Carolingian ivory, Scenes at Emmaus, plaque from small casket with acanthus ‘sight edge’, c.850-900, 4 9/16 x 9 ¼ ins (11.5 x 23.5 cm.), The Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Just as the approach to paintings as works of art has evolved, the way we in which perceive frames has changed. The purpose of every frame is, in varying degrees, simultaneously functional, decorative and symbolic.[36] These are combined in differing proportions, depending on the historical period. Formal analysis serves as the starting point for further deliberation. The changes in the general form of the frame or in individual ornaments allow us to create historical sequences with profiles or motifs linked to specific periods, which are valuable for dating and attribution (for instance, in the case of acanthus frames). They are usually arranged according to geographical criteria (Italian, Dutch, Spanish, French or German frames)[37], although the cross-border exchange of ornament and style should always be borne in mind. For instance, Italian frames were popular in France, Germany and the Netherlands, whereas Northern frames were popular in Italy. The profile and decoration of a frame evolved along with interior design, architectural styles, joinery and cabinet-making. The style of a room or, more generally speaking, of an interior, influenced the style of the frame: this differed for a polyptych in a church, a triptych in a small chapel, a painting in a private collection and or a genre scene in a specific room. Therefore, in order to understand the form of the frame, we need to know more about the painting: its theme, function, context of time and place, its creator and purchaser. The frame itself may provide such information. Technological details are just as crucial – from the functioning of woodcarvers’ workshops, to questions of joinery, as well as the process of commissioning the work.

Marcello Bacciarelli (1731-1818), Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski in a feathered hat, post-1780, o/c, 27.9 x 22.4 ins (71 x 57 cm.), in sculptural Rococo frame with the crowned Polish eagle supporting the king’s monogram (also crowned) and holding the orb & sword; the Holy Order of Stanisława depends from ruffled trompe l’oeil ribbons at the base; National Museum, Warsaw

However, formal or stylistic analysis alone does not suffice to determine the historical significance of the Gesamtkunstwerk – the whole work of art formed by painting and frame; an anthropological and anthropological-historical approach is necessary. The framing of a painting is an act of introducing order into space, resulting in the creation of the following relations: outer space – frame – its interior; picture – background; picture – space[38]. Only by being aware of these relationships can one recognize the rôle of the frame in various contexts: in a collection belonging to a particular owner (of which the most famous Polish example is the frames made for King Stanislaus Augustus, above), in the presentation of portraits which represent social status (images of power), in commemorative pictures, in works serving as epitaphs, in altarpieces, in other depictions of the sacred (such as ‘holy pictures’ and icons[39]), as well as in engravings and maps[40].

The primary symbolic aspect of a frame, or, rather, the very act of framing, was the need to set boundaries between the painting and its surroundings, and therefore to introduce order or hierarchy within the particular space[41].  This need for a hierarchy is one of the most primaeval needs of man and of society[42].  Using the theological language adapted by Mircea Eliade, and developing his ideas, we may say that frames and frameworks manifest the sacred[43].  This statement is relevant not only to the Middle Ages, but also today. The frame acted as the border of a holy world, at first as a door frame, the threshold of a house, the boundaries of a place of worship, or finally, as organized religious architecture.[44] These boundaries defined a specific kind of space – a space of images, in the wide anthropological understanding of that word. Following in the footsteps of Hans Belting, who stated that the ‘place of image’ is man himself[45], we might say that an image appears in human consciousness thanks to its separation from the world through its frame[46].

Carved giltwood Florentine-style pierced leaf frame for a television screen

This is the case for all kinds of eikones: 6th century Byzantine icons, 15th century panel paintings of saints, paintings in Baroque reredoses, 19th century devotional oleographs, and – today – pictorial messages on television and on the internet. It therefore comes as no surprise that a decade or more ago it became fashionable to frame television screens – often in gilded mouldings, like a painting.

The question of the spatial relationship between the sacred and the profane thus becomes a fundamental question about the rôle and significance of the frames of religious paintings or depictions of sanctified power[47]. Regarding frames, frameworks and mounts as the borders of religious acts opens the door to a whole range of possible theological, philosophical and anthropological speculations which might lead to new artistic solutions. This question aims at determining to what extent the frame was intended as a border of the sacred presence, to what extent it was an erudite, significant addition to the central sacred theme, and to what extent it was a purely aesthetic or artistic frame; also how close its formal and stylistic relationship was intended to be with the place of worship and piety; its status and rôle; its liturgical equipment, its practical furnishings, etc.

 The origins and evolution of the modern picture frame

In his reflections on frames (although he mainly focuses on their gilded finish), José Ortega y Gasset wonders about the circumstances of their creation[48]. He asks whether a frame is to a painting what clothes are for a body; and at first glance this appears a logical comparison, since a frame, like clothing, is decorative. Clothing, however, decorates a person by concealing the body, whereas the frame does not conceal the painting. If a painting is well framed, we do not notice the frame, the task of which is to accentuate the aesthetic value of the picture. According to Ortega, a frame plays instead the same rôle for a painting as tattoos play for a body, especially in primitive cultures. Jewellery made out of hunting trophies and, more especially, tattoos and initiation marks which become one with the body, were supposed to draw attention to the person they adorn. The function of frames can be described in a similar fashion: they draw attention to the framed object, optically and symbolically. In the case of painting, frames separate the world depicted from the world of reality, and individual scenes from each another[49], taking on the form of a simple border or ornament: geometric, floral or architectural.

