The Frame Blog

Articles, interviews and reviews to do with antique and modern picture frames

Mauritshuis frames: Part 1

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This article, by the senior curator of the Mauritshuis, The Hague, was first published as: Quentin Buvelot, ‘Mauritshuis Frames’, Mauritshuis in focus, 27 (2014), nr 1, pp. 6-12

The Mauritshuis aims to present its collection as well as possible. This means conserving and restoring the paintings, as well as paying attention to the frames. A suitable frame can enhance an artwork, whereas a badly chosen one can detract from it. Nowadays there is renewed interest in the history of the frames in our collection.

Few visitors to the Mauritshuis probably realize that only a dozen or so paintings in the collection are still in their original frames. At one time or another nearly all the Old Masters were given new frames that better suited the prevailing taste. Notable exceptions are the three seventeenth-century Dutch portraits in their original trophy frames, which will be described in a later article.

The history of the picture frames in the Mauritshuis is closely connected to the history of the collection, the core of which was formed by two princes of Orange: Willem IV (1711-1751) and his son, Willem V (1748-1806). The latter put the collection on public display in 1774, when he had two hundred paintings housed in the ‘Galerij’ on the Buitenhof. This gallery of paintings was open to the public at set times, thus becoming the first public art collection in Holland. More than twenty years later, in 1795, the French troops which had invaded the Republic ransacked the gallery and took the collection to the Louvre. After the French occupation, most of the paintings were brought back to The Hague in 1815, having become the property of the Dutch state in the meantime. The frames, however, remained in Paris.

1 Hondecoeter in Empire frameA painting by Hondecoeter in an Empire frame from the Mauritshuis’s collection, being hung in Het Loo Palace

New frames had to be made for all the pictures, and these were ordered en masse from the firm of Wed. Dorens en Zoon, Hofspiegelkoopers (Purveyors of Looking Glasses and Picture Frames) in Amsterdam and delivered in February 1817; the sum of 5,000 guilders had been set aside for this purpose. The gilt frames with decorations in late Empire style were completely in keeping with the current fashion. A number of paintings still have these frames; the different models and decorations were deliberately chosen for the sake of variety. The collection was reinstalled in the Gallery in the spring of 1817, but in 1822 it was moved to the Mauritshuis, which had been bought precisely for this purpose.

Documentation of frames

Eighteenth-century inventories tell us quite a bit about the frames that originally held the Stadholder’s collection of paintings. An inventory drawn up in 1793, for example, offers fairly precise descriptions: in addition to gilt frames, black ones ‘with a gilt inner edge’ were also popular. It has proven difficult to obtain information about the frames purchased from 1822 onwards, since the Mauritshuis began to publish annual reports which describe them only in 1878. For information on the intervening period we must turn to official documents in the Mauritshuis archive and the National Archives, although these sources still need to be researched further. Old photographs of the museum’s interior could also be a source, but none pre-dates 1900.

2 Antoon François Heijligers ed sm Antoon François Heijligers, Interior of the Rembrandt Room in the Mauritshuis, 1884, panel, 47 x 59 cm, Mauritshuis

There is, however, a depiction of the interior of the museum, painted by Antoon François Hejiligers (1828-97) in 1884, just a few years after the rooms in the Mauritshuis were reorganized. The panel shows one of the Rembrandt rooms, present-day Room 10, which usually contains the late Rembrandts. In the nineteenth century this room featured Rembrandt’s Anatomy lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp of 1632 in a dark moulded frame. Almost every other painting was set in a gilt frame. One striking detail is that the lower edge of several paintings overlapped the wood panelling; today this would be considered an eyesore.

New director, new frames

The talented art historian Abraham Bredius (1855-1946) was appointed director in 1889. His extensive circle of friends and contacts plus his eye for quality enabled him to add many important paintings to the collection. Bredius had the new acquisitions, as well as various pictures already in the collection, reset in nearly identical dark brown frames with a gilt, decorated inner moulding.

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 Vermeer, Girl with a pearl earring in a frame purchased by Bredius (photograph after 1913). Both this frame and the one holding Fabritius’s Goldfinch (see below) have been replaced

An example is Vermeer’s Girl with a pearl earring, as seen in a photograph taken after 1933. When Bredius died in 1946, it turned out that he had bequeathed twenty-five paintings from his private collection to the Mauritshuis. Some of these are still in their dark ‘Bredius frames’, but the highlights of his bequest – such as Rembrandt’s Homer, and Saul and David, a painting attributed to Rembrandt – had costly gilt frames.

Vermeer Girl with pearl ed

Vermeer, Girl with a pearl earring, c.1665, as framed today; Mauritshuis

Large-scale replacement of frames

Bredius’s successor, Wilhelm Martin (1876-1954), changed the presentation policy once again, in accordance with changing tastes. From 1929 he ordered so-called composition (sometimes shortened to ‘compo’) frames for many of the seventeenth-century paintings in the collection.

