The birth of framing.

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.

On the left, the modern and busy golden frame interferes with the image. On the right, the frame given to this Van Gogh by the Guggenheim gives depth to the art and gently allows the eye to slip into the French landscape.

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.

“This figure-ground relationship and the need to contain it are seen here in a pure, direct expression that is at the core of the concept and function of the frame” (Defining Edges by W.H Bailey)

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.

The King’s Grave near  Kivik houses ten ornamented slabs.

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.

Dated 2100–2030 B.C., lines were carved above and below the Frieze from the tomb of Mereri in a effort to frame the message.
Found in the Tomb of Rekhmire, 1504–1425 B.C., the frame is explored on various levels with lines and tree patterns.
Dated 1500 B.C., the leaping bull in this Minoan Fresco is meticulously framed with decorative borders of geometric designs.

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.

One of the first artists in history to have signed his work, Euphronios is an important artist of the red-figure technique.

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.

Framed frescoes depicting mythological scenes in the triclinium (dining room) of the House of the Tragic Poet.
Close up of a painting on the North wall of the House of the Tragic Poet, Iphigenia in Aulis.
Floor mosaic of the House of the Tragic Poet’s vestibule depicting a dog, framed by double rows of mosaic.

The Alexander Mosaic, dated 100BC, also boasts a beautiful frame. The Roman floor mosaic depicts a battle between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia.

The frame of the mosaic consists of large stones in a dentate pattern with rosettes in every corner. You can see a brown strip at the bottom of the frame, some say it serves to balance the white expanse of sky, others believe that it is part of the frame. 

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.

Fayum portraits were for the upper class. This mummy portrait is of a woman named Isidora from Ankyronpolis, 100-110 A.D.

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.

The Nativity Icon, dated 6th Century. (Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt)
Double sided Icon from Thebes. Image dated back to the 9th Century. (Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens, Greece.)
The Angel with the Golden Locks, Icon date to the 12th Century. (Rumyantsev Museum, St. Petersburg.)
Byzantine mosaic portable Icon, 1300 A.D. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)
Madonna and Child, Icon dated 1290-1300 A.D. You can see that the bottom edge of the original frame is marked by candle burns. Located at the Met Museum, NY.

And the frame was born.

From there, frames used to decorate religious representation in places of worship grew to become part of the masterpiece.

The Ghent Altarpiece or the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, by the brothers Hubert and Jan van Eyck. 15th Century (Ghent, Belgium)

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.

Commemorative birth tray (desco da parto) celebrating the birth of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–1492), originally kept in Lorenzo’s private quarters in the Medici palace in Florence

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?

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