The Origin of Picture Framing
Today, framing a piece of art for display is considered the conventional norm. But when did framing get its start? This week, Art and Frame of Falls Church presents you with a little slice of art history!
The earliest surviving example of framing comes from the funerary portraits of Fayum, Egypt from about 200 CE. In this aristocratic funerary tradition, combining Greek and Roman artistic traditions with Egyptian burial practices, a portrait of the deceased was painted in tempera or encaustic on wooden panels, then placed over the face of the mummified remains. Usually, the dead were buried with the panel only, but in at least one instance, the panel was found in the remnants of a simple wooden frame. This suggests that the portraits may have hung in the individual's home prior to their death.
It wasn't until around the 13th century that carved picture frames re-emerged in Europe. The earliest examples consist of panel paintings that were carved from a single block of wood. The central portion would be carved flat, with the edges raised and sometimes decoratively carved. The cost of making this pieces in large scale as well as inherent restrictions provided by the building materials eventually led to the practice of using strips of carved moulding to create a frame. These framed works, however, were rarely free-standing pieces. Typically, they were used to decorate cathedrals, particularly altarpieces. The frames then became part of the structural support, providing decoration and a means for breaking up vignettes of the visual stories being told as well as serving a more architectural purpose. As such, it is no surprise that frame designs reflected architectural elements.
Early on, the artist usually had little to do with the actual frame design. The frames were often designed to reflect the architectural setting in which the piece would appear. By the time of the Renaissance and the great patrons of the arts, however, this began to change. Patrons called for works of fine art to hang in their homes, so the painting and frame as a single mobile unit become more common. And, since the frame was now purely a companion to the art, the artists became more involved in the framing process. Many master painters built, carved, and gilded their own frames. This allowed them to create frames that were custom-made to suit the piece, often sharing aesthetic or thematic components with the painting itself. This was the start of framing as we know it today!
Over the centuries and in different regions across the globe, framing styles, techniques, and materials have changed dramatically, but the principles have remained the same. Later, we'll present some of these regional stylistic differences and maybe give some more historical tidbits. We hope this little article was fun and informative! If there is ever a particular topic you would like to hear about, please comment somewhere on our Facebook page or in the discussion forum - new ideas are always welcome! Thank you, and have a good week!