4 Mauritshuis collection ed sm Examples of three composition frames produced by A.J. Heydenrijk Jr Schilderijlijstenfabriek in the 1930s, holding paintings by Willem van Aelst (left & right) and Jan Both (centre)

These machine-produced frames consisted of a ‘composition’ of glue, turpentine, chalk, asbestos, linseed oil and other ingredients. Their design goes back to French frames of the eighteenth century. The application of elaborate, scrolled ornamentation gives such frames irregular profiles, in contrast to Empire frames, whose outer edges display straight lines. The surviving correspondence shows that Martin ordered dozens of composition frames from his regular supplier, A.J. Heydenrijk Jr., in Amsterdam. Martin chose models with varying ornaments, as emerges from the quotation submitted by Heydenrijk on 29 October 1930.

The Holbeins reframed

Bob de Vries (1905-83), who became director in 1947, also paid a great deal of attention to the collection’s presentation.

5 Holbeins before Four paintings in the Mauritshuis by or after Holbein; these have now been reframed

The deep Empire frames holding the sixteenth-century portraits by Holbein had been replaced by Martin in 1923, but De Vries had more suitable frames made for these paintings, and they are still in use.

Holbein Robert Cheseman ed

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Robert Cheseman, 1533, in new frame; Maurithuis 

Thanks to outside financial assistance, the Mauritshuis was able to acquire a splendid Italian frame made around 1600 for Holbein’s portrait of Robert Cheseman in 1952, and purchased nineteenth-century frames for Holbein’s portrait of an unknown falconer and a studio piece, the portrait of Jane Seymour, in 1956.

Holbein Jane Seymour ed

Studio of Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of Jane Seymour, c.1540, in new frame; Mauritshuis

These frames in sixteenth-century style are of such high quality that they are often mistaken for originals from the time of Holbein.

6 Holbeins after

View of a wall in the exhibition Masters from the Mauritshuis at the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague. Photo: Ivo Hoekstra

In the annual report of 1952, De Vries described his attempts to buy old or suitable frames, for which practically no money was available. He spoke frankly about the Empire frames, calling them tasteless, and he also disliked the modern composition frames, which in his opinion did not do justice to the Mauritshuis’s Old Masters.

Authentic character

In recent decades successive directors have replaced a large number of frames with more suitable ones.

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Carel Fabritius, The goldfinch, 1654, in new frame; Mauritshuis

Antique picture frames have been acquired for The goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, Jan Davitsz de Heem’s Flower still life, and Rembrandt’s Portrait of an old man. The museum still pays close attention to the presentation of the collection. Suitable antique frames are not always available, so the Mauritshuis often orders copies, whose profiles and decorations derive from sixteenth- or seventeenth- century frames. An indispensable reference work in this respect is the 1984 publication compiled by P. van Thiel and C. de Bruyn Kops, Prijst de lijst: De Hollandse schilderijlijst in de zeventiende eeuw (a revised edition appeared in English in 1995, under the title, Framing in the Golden Age: picture and frame in 17th-century Holland).

9 Willem van Haecht before ed Willem van Haecht, Apelles painting Campaspe, in its previous frame

10 Willem van Haecht Apelles painting Campaspe ed sm Willem van Haecht, Apelles painting Campaspe, in a new frame based on those in the painting; Mauritshuis 

Paintings are usually reframed after a purchase, bequest or restoration. An important exhibition, at the Mauritshuis or elsewhere, can also be a reason to replace a frame, as happened recently with a small painting by Jan Gossaert. After a loan request from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the painting was restored and provided with a new frame, which was inspired by an authentic one for another painting by Gossaert. Willem van Haecht’s Apelles painting Campaspe was given a new frame which significantly enhances its appearance, with a view to its inclusion in the 2009-10 exhibition Room for art in 17th century Antwerp. This long-cherished wish could be fulfilled thanks to support from the Johan Maurits Comapgnie Foundation. The new frame with a gilt inner edge is based on one of the 17th century frames depicted in the painting. Apelles painting Campaspe had such a frame in the time of Stadholder Willem V.

7 Rembrandt Susanna beforeRembrandt, Susanna, 1636, in its previous frame, produced by A.J. Heydenrijk Jr Schilderijlijstenfabriek in the 1930s; Mauritshuis

Thanks to support from the American Friends of the Mauritshuis, a new frame was ordered for Rembrandt’s Susanna of 1636. The old frame, produced by the firm of Heydenrijk, left non-autograph passages visible on the rectangular panel, whereas the new black frame shows the painting with rounded upper edges, just as Rembrandt had intended.

8 Rembrandt Susanna after

 Rembrandt, Susanna, 1636: in a replica 17th century frame which closely approximates the original; Mauritshuis 

This new frame is a big improvement, lending the scene more intimacy and thus heightening its power of expression. This particular example underscores how important it is to get the frame just right.

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With grateful thanks to Quentin Buvelot for his article, to Anne Lenders, Assistant Curator of the Mauritshuis Collections Department, for permission to republish it, and to Gini Kingma for orchestrating the process.