Ornamental decorations were already in use in prehistoric times, when cult objects and magic talismans were embellished with various patterns. In the light of Eliade’s theory of hierophany – the manifestation of the sacred – the practice of decorating dead bodies and graves with flowers seems especially interesting[50].  Firstly, this may be seen as one origin of floral motifs, which would later become one of the main ornamental groups for picture frames, along with architectural elements. Secondly, the formation of frame decoration was from its very beginning closely connected with ancestor worship; many of the motifs were derived from tombstones, sarcophagi, and later from reliquaries. Depictions of human figures (and of God as the Son of Man), the primary subject of mediaeval art[51], also point the spectator towards otherworldly realms, with God and angels abiding in heaven. It was only later that patrons were included in paintings and that individual portraits and other genres were developed.

Vincenzo Brenna, Franciszek Smuglewicz, Wall decoration in room 23 of the Golden House of Nero, 1776, National Museum, Warsaw. Photo: © The National Museum in Warsaw

Painted geometrical borders isolate Egyptian wall paintings from each other, separate individual scenes, encase decorations on Greek pottery, and organize Pompeian wall paintings, not unlike the frames of 20th century comic books.  Frames decorated with relief sculptures border Fayum mummy portraits; Byzantine icons, the frames of medieval frescoes or mosaics and miniatures, both monumental and small-scale sculpture, ivory carvings, gilded book covers, scenes on liturgical vessels and objects – almost every known image from the 1st millennium is enclosed in some sort of frame[52].

Madonna della Clemenza, 6th–7th century, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

To simplify, Western European motifs of late antiquity and the early mediaeval period were influenced, through contact with ancient art and architecture, by Greek and Roman motifs, but also by Oriental and outside examples (‘barbaric’ deriving from ‘non-Greek- or Latin- speaking’)[53]. In the 1st millennium, the progressive division of Europe into the East (‘Greek’) and West (‘Latin’) resulted in a different evolution of the picture frame in either area. At first, the idea of the frame as such was identical in both regions.

Shrine Icon: St Parascheva of the Balkans, 15th century, National Museum, Warsaw. Photo: © Krzysztof Wilczyński / The National Museum in Warsaw

In the East, where painting was widely practised, the ‘icon field’ played the rôle of the frieze on a frame: it surrounded the kovcheg, or pictorial field; it was separated from the latter by luzga, or a narrow faceted moulding; and was filled with kleimas – depictions of saints or scenes from their lives, often referring to relics, funerals and the eternal continuation of worship, understood as veneration of the dead[54]. It might be said that the icon field was a frame in its purest form – a liminal area between two worlds: the ‘here and now’ and the ‘there and always (for eternity)’, as a result of the strictly spiritual character of icons. Frames formed in such a way did not need additional ornamentation[55].

Silesian or Bohemian School, Vera Icon, c.1400, tempera on panel with integral frame decorated with punchwork, 44.7 x 32.2 cm., from St Mary Magdalene, Wroclaw, National Museum, Warsaw. Photo: © The National Museum in Warsaw

Initially, picture frames in the West were similar in form to those of icons, until the late Middle Ages – the period when ‘cult images’ were replaced by ‘art images’ [56]; the period when ‘[illusionistic] paintings were born’ [57], and when both the painted panel and the reredos were given separate decorative frames. In the Latin countries of Europe, the previous theological symbolism of the frame in relation to the painting was obscured by new meanings. It was given the rôle of auxiliary to the cult object: a panel embodying the sacred, illustrating the subject of pious meditation, or conveying religious admonitions – external, complementary ‘stage directions’; for instance, portrayals of prophets, scenes from the Bible or from the lives of saints, presented in separate sections or roundels (the character of which, unlike the icon fields, was not strictly sacred and devotional). These additions, complementing and commenting on the paintings, gradually transformed frames into ‘marginalia’ (as Michael Camille expresses it[58]): marginal, but important and significant areas; or into parerga (accessories or supplementaries to the main work: an idea from ancient theories of art); or into a non-sacred space, allowing the inclusion of secular fantasies, and making room for an earthly imaginarium, as seen in the borders and bas-de-pages of illuminated books.

Master of the Poldi-Pezzoli Diptych (fl. 1310-50), Reliquary diptych, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie. Photo: Jörg P. Anders, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

It was mainly the frame which offered a space for realizing the ‘sense of ornamentalization’ (as Ernst Gombrich put it); which, in turn, produced frames encrusted with precious or imitation gems, conveying the sacred symbolism of God’s light (splendor Dei, lumen and lux Dei), as well as reliquary frames (similar in form) with capsules containing fragments of the physical remains of saints and martyrs, mounted in the rails. Giltwood frames, carved in relief, descended from these; they were embellished with ornamental motifs and figures, and were used for the most valuable contemporary paintings in Italy, Flanders and Spain. Late-mediaeval and Renaissance frames served their purpose not only through their mere presence, but also because of the significance they were given. They gained autonomy, even though they were still very closely connected to the forms and themes of the paintings. They had their own individual forms, finish, and ornamental symbolism [59].

In Western Europe paintings (eikones, imagines) were originally intended as elements of architecture, such as frescoes and mosaics. It was only later that they became separate painted panels. They partly supplanted sculptures, replaced reliquaries in the reredos, and entered the stage bordered with architectural forms. In spite of this, they remained in the sacred sphere, the focus of devout prayers, limited by the form of the reredos. The most important impulse for the creation of individual modern frames was the development of private, individual, meditative and contemplative piety, practiced in homes and chapels. The evolution of the various types of frame was thus partly determined by the size of the paintings: structures which were aesthetically and technologically suitable for large-scale altarpieces needed to be differentiated from the frames of small domestic altarpieces, which were kept in the home, but might also be carried on journeys. Portable altars and reliquaries with pictorial decorations were the result of the emancipation of religious paintings from the context of church interiors.

