Magazine article Art Business News

From Ancient Egypt to 17th Century France

Magazine article Art Business News

From Ancient Egypt to 17th Century France

Article excerpt

Picture frames can be beautiful, functional, and historically interesting objects, but have you ever wondered about their origins? Rooted in two-dimensional art, picture frames began as flat borders on walls, urns, or any decorative item requiring a margin to separate one space from another. More than 4,000 years ago, Egyptian wall paintings were using lines and, later, geometric ornaments to articulate scenes, but frames as we now know them came much later.

The forebears of modern carved wooden frames appeared around the 11th century. Painted altars like decorated boxes with raised, ornamental protective edges later gave way to framed paintings on top of the altar, and these eventually became more vertical, like a church in silhouette. Duccio di Buoninsegna's Rucellai Madonna, painted in 1285, is a good example.

During the 14th and early 15th centuries, patrons, artists, and woodcarvers exploited this likeness to a church, making the frames into the cross-sections of great Gothic cathedrals. These frames symbolized the Celestial Church, and showed scenes of Christ and the saints as if they were visions appearing in the naves, aisles, crypts, and towers of the cathedral. These paintings with multiple panels (polyptychs) were so large and complex that, like buildings, they required buttresses to support them. The craftsmen who produced them were deemed equal in status to the painters.

During the Italian Renaissance, classical influences diffused through architecture, and Greco-Roman temples replaced Gothic altarpieces with their pointed arches, finials, and gilding. Single rectangles also replaced the polyptychs. The rectangle, or quadro, was a painted scene in which the saints and divine figures seemed to be interacting in a realistic space (the sacra conversazione or sacred conversation). The temple-like, or aedicular, frame functioned as a classical door or window opening onto these scenes, giving worshippers the sensation of looking through it to a sacred event that was occurring before their eyes. The frames were also removable, and no longer part of one integrated structure. They were decorated with various embellishments: carved ornament; parcel-gilding and painting; sgraffito, patterns scratched through gilding to the paint layer beneath; engraved or punched designs; raised motifs painted with liquid gesso; and moulded decoration. Again, the craftsmen were highly regarded, and some, including Giuliano da Maiano, Antonio Manetti, and Giuliano and Antonio Giamberti San Gallo, were well-known architects.

Some altarpieces had inner borders of carved ornaments, and these, along with the frames of small sacred paintings, influenced the appearance of symmetrical frames for secular works. Portraits and history paintings acquired movable frames such as those that we recognize today. One of the earliest and most enduring frame styles was the cassetta, or little box. It comprises an outer or top moulding, which over the years became increasingly complex; a flat or convex frieze, which could have many kinds of decoration; and another moulding at the inner, or sight, edge. Just as every country produced variants of the Gothic and Renaissance altarpiece, every country also developed versions of the cassetta frame.

During the 16th century, artists and architects such as Michelangelo began to play with the proportions of objects and the balance and harmony of compositions. This trend, which became known as Mannerism, originated as a reaction to the harmonious classicism and the idealized naturalism of High Renaissance art in the late 15th century. Mannerist architects, designers, and carvers produced distinctive patterns of picture frames. In Italy, for example, such frames distorted classical motifs, piling them together and elongating structural lines; they used exaggerated 3D ornaments and contrasting colors, such as those displayed in the flamboyantly scrolling "Sansovino" frame. …

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