Frames: State of the Art. Part 1: José Ortega y Gasset

1 Frames State of the Art COVER sm

The book, Frames: state of the art (Rammens kunst), was published in 2008 to accompany the exhibition of the same name at the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen in 2009. The guiding spirit behind both was Henrik Bjerre, Head Conservator & head of the Jørn Rubow Centre for Conservation at the Museum for over 40 years. He is generously allowing The Frame Blog to republish essays from the book; these will appear as an occasional series.

The first piece in the series is part of an essay by the Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, first published in 1921, and known in some translations as ‘Meditations on the frame’.

Thoughts on art and philosophy

José Ortega y Gasset [Essay, 1921, sections 2-5]

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A painting lives its life surrounded by a frame.  This close connection between painting and frame is by no means accidental.  They are mutually dependent.  A painting without a frame leads one’s thoughts to a man who has been robbed and stripped.  Its content overflows the edges of the canvas and dissolves in the surrounding reality.  On the other hand, the frame demands to have a painting inside it, and if it does not, then the section of the world one sees through the empty frame often appears as a painting in itself.

The relationship between frame and painting is quite indissoluble, then, and far from being accidental; it has the nature of being a physical law, just as the neurological system is dependent on the cardiovascular and vice versa.  As thought presupposes material, and the latter cannot function without the former.

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José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)

One could be tempted to think that the relationship between painting and frame corresponds to the body’s relationship to clothes.  This would, however, be a misunderstanding.  The frame is not the painting’s clothing, for, unlike clothing, which covers the body, the frame has the property of supporting the painting. It is true that sometimes clothing leaves parts of the body uncovered; but this appears to us often to be in sheer defiance, a rebellion by clothing itself, a sort of denial of its real purpose, a sin.  If the part of the body which is not covered by clothes becomes larger than the part that is, the clothing ceases to be garments and instead becomes decoration, pure ornament.  The naked Indian’s band around his waist is thus not part of a garment but has an exclusively ornamental nature.

However, we cannot regard the frame as decoration and ornamentation for the painting, either. Man’s very first artistic efforts were to decorate his own body.  The seed of all art which was to follow lies in these primitive decorations.  Two or more of nature’s own works, which nature had not itself united, were conjoined in these very first works of art. Man fixed a bird’s feather on his head, the teeth of beasts of prey were hung on a chain round his neck, and he tied a bracelet of shining stones around his wrist.  These were the first expressions in the enigmatic and complex language of art.

What inscrutable instinct made the Indian adorn his head, then, with a colourful feather?  Undoubtedly it was a question of drawing attention to himself, to mark a difference from others and a superiority.  Biology has shown us that the need to show off and dominate is even stronger than the urge to look for food and shelter.

This innovative Indian had an indefinable idea deep inside him that he was worth more than the others, he was more of a man than them; he fired off his whistling arrows through the dense forest with great precision and hit the most beautiful and shyest birds.  The consciousness of his own superiority slumbered quietly within him.  When he affixed the bird’s feather to his head, he gave body and life to his picture of himself. The feather was not just for the others to admire it, it was more a sort of lightning conductor which could attract the eyes of others and lead them on to his person.  The feather was like an accent on a letter, and the accent accentuates the letter beneath it – and not itself in any way.  The feather accentuates, emphasizes the Indian’s head and body, it floats colourfully over him and shines out in all directions.

The same is true of all other sorts of ornamentation as it is with the Indian’s feather: they attract attention, but only to lead it on to the ornamented object.  The frame, on the other hand, does not in itself attract attention.  This can be proved quite easily.  Try to think of the paintings you know best, and you will discover that you cannot remember how they are framed.  The only place we look at the frame for its own sake is at the framemaker’s; that is, when it does not carry out its function as a frame.

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The frame in itself does not draw the eye; it concentrates the gaze and allows itself to gather on the painting.  This is not, however, its primary capacity.

The work of art is like an imaginary floating island, surrounded by reality on all sides.  So it is decisive that it remains isolated from the life going on around it.  We cannot move gradually between the physical and the painted world.  Besides, we would not get the same aesthetic benefit at all from the work if the borders between art and the world around were erased.  A painting without a frame loses its beauty and persuasive power if its borders merge with the concrete reality around it, with its demands and expectations of usefulness.  If we want to get the most out of art, we have to move directly from the concrete reality of the wall to the imaginary universe of the work of art.  There has to be a divider.  This divider is the frame.

If you want to divide something off from something else, you need a third thing which does not remind you of either of these two.  A neutral object.  The frame is not a necessary part of the building, like the wall; nor is it the enchanted surface of the canvas.  The frame serves to neutralize a little part of the wall and lead our eye on from this to the other dimension, to the imaginary island.

So the frame is a sort of window, in the same way as windows also behave as frames.  The painting opens up for an idealized piece of the world in the middle of the silent reality of the wall, and we lean forward as if towards a window and regard this unreal scenario.  In a similar way, a portion of a city or landscape seen through a window opening also often comes to look like a detached fragment without connection to the concrete world, just like a painting.