Silesian School, Polyptych with scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary, c. 1370, tempera on limewood, each wing 17.7 x 11.8 ins (45 x 30 cm.), National Museum, Warsaw. Photo: © Piotr Ligier, The National Museum in Warsaw

Claus Grimm noted that the ancient philosophy of beauty and Thomas Aquinas’s aesthetics might both have influenced late-mediaeval picture frames[60] – an observation worth mentioning. According to Doctor Angelicus, an image is not a literal representation (re-praesentatio, i.e., embodiment, incarnation, manifestation) of the sacred: it is meant to bring the faithful worshipper closer to the perfect form (the Divine beauty which brings things to existence by giving them substance). St Thomas claims that this happens thanks to the artist’s technical mastery (téchne) in allowing the image to connect the spectator, who seeks aesthetic pleasure, with Divine beauty, which manifests itself in the perfection of the artwork (the integritas of form), its regularity and harmonious proportions (consonantia), and its clarity of form (claritas)[61]. Therefore, if beauty (the ancient decor) is supposed to be integral (perfect and comprehensive), it must – although St Thomas does not state this overtly – include the frame, the sphere of marginal ornamentation, as well. Thomas’s definition of a ‘beautiful object’ as something which ‘gives pleasure to the spectator’ should also apply to frames – or to beautiful frames. This may answer the question concerning the origin of the increasing attention paid to ornamental beauty, which manifested itself in the development of late-mediaeval and early modern frame decorations.

Silesian School, polyptych of The Passion of Christ, 1507, with multiple painted wings enclosing a carved, gilded & polychrome sculptural group of the Crucifixion, above a similar predella group of the Resurrection, with gilded polychrome fret-pattern frames, the central pieces with colonets & pierced foliate canopies, commissioned by Hans Krappe of Wrocław, National Museum, Warsaw

The symbolic meaning of the sacred survived in the gilded finish of frames. It is an extension of the gold grounds of icons and mediaeval panel paintings, as well as of gilded figural sculptures. The gilded flat or architrave frames of late-mediaeval and modern paintings derive from the giltwood architectural frames of 14th to 16thcentury altarpieces. Gold, the least mundane of materials, and a very eye-catching one, is particularly well suited to separating the ‘window’ of the painting from the surface of the wall (according to Alberti’s definition of painting as a window [62]). This ‘unreality’ and ‘isolation’ from the surroundings compel the spectator to focus beyond the borders created by the frame, and direct his glance towards the image itself, which he automatically recognizes as a different reality[63]. We should add that gilded frames also served a practical purpose – in dark interiors, illuminated only by flickering candles, gold was the most effective means to draw the spectator’s attention, and its glow provided more light for the painting. The slightly more sombre churches of Italy or Spain needed more gold than northern interiors with large windows, where narrow gold frames, pierced gilded traceries and finials were sufficiently illuminating. Frames with a golden finish remained in use for later secular paintings, especially in the case of more sublime themes – such as history, religion, antiquity, as well as allegories and portraits of kings – which echoed their earlier sacred functions.

Ornamental frames evolved in the 13th and 14th centuries. The motifs used to decorate them were inspired by book illuminations (page borders with floral and geometric ornaments), the decoration of metal objects (such as portable altars and box reliquaries) and objects carved in ivory; and this list would not be complete without mentioning the ornaments on the edges of antependia, painted on panels or canvas, cast in bronze or gilded.

Architectural frames were another type of the late mediaeval and modern frame. They were used particularly for retables, which evolved in the 15th century into large winged altarpieces. Architectural forms carved in wood, understood as depictions of Solomon’s Temple, or a ‘temple within a temple’, were adapted for framing panel paintings, preserving the symbolism of arcade and niche or classical aedicules, deriving from antiquity and adopted by Christianity.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (fl.1278- d.1319), Rucellai Madonna, c. 1285, tempera on panel, 450 x 290 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Two types of retable were used in early Italian painting: large-format panels, enclosed in a solid wide frame, which, in case it should overshadow the painting, was broken up optically by being decorated with smaller elements such as roundels with depictions of saints (above); and, later, polyptychs – generally with a taller central section – imitating the cross section of a basilica. The side panels were usually framed by shaped or engaged columns, and the whole structure was crowned with finials.

Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), Adoration of the Magi, 1423, tempera on panel, 300 x 282 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

In 1429 the Florentine Gentile da Fabriano produced an altarpiece with no columns dividing the surface, which was united under a tripartite Gothic canopy with finials. It was also in Florence that the painted panels of a polyptych were combined into a single scene, with a rectilinear form (since when quadro, Italian for square, has been the synonym for a painting).

Botticelli (c.1445-1510), The Cestello Annunciation, 1489, tempera on panel, 150 x 156 cm., Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The frame now imitated ancient Roman aedicular forms, after the classicizing Renaissance fashion. Older, multi-panel paintings were often unified into one unified pictorial surface, adjusted to fit a square or rectangular form, and set in a contemporary classical frame with pilasters and entablature (all’antica)[64].

The size of paintings played an important role in the evolution of frames. Works intended for private contemplation or to hang a domestic interior were given frames in the same scale, which were also moveable. The Italian cassetta is considered the first independent frame of this type, deriving from simple early borders which were part of, or engaged with, the painted surface (as in the Vera Icon, illustrated above).

Jan van Eyck (fl.1422-d.1441), Portrait of a man (Self Portrait?), 1433, o/oak, 26 x 19 cm., National Gallery, London

The same simplicity was common in the framing of Northern paintings: for instance, of Jan van Eyck’s portraits[65] . Contact between the North and South played a pivotal role in the development and dissemination of independent frames. In Italy, it was fashionable to own pieces created on the other side of the Alps, especially by well-known painters such as Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden or Hans Memling. Italians appreciated their illusionist realism and the power of their devotional, religious messages. The popularity of works of Northern masters can be explained not only by ideological factors, but also by practicality – paintings were easy to transport. In the 15th century, Dutch paintings on canvas (only a few of which survive today) were produced in great numbers, many of which travelled south[66]; although, of course, painting on canvas had been practised in Italy at least since the last quarter of the 14th century for banners and altar frontals, and paintings executed on canvas supports seem to have been a Venetian practice prior to that in the Netherlands [67]. In the same period the frame became an object separate from the painting, making it possible to roll pictures painted on canvas (often transported inside bolts of fabric), attach them to stretchers when they arrived at their destination, and finally to frame them.

