In the world of pictorial arts, the frame is the edge of the image. The frame can be material, made of strips of carved wood, metal, plaster… or it can be immaterial when talking of the edge of the image itself.
Still wrongfully considered as a superfluous decorative element by many, it is surprising to see how much the perception of an image can change depending on its frame.
Below is Van Gogh’s Mountains at St Remy (1889) in two different frames. This aims to demonstrate how the frame can impact the overall impression and feeling of a painting.
The frame separates the image from the rest of the world, and so the space of the image is isolated from the rest to become like sort of jewel in its case.
Today, we’ll look at how the art of framing evolved through the ages.
Framing art from 4000 B.C
A very early desire to frame can be observed in this Iranian beaker which is dated 4000 B.C. An antelope stands out against a white background and is purposefully framed by a rectangular black band of consistent width.
The desire to present artwork in an aesthetical way, by accentuating its value with a frame can be identified in prehistorical times. The tomb of Kivik in Sweeden dates from 1400 B.C. and we can see that every artwork is already carefully framed with lines.
Ancient Egypt was an advanced and very productive civilisation, we can find evidence of consideration being given to frame art as early as 2100 B.C.
Moving forward to 1000 B.C.
In 800 B.C., Kuttamuwa, a royal official from Aramaic city Sam’al, ordered an inscribed stele that was to be erected upon his death. A frame is sculpted into the stele around the illustration.
Framing art in the Iron Age
Ancient Greece produced some incredible pottery and is famous for its ornamental borders. Below is a piece of pottery dated 500BC made by the ancient Greek potter and painter Euphronios. Euphronios often used ornamental borders to frame his illustrations.
Framing in the Roman Age
The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompei, dated somewhere around 150 B.C., is a fantastic example of how important framing was and how architecture could be used to help frame. The house contains elaborate mosaics and paintings, all perfectly framed to occupy their space.
From all the above, we understand that the desire to frame, to define the outer limits of the background that contains the motif, has concerned many cultures since the dawn of civilisation.
Icons and the birth of the frame as we know it.
One of the earliest wooden frames was found in Egypt, Hawara, in a tomb dated from the 2nd Century. The Egyptians portraits painted on wood would cover the face of bodies that were mummified for burial. This Art is now known as Fayum mummy portraits as most portraits were found in the Faiyum Oasis.
However, it seems that the earliest use of actual portable wooden frames really flourished with the production of icons. The controversial tradition of icon veneration can be traced back as far as the 3rd Century.
Originally, pocket icons would be protected with a frame so that the image could be hidden behind a hinged clasp. Often painted on wood, a recess would be carved out so that the icon could be painted inside the panel and be protected by its wooden frame.
And the frame was born.
From there, frames used to decorate religious representation in places of worship grew to become part of the masterpiece.
During the Renaissance, frames flourished to become elaborately ornate works of art. Church-based to begin with, the frames soon made their way to private homes, starting with rich nobles like the Medici family who would commission devotional paintings.
If you would like to learn more about the concept of framing, then you might enjoy our post “Without its frame where does the image begin?“