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The gold frame has been preferred over the centuries to all other sorts of frame.  The above interpretation of the function of the frame helps to explain the privileged status of the gold frame.  If the purpose is to take us away from empirical reality, the frame must appear to be as little recognizable as possible in relation to the nature which surrounds us.  No matter how stylized the frame is, it will always lead our thoughts to the materials it has been made of.  Even the cleanest and most geometrical ornamentation, convolutions and spiral decoration, will remind us of nature’s own forms, in the same way as the shell, picked up a thousand years ago, will still give echoes of the seething waves of the Atlantic.  Only that which has no form is free of any sort of reference to reality.

It is possible that the special status of the gold frame is due to the fact that the purple bronze used for gilding is the material that most reflects light, and reflections of light are not things in themselves but just light, pure colour without form.  If an object is made of metal or glass, we will not focus on the light and reflections in the same way, but on the contrary, on the surface of the object itself.  The reflection of light belongs neither to what is reflected nor to what it is reflected by, rather to the immaterial spectrum in between.  As it neither has its own form nor is reproduced by the form of others, we are unable to see it as a concrete object and we are left in a strange uncertainty.

With its powerful refulgence, the gold frame draws a glittering line between the painting and the reality around it.  Its reflections of light are like knives that continually cut the ties we tend to want to make between the unreality of the work and the concrete reality of the surroundings.  Quite in the same way as the gate to Paradise, where an angel meets the new arrival with a burning sword, a sword of reflections of light.

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The stage curtain is the frame of the theatre stage.  It hangs heavy and significant, like brackets surrounding other content than what is to be found in the rest of the room.  The less ornamentation it has, the better.  It tells us with a grandiose and absurd gesture that another world begins on the imaginary hinterland of the stage, an unreal world, a phantasmagoria.  We would not allow it if the stage curtain opened its mouth to speak about business and daily life, that it just repeated what the audience have already brought into the theatre with them.  We expect to be met by a puff of fantasy, a breath of legend and unreality.

One cannot ever get to the bottom of this subject, and our attempts to write the definitive work on the frame must necessarily end in failure. We have to stop while we can.  Of course we could begin to talk about the hat and veil as a frame around a woman’s face.  Here we have to give up.  It would also be fitting to discuss why Chinese and Japanese paintings are not normally framed.  But why should we start on that discussion, which in its essence is about the difference between Western and Far Eastern art, between the Asian and the European soul?  To understand these differences, we would first have to investigate why the Chinese orient themselves towards the south and not the north.  Why people wear white in China to show sorrow.  Why they start with the roof and not the foundation when they build a house.  And why people in China move their heads up and down when they want to say no, just like us when we want to say yes.

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With grateful thanks to Henrik Bjerre for permission to republish articles in Frames: state of the art, and to Sven Bjerkhof and Poul Lauritsen for facilitating the process.

National Gallery, London: reframings – an update

The National Gallery, London, has recently seen three important paintings reframed:  Andrea del Sarto, The Madonna and Child, St Elizabeth and the Baptist (c.1513); Bronzino, The Madonna and Child with saints (probably c.1540); and Johann Liss, Judith in the tent of Holofernes (c. 1622).

Andrea del Sarto Madonna & Child & Bronzino Madonna & Child with Saints NG ed

Andrea del Sarto, The Madonna and Child, St Elizabeth and the Baptist (c.1513), & Bronzino, The Madonna and Child with saints (probably c.1540).  National Gallery, London

The first two of these are works by Mannerist painters, which hang side by side in the Gallery, and they have been set into two extraordinarily beautiful and powerful Mannerist frames. Mannerism is usually best described as a subversion of classical idiom, in which the artist, craftsman, architect or designer plays games with the conventional proportions and motifs which characterized art during the Renaissance. Although it’s a term which was first applied to painting (earlier, in the work of Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo; later in work by Pontormo, Bronzino, Coreggio, etc.), and emerges as a style in the late teens and early twenties of the 16th century, it’s also applied to the tricks of design played in buildings, furniture and picture frames.

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Michelangelo, vestibule of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, 1524-34, and subseq.-1571

The earliest example of a fully Mannerist building is probably the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, designed by Michelangelo in the 1520s and incorporating many innovative twists on classical proportion and motif. The stretched silhouettes, tapering pilasters and enlarged pediments of the wall niches, as well as the scrolling ends of the steps and massive volutes above the half-landing, would all become characteristic of Mannerist frames.

Michelangelo Porta Pia Rome Michelangelo, Porta Pia, Rome, 1561-65

A much later design by Michelangelo for the Porta Pia in Rome provides a stylebook of Mannerist patterns. The blind windows on the second storey have outset corners, the ground storey windows are emphatically elongated, with exaggerated modillions or brackets supporting them, and the massive triple height portico is crowned with a lunette, open swan’s neck and triangular pediments.