Italian cassetta, mid-16th century, Veneto, 60 x 40.3 cm., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: © Robert Lehman Collection, 1975

Paintings were now more popular, more affordable, produced more quickly and easier to transport; they entered private houses, and their new subjects required appropriate frames, according to the Aristotelian and Vitruvian principle of decorum. Different methods of decorating frames were inspired by rediscovered classical ornaments, as well as local and oriental patterns (such as the arabesque, moresque and Dürer’s Knotenornament).

The form of the frame depended on the subject and format of the work, as well as its destination and the wishes of the buyer or patron. The turn of the 16th century was the period when the number of secular, wealthy art owners increased markedly. Thus on the one hand the art market also developed, and new iconographical motifs evolved to meet the needs of erudite, humanist patrons; whilst, on the other, artists could experiment with new painting techniques.

The popularization of painting on canvas, which began to replace the older technique of panel-painting, meant – as noted above – that the frame became a separate, removable element. Originally, frames which were engaged with the support and primed alongside it might be purchased together with the panels to be painted, or were delivered by the client or by his framemaker[68]. This was the case in both northern and southern Europe, where such frames (for instance, those of Italian altarpieces) might also be painted. Sculptors or carvers, painters and gilders, all were usually treated more or less equally, as playing an equal part in the commissioned work. This is reflected in their remuneration. Today, we might draw the conclusion that carvers – framemakers whose pay was equal to that received by painters – were valued unexpectedly highly. However, part of the reason was that the painter had not yet gained his privileged status as presiding genius. Frame and painting would be commissioned from separate workshops, with the frame often ordered first, and sometimes costing as much as (even more than) the painting itself (both carver and painter supplying their own materials)[69]. In order to increase the pace of production, and if the support/s were separate from the frame, the carver might work simultaneously with the painter’s executing the picture. Time brought a change to this process: the painter as ‘artist’ (artifex, artista, rather than opifex, faber, artigiano) began to decide on the appearance of the entire work, which might also include the design (or at least the choice) of the frame. It might then be the painter, rather than the client, who ordered the latter. Later on, certain types of frames were named after artists whose work was most often associated with them, such as the ‘Sansovino’ or ‘Salvator Rosa’ styles. Other changes came in the regulation of various types of production; when framemaking was no longer confined to large architectural, sculpting and painting workshops or specialized carpenters who manufactured painting supports, it might also be practised by joiners and cabinet-makers, who would harmonize the ornament used with that on other furnishings.

It is currently difficult to ascertain to what extent these processes may be described as the ‘secularization’ of the frame. Although the sphere of ideas was marked by deep transformations (here it is worth mentioning the debate on paragone: the competition between different disciplines of art, as a result of which the position of painting became gradually stronger than sculpture and carving), the final appearance of the framed picture was simultaneously influenced by technological aspects. Only recently have we begun to consider the array of workshop traditions, techniques and possibilities available to a craftsman facing a task entrusted to him by the client.

Here we should also mention the origin of decorating frames. Architectural frames referred to the Temple of Jerusalem and the very structure of a church. In his De re aedificatoria, Leon Battista Alberti advised future architects to make wooden frame designs as a practical exercise, meaning that both disciplines were initially represented in one person, i.e., the architect. Nature was another rich source of decorative motifs. The symbolism of plants described in mediaeval literature embodied various meanings associated with human life (rebirth, eternity, immortality) or religious spirituality (plants associated with the virtues of Mary or the Passion of Christ). On the threshold of modernity, the classical Vitruvian understanding of the acanthus, associated with funerary rites and the spirit world, the sphere of ‘heaven’, was revived.

Italian school, The Virgin and Child with St John and an Angel, 1500–25, The National Museum, Warsaw. Photo: © Piotr Ligier / The National Museum in Warsaw

At the same time different forms of painting emerged, such as tondi, their circular, garland-like frames decorated with three-dimensional flowers and fruit. Their shape and symbolism derived from the tradition of bringing a platter of gifts (desco da parto) to the mother of a new-born child. These platters included flowers and fruit, which are revived in the decoration of the frames for such images of the Virgin and Child and the Holy Family.

The growing number of commissions for paintings designed for private interiors, including portraits, gave rise to another interesting context of the development of frames: though they were now serving secular paintings, they were informed by traditions of sacred art. Around the year 1500, these traditions began to be used in a way which was more purely decorative, and which paved the way for the modern shape and diversity of picture frames. The engaged frame of the small-scale sacred painting developed into the cassetta, which might be more or less ornate, according to the circumstances of the patron and subject.

Baroque memorial in the Basilica of St Elizabeth, Wrocław

The altarpiece frame evolved further versions of itself through the 17th and into the 18th century: often architectural in form, and symbolic in decoration. This powerful Baroque church memorial in Wrocław demonstrates the enduring power of such symbolism, in the Eucharistic grapes, phoenixes for resurrection, and fruit, such as figs and pomegranates, which look directly back to the garlands of fruit of the tondo frame.

Natale Schiavoni (1777-1858), Cleopatra, c. 1830, National Museum, Warsaw. Photo: © Piotr Ligier / The National Museum in Warsaw

However, with regard to secular frames, the symbolism of their form and decoration no longer resulted from the division between the world and its ‘recreation’, or the imitation of solemn architecture (the divine Jerusalem). It was conveyed by appropriately selected motifs, allegorical figures and personifications on the frames of portraits, trophies of weapons accompanying battle scenes, and other similar emblems, which communicated the content intended by the artists or patron. This language of the frame underwent a revival of interest in the 19th century. Paintings which did not require such decorations were framed in a simpler manner, in line with an instinctively understood appropriateness (decorum) of the frame for the picture.