Doorway of Porta Pia

 Doorway of Michelangelo’s Porta Pia, Rome

The portico by itself sports an accretion of motifs: the elongated supports of the upper pediments (plain triglyphs), with their large row of guttae, or pendant ‘raindrops’; the gigantic S-scroll volutes behind them, against the wall; the tight, concentric scrollings of the swan’s neck pediment and the enlarged bay leaf swag which joins them – all highly subversive deformations of the classical orders.

Andrea del Sarto school of St Sebastian Ospedale degli Innocenti Florence sm

School of Andrea del Sarto, St Sebastian, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence. Photo courtesy of the Paul Mitchell Archive

Here is an example of an original Mannerist frame on a school of del Sarto work in the Innocenti, Florence; this can correctly be described as a tabernacle frame, since it has a vestigial apron at the bottom and can thus only be wall-mounted. The replacement of columns or pilasters by fluted drops ending in pendant tassels; the S-scrolls at the back edge; the studs on the frieze, fluted cornice and parcel-gilded finish: these are all elements which play further games with features purloined from Mannerist architecture, in a joyous visual equivalent of joke and pun.

Andrea del Sarto Madonna & Child St Elizabeth & the Baptist c1513 NG17 ed Andrea del Sarto (1486-1530), The Madonna and Child, St Elizabeth and the Baptist, c.1513. National Gallery, NG17

The new frame on Andrea del Sarto’s Madonna & Child… is similarly created from a gallimaufry of visual games. It is as completely appropriate to the style and period of the painting as, for instance, the classical aedicule of the Frari Triptych is to Bellini’s work. The frame was acquired in Italy, and is unaltered. It is parcel-gilt walnut, a typically Mannerist finish, and some of the gilding is original. The design is based on a conventional aedicule, but the innermost moulding has taken over the frieze and supporting mouldings from the lower part of the entablature, becoming (as it were) a cassetta frame with attached cornice, base and pilasters. The pilasters in their turn have spun into S-shaped volutes, and their capitals and pedestals have slimmed into long, lean bars ornamented with piastre mouldings. Other Mannerist motifs include the gilt flutes on the cornice and at the sight edge: the latter provides an element of perspectival recession and focal emphasis for the painting; also the enriched studs on the frieze.

This is a superb and beautifully-preserved frame, which retains the original hanging device on the back. It was also miraculously exactly the right size for the picture, and is both a significant addition to the National Gallery’s increasing collection of period frames, and a notable improvement in presentation of the work it now contains. It hangs beside Bronzino’s Madonna and Child…, which has also recently been reframed in a Mannerist design.

Bronzino Madonna & child with saints c1540 NG ed sm

Agnolo Bronzino, The Madonna and Child with saints, c.1540.  National Gallery, NG5280 

This is an example of a Tuscan Mannerist architectural moulding frame; it plays on the enlarged hooks and flutes found in designs by the architect, Bartolomeo Ammannati, and (for instance) in the frame of Bronzino’s Portrait of Giovanni de’ Medici in the Ashmolean. Once more, it’s of parcel-gilt walnut, a combination which emphasizes the already prominent scoops and knulls of the main fluted ornament. Like the more subtle fluting at the sight edge of the del Sarto frame, this is primarily a focusing and an optical device; in other words, it grabs the spectator’s attention, and also provides an enhanced perspectival recession into the painting.  Since Bronzino’s figure composition is (like many Mannerist paintings) set in a very shallow space, with a distant background and no middle ground, this recessive trick actually creates a tension between painting and frame – another trait of Mannerist ornament (see also an earlier post ).

Pontormo Halberdier detail

Jacopo Pontormo, Portrait of a halberdier (?Francesco Guardi),c.1528, Getty Center

An extraordinary bolection version of this dynamic style frames Pontormo’s Portrait of a halberdier, 1528 .  Such frames would have helped paintings to stand out from the opulent interiors of painted decoration, panelling or coloured marbles where they originally hung.

Like the new frame on the del Sarto, that on Bronzino’s Madonna & Child… has its original hanging device: in this case it can be seen rising above the top of the frame. It was acquired in Germany, and, again like the other frame, is unaltered and exactly the right size for the painting it now contains. Even better, it creates a relationship with the Mannerist aedicule on the del Sarto similar to those which would have existed in hangings of the period, a great bonus for any gallery, and a reward for the meticulous trawling for suitable frames which has to be undertaken in order to make such acquisitions.

Both works are at the moment (June 2014) hanging in the newly-renovated rooms beneath the National Gallery. They are, in fact, together within one very striking space devoted to Mannerism, having been arranged on the left of Michelangelo’s large Entombment (c.1500-01), in its monumental painted and parcel-gilt aedicular frame of the 1570s, and his Virgin & Child with St John & angels (the so-called ‘Manchester Madonna‘ of c.1497).  The latter has a parcel-gilt Florentine frame, also of the 1560s-70s, with a wide frieze of raked and centred stopped-channel fluting, and an acanthus leaf top moulding. These four paintings together form an eye-catching and theatrical salute to Italian Mannerism on a single wall; but – even better – they are supported on the facing wall by works  by Bacchiacca and Pontormo. Amongst these Pontormo’s Joseph with Jacob in Egypt (c.1518) stands out: it has a handsome parcel-gilt bolection frame with stopped-channel fluting on the top edge and a leaf-tip at the sight.