Another division found in the literature on the history of frames is related to the status of the spectator and the location of the artwork: frames designed for religious interiors (paintings used in public and private devotion), court frames (associated with power and wealth), and more modest frames (designed for merchants, craftsmen and other commoners, as in the Netherlands in the 17thcentury). There is also a further category – that of the collector and connoisseur.

Andrea del Sarto (workshop), The Virgin and Child with Saint John, The National Museum in Warsaw. Photo © Piotr Ligier / The National Museum in Warsaw

In this case, the style of frame would be closely related to their personal requirements: fitting a new painting into an existing collection, or, more often, echoing the decoration of a specific interior. The example of the ‘Medici’ frames made for Cardinal Leopoldo de’ Medici is particularly striking [70] (the work above is framed in a Florentine leaf frame related to those in the Palazzo Pitti; many of the latter are intricate sculptural works). Paintings of less distinguished owners would be set in less individualized and more subtly finished frames, which were suited to their own interiors. A change in the ownership or the location of a picture often resulted in its being reframed; this became a necessity if the format of the work was modified for some reason or other. Private collections began to be displayed in identical frames, often bearing the collector’s monogram or emblem. Each and every case tells a separate story of the relationship between an individual picture and its succession of frames.

The 19th century brought with it a new attitude towards history, a redefinition of the idea of a work of art, and the new notion of an ‘historical artefact’. Collecting became more widespread and egalitarian, public exhibitions were becoming increasingly popular, conservation began to be analysed from academic and critical standpoints, and painting was steadily growing in importance as one of the main channels of artistic expression: all of which led to the changing function of the frame.

Renoir (1841-1919), Portrait of the artist’s son, 1910, 44 x 37.2 cm., Jana Pawla II Museum, Warsaw

The practice grew of setting paintings in historical frames, which were readily available in antique shops; consequently, we often see Impressionist paintings in 18thcentury French frames. The new Parisian elites of the late 19th century preferred conventional giltwood Baroque and revival frames to the very simple frames used by the artists themselves – as did the American clients who first purchased them. The gilded frames applied to Impressionist paintings anchored them in the Old Master tradition. Other avant-garde movements, such as the Pre-Raphaelites, created their own designs based on historical precedents, rather than using mass-produced, moulded (rather than carved), revival styles[71].

Stanisław Wiyspianski, Self-portrait, 1902, National Museum, Warsaw. Photo: © The National Museum in Warsaw

In the 20th century, as well as using ‘recycled’ historical frames such as the one above, artists continued to design their own, constantly looking for forms and artistic solutions; using new ornaments or rejecting all decoration[72].  The history of framing had been closely connected with the history of ornament, in the sense of decoration meant to enhance the importance or sacred nature of the given object. However, in the 20th century, ornament was rejected as a ‘crime’ [73].  By the second half of the 19th and the early 20th century (the age of mass mechanical reproduction of art described by Walter Benjamin[74]), the aesthetic and symbolic frame was no longer fashionable. Individual original images, with their own texture and bearing the traces of history, are perceived as flat illustrations without frames in the imagination of the contemporary spectator.

Hall of Malevich at the exhibition The Artists of the RSFSR over Fifteen Years, St Petersburg, 1932, illustrated in Precious Framing. The painting and its frame: Dialogues – an exhibition at the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Progressive painters tended to abandon the frame during the 20th century, and the corollary of this – the idea that modern and contemporary painting does not have to be framed – became rooted in the public consciousness. We might expect that a painter as innovative as Kazimir Malevich would exhibit his works unframed or with minimalist frames; however, his figurative works from 1928-32 are set in frames with gilt 19th century frames with compo decoration [75].

Picasso (1881-1973) in his studio on the Boulevard Clichy, with a Cubist work in an antique frame, c.1911

Picasso, another artist who might be expected to reject the idea of the frame, consciously used antique examples and 16th-17th century Spanish frames for his work [76]. Nevertheless, contemporary art galleries and museums often exhibit unframed paintings, supposedly in line with modernist aesthetics.

Banksy, Big gold frame

In turn, street art on walls is created in direct opposition to market-based ‘gallery art’ (which may be undermined in other, satirical ways – above). Painting in a public urban space usually requires no frame (whether physical, or represented by museum or gallery walls), which associates it all the more with the ‘here and now’, in line with the intentions of avant-garde artists in the early 20th century. However, murals and graffiti are not completely without frames – they are framed by the edges of walls or by whatever physically surrounds the painted image. Therefore, the protests made in recent years by well-known street artists at the removal of their work from the public space into galleries (or even the illegal sale of them at auction) may be regarded as another chapter of the historical relationship between the image and its frame.

Contemporary links between art and the sacrum were described by Jan Białostocki in his last essay. Although the author sees these two elements as ultimately divided, they used to coexist and complement each other within a single work of art[77].  The image required a frame which would communicate its affiliation organically with the ‘other world’. Until the 18th century, there was no rigorous distinction between ‘art’ (the idea and concept of paintings) on the one hand, and ‘craftsmanship’ (execution and technique) on the other[78].  Originally, a wooden moulding or the recess of an icon field were enough to contain the holiness of the image itself. On the threshold of the modern era, as paintings gradually entered the profane realm of secular homes, they required the frame to mediate them as newly comprehended works: the products of art and artistry. The frame began to surround the reality of nature and history, observed through the window of a painting, as defined by Alberti[79]. It delineated the field of vision and artistic creation. Yet throughout all that time, until the early 20th century, the painting and the frame were one. Paintings were only complete once they were framed.

To quote Gadamer again: ‘We have only to remember that the ornamental and the decorative originally meant the beautiful, as such. It is necessary to recover this ancient insight. Ornament or decoration is determined by its relation to what it decorates, to what carries it’ [80].  Modern aesthetic appraisals (by ‘modern’ I mean derived from enlightened, post-revolutionary modernism of the 18th and 19th centuries) brought with them a rift between the artistic (which substituted for the holy) and the craftsmanlike, devoid of the transcendence of God, the Artist’s genius or deified Art[81].  If frames are regarded as separate objects, we are tempted to include them in the latter, ‘lesser’ category.

(?) St Luke the Evangelist, The Panagia of Soumela, Holy Metropolis of Veroia, Naousa and Kampanía

Without the painting, their evocative power is greatly limited – they are mute, crippled – rather like the frame without the  painting (above). Only by carefully considering the frame and painting as a whole can we gain a thorough understanding of their mutual history.


Maciej Kaźmierczak is a conservator of paintings and an art historian. He graduated in 2009 from the Institute of Art History at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University, and also holds a degree from the Istituto per l’Arte e il Restauro Palazzo Spinelli in Florence, with a major in painting conservation (2012). He completed his conservation internship in the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, and is listed as a  restauratoro – collaboratoro by the Italian Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo. He has worked in the Panel Painting Conservation Workshop of the National Museum of Warsaw, and from 2014 as a self-employed framemaker and painting conservator. He also lectures in post-graduate museology studies at the University of Warsaw. He specializes in conserving paintings on wooden supports, and his research interests include the history of painting techniques and of picture frames


[1] Cesare Brandi, ‘The removal or retention of frames as a restoration issue’, in id., Theory of Restoration, Florence, 2005, pp. 123–28.

[2] The documentation was collected and analyzed under the supervision of Tamara Richter and Krystyna Znojewska-Prokop from the Collection of Polish Art until 1914 at the National Museum in Warsaw.

[3] For example, at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, or the Gallery of Mediaeval Art  at the National Museum in Warsaw, both of which were recently reopened (in 2013 and 2014, respectively) following thorough refurbishment.

[4] Alison Clarke, ‘Stefano Bardini: dealer, restorer and collector of frames

[5] Michelangelo Guggenheim, Le cornici italiane dalla meta del secolo XV allo scorcio del XVI, Milan, 1897

[6] Jakob von Falke, Rahmen, Vienna, 1882

[7] For example, Hans Bösch, Bilder- und Spiegelrahmen von A. Dürer bis zum Rokoko, Leipzig, 1897; H. Marshall, ‘Zur Aesthetik und Geschichte des Rahmens’, Reclams Universum, issue 16, 1898, passim; Elfried Bock, Florentinische und venezianische Bilderrahmen, Munich, 1902; and Erich Everth, Der Bilderrahmen als ästhetischer Ausdruck von Schutzfunktionen , Halle a.d. Saale, 1909

[8] Bode referred to the subject of frames in a number of his publications: see Wilhelm von Bode, ‘Rahmen und Sockel in Italien zur Zeit der Renaissance’, Kunst und Künstler: illustrierte Monatsschrift für bildende Kunst und Kunstgewerbe, issue 9, 1919, pp. 357–91,

[9] Clarke, op. cit.

[10] Giuseppe Morazzoni, Le cornici veneziane, Milan, 1944, and Le cornici bolognesi, Milan, 1953

[11] Claus Grimm, Alte Bilderrahmen. Epochen – Typen – Material, Munich, 1978. English translation, The Book of Picture Frames, New York, 1981

[12] Werner Ehlich, Bilderrahmen von der Antike bis zur Romantik, Dresden, 1979; and Bild und Rahmen im Altertum. Die Geschichte des Bildesrahmens, Leipzig

[13] Franco Sabatelli, La cornice italiana dal Rinascimento al Neoclassico, Milan, 1992; Renato Baldi et al., La cornice fiorentina e senese. Storia e technice di restauro, Florence, 1992

[14] Roberto Lodi, Amadeo Montanari, Repertorio della cornice europea: Italia, Francia, Spagna, Paesi Bassi, Galleria Roberto Lodi, 2003. After 30 years of activity, in 2016 Roberto Lodi began selling his collection

[15] Paul Mitchell & Lynn Roberts, A History of European Picture Frames, London, 1996; first published as ‘Frame’, in Jane Turner, ed., The Macmillan Dictionary of Art, 1996 (now the Grove Dictionary of Art), vol. 11, pp. 372–496

[16] Paul Mitchell & Lynn Roberts, Frameworks – Form, Function & Ornament in European Portrait Frames, London, 1996

[17] The Frame Blog  is run by Lynn Roberts. A bibliography of literature on frames, from 1995-2018, is available on the website of the National Portrait Gallery

[18] Italienische Bilderrahmen des 14.–18. Jahrhunderts, Leo Cremer, Pieter Eikemeier, eds, exh. cat., Alte Pinakothek, Munich, 1976; The art of the picture frame: artists, patrons and the framing of portraits in Britain, Jacob Simon, ed., exh. cat., National Portrait Gallery, London, 1996; The art of the edge: European frames 1300–1900, Richard Bertell, Steven Starling, eds, exh. cat., The Art Institute, Chicago, 1986; Cadres des peintres, Isabelle Cahn, ed., exh. cat., Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 1989; In Perfect Harmony Picture + Frame 1850–1900, Eva Mendgen, ed., exh. cat., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1995; Framing in the Golden Age. picture and frame in 17thcentury Holland, Pieter J.J. van Thiel, C.J. de Bruyn Kops, eds, exh. cat., Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1984; Cornici barocche e stampe restaurate dai depositi di palazzo Pitti, a cura di Marilena Mosco, exh. cat., Palazzo Pitti, Florence, 1998; Schöne Rahmen aus den Beständen der Berliner Gemäldegalerie, Hannelore Nutzmann, ed., exh. cat., Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 2002–03; Rahmenkunst. Auf Spurensuche in der Alten Pinakothek, Helge Siefert, Friedrich Veran, eds, exh. cat., Alte Pinakothek, Munich, 2010; Frames in Focus. Sansovino Frames, Nicholas Penny, Peter Schade, Harriet O’Neill, eds, exh. cat., National Gallery, London, 2015

[19] Italian Renaissance Frames, Timothy Newbery, George Bisacca, Laurence Kanter, eds, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1990

[20] Bohdan Marconi, “O ramach,” Arkady, no. 1 (1937). Reprinted in Marconi, O sztuce konserwacji, ed. by Juliusz Bursze (Warsaw, 1982), pp. 59–66.