Johann Liss Judith in the tent of Holofernes c1622 NG ed

 Johann Liss (c.1595-1631), Judith in the tent of Holofernes, c.1622. National Gallery, NG4597 

The National Gallery’s third new setting is another Italian walnut frame, this time Baroque in style, and married to a Baroque work by a German-born artist. Liss was, however, nothing if not pan-European. He was trained in Haarlem, Amsterdam and Antwerp, before moving to Venice via Paris, and then on to Rome, where his Judith… was probably painted. What better design to display it than a 17th century cassetta frame with a reverse or bolection profile – i.e. with the highest moulding nearest the sight edge, pushing the painting out from the wall towards the spectator? This thrusting style, with an emphatic difference of height between the back and sight edges, and a consequent opposition of highlighted moulding and strong cast shadow, complements perfectly the dramatic knot of opposed limbs and the swirling composition, as well as the contrast of light and dark in the painting, so characteristic of Baroque art. This frame may have originated, like the picture, in Rome, making it particularly appropriate for Liss’s work.

Johann Liss green NG sm

Liss walnut reverse cassetta veiled in green paint; note the butt joint across the frieze at the top

Happy discoveries are not, however, always straightforward; this beautiful wooden frame with its handsome grain and patina was concealed when it was found beneath a layer of pale viridian paint. Fortunately wood, especially a hard wood like walnut, can be relatively easily restored. This is not always the case with, for instance, gilding; often an original surface has to be regilded, simply because it’s not possible to remove whatever layers have been applied on top without removing the gilding, too. The walnut frame on the Liss, however, has been expertly restored to its original finish; and both Mannerist and Baroque collections at the National Gallery have been greatly enhanced by these three frames, which have found their perfect partners.

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With thanks to Peter Schade of the National Gallery for providing the images and information used in this article.

 National Gallery frames: an interview with Peter Schade > here

Girolamo da Santacroce’s polyptych in Košljun, Croatia

Dr. Kiril Penušliski examines the creation of this exceptionally well-preserved early 16th century Venetian altarpiece which survives on the island of Košljun, off Krk.

Girolamo da Santacroce Virgin & saints polyptych Franciscan convent 1535 Krk Kosljun 2

Girolamo da Santacroce, polyptych, The Virgin & Child in Glory with Saints, painted for the Franciscan Convent Assumption of the Virgin, Krk, 1535. Now Church of the Annunciation,  Košljun, near Krk.

When Catherina Fusculo passed away in Venice at the beginning of 1520, she left 1000 golden ducats to the Franciscan convent on the island of Krk in Croatia [i]. Born Frankopan, Catherina was the daughter of the last count of the island, Ivan Frankopan, who ruled independently before Venice incorporated the island into its own colonial empire [ii]. After overcoming some legal issues[iii], the Franciscan friars received the money Catherina bequeathed, and on the 4th of August 1535 commissioned an altarpiece for their church [iv]. Eight months later, it was finished. Today the painting is in the church of the Annunciation on the tiny island of Košljun, near the town of Krk.

Gulf of Venice 1680 Yale detail with Košljun near Krk ed

Map of the Gulf of Venice in 1680, showing Venice (top left), & the island of Krk, with the area of the town of Krk & the islet of Košljun in red (upper right quadrant). Yale University Map Department: the Venice Project: Maps of Venice

Google maps with Krk & Kosljun

The island of Krk on Google Maps, showing the towns of Krk and Punat, and the islet of Košljun (inset) in the bay between them

Kosljun Church of the Annunciation view of main altar sm

View of main altar, Church of the Annunciation, Košljun, with the polyptych centre back

The painting is a work by Girolamo da Santacroce. Born in Bergamo around 1480/85, he was probably first a pupil of Gentile Bellini, before moving to the studio of the younger Giovanni Bellini. Girolamo become an independent master around 1517, but he was not a particularly original artist. Very often he relied on the art of the Bellini brothers, and his paintings seem unaffected by the accomplishments of the subsequent generation of painters (in effect his own generation, that of Giorgione, Titian, Sebastiano, Lotto and Veronese). It is difficult to believe that Girolamo was unable to accept or take into account the changes happening in Venetian art at the time. Rather, it seems that his continual use of the landscapes, light, typology of figures and the general compositional examples invented and promulgated by Giovanni Bellini, was a conscious choice and that he specifically adapted his production toward clients who had a more conventional taste in pictures, such as the Franciscan friars who commissioned the Košljun picture.