[21] Teresa Mielniczuk, Bohdan Grzegorzewski, Historia ramy do obrazu, Warsaw, first pub. 1977, second ed. 1998

[22] The complex fate that befell the frames of paintings from the NMW collection requires a more in-depth analysis. During the Second World War and the post-war restitution process, paintings were deframed by default, or returned to the museum unframed and were later reframed. Even today it is sometimes possible to reconnect these once separated historical objects. The collection of empty frames, predominantly from the 18th and 19th century, often changed locations, and were ultimately transported to Otwock. The most precious ones are currently used to frame paintings exhibited in permanent galleries and held in the Painting Storeroom.

[23] See Jan Białostocki, Teoretycy, historiografowie i artyści o sztuce, 1600–1700, Maria Poprzęcka, Antoni Ziemba, eds, Warsaw, 1994, pp. 39–40

[24] Andrzej Rottermund, “Obraz i rama we wnętrzach paradnych europejskich rezydencji nowożytnych,” Materiały Muzeum Wnętrz Zabytkowych w Pszczynie, Ann. 6, 1990, pp. 12–42

[25] Janusz Nowiński, ‘Portret opata-mecenasa Mikołaja Antoniego Łukomskiego, pędzla Józefa Rajeckiego i rama jemu dedykowana’, in Architektura znaczeń. Studia ofiarowane prof. Zbigniewowi Bani w 65. rocznicę urodzin i 40-lecie pracy dydaktycznej, Anna Sylwia Czyż, Janusz Nowiński, Marta Wiraszka, eds, Warsaw, 2011, pp. 318–37

[26] Polish books on oil- and water- gilding include: Tomasz Sadziak, Klejowe i olejne prace pozłotnicze, Warsaw, 1981, Biblioteka Muzealnictwa i Ochrony Zabytków. B Series, vol. 69; Zdzisław Engelman, Pozłotnictwo, Zielona Góra, 2005; and Arleta Tylewicz, Sztuka pozłotnictwa i inne techniki zdobienia, Poznań, 2007

[27] José Ortega y Gasset, ‘Medacion del Marco’, 1921, in Obras de José Ortega y Gasset, vol. 1, pp. 369–75, Madrid, 1943

[28] Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, transl. by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, London & New York, 2004, pp. 130–157

[29] Meyer Schapiro, “On Some Problems in the Semiotics of Visual Art. Field and Vehicle in Image Signs,” in Schapiro, Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, New York, 1994, pp. 1–32

[30] Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion, transl. by Willard T. Trask, New York, 1961

[31] Ernst H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order: A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art, New York, 1979

[32] The Rhetoric of the Frame: Essays on the Boundaries of the Artwork, Paul Duro, ed., Cambridge, 1996

[33] Ernst Michalski, Die Bedeutung der ästhetischen Grenze für die Methode der Kunstgeschichte, Berlin, 1931; second edition: Berlin, 1996

[34] Hans Belting, An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, Princeton, 2011; Belting, Likeness and Presence. A History of the Image Before the Era of Art, Chicago, 1994

[35] Victor I. Stoichita, The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting, transl. by Anne-Marie Glasheen, Cambridge, 1997, pp. 67–102

[36] Mitchell & Roberts, A History…, op. cit., p. 8.

[37] Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts divide frames into Italian, French, British, Netherlandish and Belgian, German and Central European, Scandinavian, and Spanish ones: ibid., p. 8; although in their other book Frameworks, op. cit., the frames are divided across nationality, by chronological style.

[38] Paul Duro, op. cit., pp. 6–8

[39] For a detailed description of the framing of sacral representations see the author’s MA dissertation, Ramy do ikon w Rzeczypospolitej w XVII wieku na tle historii ramy do obrazu (‘Frames for icons in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 17th century against the background of the history of the picture frame’) prepared under the supervision of Rev. Prof. Michał Janocha and presented in 2009 at the Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński Universit

[40] John Gillies, ‘Posted spaces: framing in the age of the world picture’, in Paul Duro, op. cit., pp. 24–43

[41] Schapiro, op. cit., pp. 8–12 and passim; Wolfgang Kemp, ‘The narrativity of the frame’, in Duro, ibid., pp. 11–23

[42] Eliade, op. cit., pp. 8–18

[43] Ibid., p. 11

[44] Ibid., p. 58: ‘…religious architecture simply took over and developed the cosmological symbolism already present in the structure of primitive habitations’ (original italics). This interpretation is supported by the most accurate publications on frames (Grimm, op. cit., pp. 24–25; Mitchell, Roberts, A History…, op. cit., pp. 10–12)

[45] Belting, An Anthropology of Images, op. cit., pp. 9–15

[46] Ibid., p. 13

[47] Eliade, op. cit., s. 20–24; see also Gadamer, op. cit., s. 143–44.