Much like the other Belliniani, Girolamo based his art on three sacre conversazione by Giovanni Bellini [v]:

St Catherine of Siena sm

(1) the altar painting of St Catharina of Siena from around 1470 (destroyed in 1867), shown here in a photomontage of the original altar & frame in Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, with an engraving by Francesco Zannotto;

Bellini San Giobbe altarpiece sm

(2) the large San Giobbe Altarpiece, c. 1487, oil on panel, Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice; and

Bellini San Zaccaria altarpiece sm

(3) the majestic San Zaccaria altarpiece from 1505, still in situ in the church of San Zaccaria in Venice [vi].

Girolamo da Santacroce Virgin & saints polyptych Franciscan convent 1535 Krk Kosljun ed sm

Girolamo’s painting in Košljun is divided into three sections by the four pillars of its frame. The largest, central, panel shows the Virgin and Child in clouds surrounded by angels, while St Bonaventura, St Francis of Assisi, St Antony of Padua and St Louis of Toulouse look on. Each of the side wings has a tight group of three standing saints. On the right are St Catherine, St John the Baptist and St Quirinus. St Catherine and St John are the name saints of the donor and of her father Ivan (Croatian for John), whereas St Quirinus is the patron saint of the town of Krk. The other wing has St Jerome (the protector of the Franciscan province to which Košljun belonged, holding a model of the church), St Joseph, and St Clare (the founder of the feminine order of the Franciscans). Above the left and right panels, divided by the central section, is the scene of the Annunciation. The triangular attic above has a depiction of a white dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, whereas the predella is composed of six smaller pieces depicting The Immaculate Conception, The Birth of the Virgin, Presentation of Mary in the Temple, The Circumcision of Christ, The Visitation and The Assumption of the Virgin.[vii]

Although it was not uncommon for a painter to carve and on occasion to gild [viii] the frame for the picture he was to produce, this time a separate carver and a gilder were commissioned. As per the preserved contract, the commissioned artists were the carpenter Bartheo Andrea, the carver Sebastian Jacob and the gilder Francesco Bragadin. They were to construct the polyptych’s frame according to a previously agreed contract drawing which unfortunately has not survived. However, there are a number of other contract drawings by Girolamo that give us an indication as to how the contract drawing might have looked.

Girolamo in Rijksmuseum sm

Girolamo Santacroce, Design for an Altarpiece, pen & brown ink, wash, & red chalk. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Signed by a notary on 12th of June 1526, the Design for an Altarpiece in the Rijksmuseum shows the disposition of the figures in a polyptych. Only the left side of the polyptych is sketched out in detail, as the floral decorations of the frame would be repeated on the right-hand side. To the left and below the frame, there are divisions of scale which indicate that the drawing was intended to be used as a guide for the woodcutter commissioned to construct the frame.

Benedetto Diana Assumption of the Virgin British Museum image sm

Design for an Altarpiece, catalogued as attributed to Benedetto Diana, Assumption of the Virgin,  © Trustees of the British Museum; here credited to Girolamo da Santacroce

A similar example is in the British Museum in London. It currently carries an attribution to Benedetto Diana, but the typology of the figures and the author’s intimate knowledge of Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin confirm that a more likely candidate is Girolamo da Santacroce [ix]. Although the drawing lacks any indication of scale or measurements for the individual panels, it must have been used as a model to show the patron a number of possible styles of decoration for the frame; the artist having sketched out three different solutions. The left section of the polyptych has two columns with different classical decorations (the first is fluted while the second has vine ornaments), whereas the right has pilasters with floral decorations.

Girolamo da Santacroce Virgin & saints left sm

Girolamo da Santacroce, The Virgin & Child in Glory with Saints, detail of left side

The Košljun polyptych does not exactly conform to either of these two drawings, with both the disposition of the principal panels and the decorations of the frame varying slightly. At the bottom, it starts with four column bases that have six predella panels between them. The bases support two pairs of columns (with Corinthian capitals) decorated with a floral, vine and grape design. On the two columns on the left, the decorations wind up the columns clockwise, while on the two columns on the right the vines go up counter-clockwise. Each column pair is carrying an entablature linked by a broken segmental pediment. The two upper panels forming the scene of the Annunciation are flanked (on the outside) by corbels decorated with large leaves, while the deep cornice mouldings in the upper section of the frame are derived from a canopy as seen in antique aediculae. The whole frame is embellished with the same floral vine ornaments/design, save for the two outboard bases of the columns that have oval cartouches where most likely the crest of the donor would have been placed.

This polyptych format appears often in the Santacroce catalogue; its general disposition, form and decoration all being inspired by classical architecture. But in general terms, most late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Italian altarpieces were designed with architectural motifs so they could reflect contemporary church architecture; this added to the sense of majesty and authority carried by the sacred scenes the frame protected. The form of Košljun altarpiece, with its three axis, triumphal arch design ‘broken up’ by four pillars in three uneven parts, began appearing in Venetian art in the later part of the fifteenth century.