[48] José Ortega y Gasset, op.cit., sections 2-5

[49] Stoichita, op. cit., p. 30: ‘The frame separates the image from anything that is non-image. It defines what is framed as a meaningful world as opposed to the outside-the-frame which is simply the world experienced’

[50] Piotr Kaczanowski, Janusz Krzysztof Kozłowski, Wielka historia Polski, vol. 1, Warsaw, 2003, p. 66: ‘Yet what brings the Neanderthal man closest to his contemporary counterpart is the first appearance of elements of spiritual culture. These are both objects and rites of symbolic character… as well as evidence of certain ritual and funerary customs. The first intentional burials, known both from Europe and western Asia, are associated with Neanderthal man…. While the existence of burial gifts has not been indisputably confirmed, Neanderthals could express their attitude to the dead in an even more subtle manner, by placing flowers on graves (burial from Shanidar Cave in northern Iraq)’ (translated by Aleksandra Szkudłapska)

[51] For the history of the concept of imago in the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages, see Kurt Bauch, Beiträge zur Philosophie und Wissenschaft: W. Schilasi zum 70. Geburtstag, Munich, 1960, as cited in Gadamer, op. cit., p. 168. (‘At any rate it is still a question of the picture in human form. This is the sole theme of medieval art!’).

[52] See Mielniczuk, Grzegorzewski, op. cit., pp. 5–10; Grimm, op. cit., p. 25; Mitchell, Roberts, A History…, op. cit., p. 10

[53] Piotr Skubiszewski, Sztuka Europy łacińskiej od VI do IX wieku, Lublin, 2015, passim

[54] See Aleksandra Sulikowska, Ciała, groby i ikony. Kult świętych w ruskiej tradycji literackiej i ikonograficznej (Bodies, graves and icons),Warsaw, 2013

[55] According, that is, to those categories of decorative beauty (decor and ornatus) present in the western/ Latin theology of beauty and depiction, dating back to Isidore of Seville, in the 6th/7th centuries. Only later, in the 17th century, did this rule change in the astern part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, when under the western decorative influence, derived from prints and other documents, icons began to be set in ornamental frames inspired by western examples. This is associated with the ‘icon crisis’ and the purported loss of integral holiness, which has been broadly described in literature: see Maciej Kaźmierczak, MA thesis, op. cit.

[56] According to Belting, op. cit: Kultbild versus Kunstbild and Bild versus Gemälde

[57] Stoichita, op. cit.

[58] Michael Camille, Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art, London, 1992

[59] Mitchell & Roberts, A history..., op. cit., p. 10

[60] Grimm, op. cit., p. 27

[61] A concise presentation of the aesthetics and philosophy of beauty followed by Thomas Aquinas may be found in Götz Pochat, Geschichte der Ästhetik und Kunsttheorie. Von der Antike bis zum 19. Jahrhundert, Cologne, 1986, pp. 175–90

[62] Leon Battista Alberti, De pictura, 1435; Italian: Della pittura, 1436

[63] Mitchell & Roberts, Frameworks…, op. cit.

[64] George Bisacca, ‘The rise of the all’antica altarpiece frame

[65] Hélène Verougstraete & Roger Van Schoutte, ‘Frames and supports of some Eyckian paintings’, in Investigating Van Eyck, Delphine Cool, Sue Jones, Susan Foister, eds,  2000, pp. 107–17.

[66] Antoni Ziemba, ‘Płótno jako podobrazie malarskie’, in Sztuka Burgundii i Niderlandów 1380–1500, vol. 2: Niderlandzkie malarstwo tablicowe 1430–1500, Warsaw, 2011, pp. 424–34

[67] Caroline Villers, ‘Paintings on canvas in fourteenth century Italy’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, vol. 58, no. 3, 1995, pp. 338–58

[68] Jørgen Wadum, ‘Historical overview of panel-making techniques in the Northern countries’, in The structural conservation of panel paintings: Proceedings of a symposium at the J. Paul Getty Museum, The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles, 24–28 April 1995, Kathleen Dardes and Andrea Rothe, eds, Los Angeles, 1998, pp. 149–77

[69] These questions are fully discussed in Gilbert Creighton’s seminal article ‘Peintres et menuisiers au début de la Renaissance in Italie’, Revue de l’Art, no. 37, 1977, pp. 9–28 (English translation: ‘Painters & woodcarvers in early Renaissance Italy‘). For a more recent analysis, see Michelle O’Malley, The business of art: contracts and the commissioning process in Renaissance Italy, New Haven & London, 2005

[70] Marilena Mosco, Cornici dei Medici. La fantasia barocca al servizio del potere / Medici Frames. Baroque Caprice for the Medici Prince, 2007

[71] See ‘How artists have used the frame in the past & how they can use it now

[72] For instance, the frames used by Edgar Degas; see ‘How Pre-Raphaelite Frames Influenced Degas and the Impressionists

[73] Gombrich, op. cit., p. 59.

[74] Walter Benjamin, The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, London, 2008; first published in Germany in 1935 as Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit

[75] See Oksana Lysenko, Precious Framing. The painting and its frame: Dialogues – an exhibition at the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow’ 

[76] Oleg Tarasov, Framing Russian art: from early icons to Malevich, 2012, p. 333

[77] Jan Białostocki, ‘Art’s humility and irreverence vis-à-vis the sacrum’, Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie. Nowa Seria / Journal of the National Museum in Warsaw. New Series, no. 2, vol. 38, 2013, pp. 170–76

[78] Antoni Ziemba, ‘ ‘Rękodzielność’ w teorii sztuki epoki nowożytnej. Szkic’, in Wśród ludzi, rzeczy i znaków. Krzysztofowi Pomianowi w darze, Andrzej Kołakowski et al., eds, Warsaw, 2016, pp. 501–20

[79] Alberti, op. cit.

[80] Gadamer, op. cit., p. 152

[81] Ibid.: “The antithesis of the decorative to a real work of art is obviously based on the idea that the latter originates in ‘the inspiration of a genius.’ The argument was more or less that what is only decorative is not the art of genius, but mere craftsmanship.”