Pietro Lombardo Doge NIccolo Marcello 1474 sm

Pietro Lombardo, monument to Doge Niccolò Marcello, 1474, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice. Photo: Friends of Art 546138403

The type was highly influenced by the form of several funeral monuments created by the Lombardo family of sculptors[x], notably the two sons of Pietro Lombardo, Antonio and Tullio, who constructed a number of highly important funeral monuments for various Venetian doges. The most significant are the monuments for Doge Niccolò Marcello (1474) and that for Doge Andrea Vendramin (1480-94).

Tullio Lombardo Doge Andrea Vendramin 1480-95 B sm

Tullio Lombardo, monument to Doge Andrea Vendramin, 1480-95, Basilica dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo,Venice. Photo: Sira Gadea

Girolamo da Santacroce’s Košljun polyptych is one of the largest preserved works by this artist (the frame is 523 x 410 cm), and the contract document clearly shows that it was an expensive commission. The price was 174 gold ducats, which, when compared with prices given by Peter Humfrey for paintings done by Titian at roughly the same time (for the Averoldi polyptych of 1520-22, Titian was paid 200 ducats; and for the Death of St Peter Martyr from 1526-30, 100 ducats [xi]), places it in the upper part of the price range for Venetian paintings in the early part of the sixteenth century. This high price also indicates that the patrons of the Košljun picture were not influenced by financial matters, and that taste and stylistic preference were the primary reasons why Girolamo da Santacroce (together with the rest of the artists mentioned in the document) was commissioned. From the document we can also follow the division of finances between the artists. The carpenter received 36, the gilder 57, the carver 25 and the painter 56 ducats [xii].  This shows that the painter received about a third of the sum paid for the finished piece, with the other two-thirds going toward the construction of the frame.

Most altarpieces produced during the renaissance were executed in the painter’s studio. When they were finished, they had to be transported from the studio to the churches for which they were designed, and then erected and secured on their altars. Very few contracts detail the arrangements between the painter and the patron for the delivery and installation (unfortunately this is also the case for the Košljun piece). Much more common was the simple guarantee of the artist that the execution of the piece was going to be of the highest standard and that the artist would repair any damage which the painting might sustain in the span of the next few years. However, Anabel Thomas’s analysis of Neri di Bicci’s ricordanze shows that he was frequently required both to deliver and to set up his finished product. The fact that the record occurs much more often in Neri’s books than it does in preserved painters’ contracts, suggests that painters undertook this responsibility as a matter of course and that most parties did not see any need to record the requirements in a contract [xiii].

Cima da Conegliano Incredulity of St Thomas NG

Cima da Conegliano, The incredulity of St Thomas, 1502-04 (in an adaptation of the 1870 NG frame). National Gallery, London. NG816

Altarpieces were generally painted in the same towns for which they were commissioned, so transport was probably undertaken by workshop assistants who were used to handling art objects (be they gilded paintings or carved wooden statues). For longer journeys most of the paintings had to be meticulously prepared for transport. Most probably, straw and canvas were used as packaging materials. There is a recorded instance when a special crate was constructed to transport an altarpiece: this was for the transportation of Cima de Conegliano’s painting of The Incredulity of St Thomas to Portogruaro [xiv], when the painting travelled by both water and land. Altarpieces that had to travel many kilometres may have been put under the care of a company that specialized in shipping and carting large unwieldy objects [xv]. But the transportation of the majority of Venetian works destined for Adriatic customers probably did not involve the artist travelling any further than the quayside of his local canal. After the initial contact between the patron (or his representative) and the artist was made, business could be conducted at long range and the completed work dispatched to its destination on a merchant vessel [xvi].

In our case, we know that three high ranking members of the Franciscan order made the trip to Venice, where they signed the commissioning document in person. These three were the guardian of the Košljun convent, Francesco Subich de Vegia, the procurator of the convent, Stephano Trivisan, and the procurator of the Franciscan province of St Jerome in Dalmatia, Alvise de Renier. However, nothing is known about the actual transfer of the piece to Dalmatia.

Although transportation of paintings from Venice is rarely mentioned in documents, I cannot escape the feeling that the continuing taste among customers along the Dalmatian coast for the polyptych format, all but extinct in Venice itself by about 1500, can somehow be linked to the practical considerations of transport. Polyptychs, by their very nature, were constructed of pieces that were fitted together and could thus easily be disassembled for ease of transport. Having the large format of the Košljun piece in mind, this was most probably how it was transferred from Venice to Krk, in sections which were then assembled on site with the help of a local carpenter, woodcutter or another skilful craftsman.

Still in excellent condition, the Košljun polyptych is an outstanding example of Santacroce’s talent and ability as a painter. At the same time it is also an impressive example of early sixteenth century Venetian altarpiece and its frame ranks among the best preserved pieces from that period.

Kiril Penušliski

June 2014

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A Macedonian art historian who used to have tempestuous hair, Dr Kiril Penušliski is an expert on Italian Renaissance art. Despite having received his PhD degree in Jedi Sciences (read Art History), he can still on most nights be found playing chess online. His most lofty goal and ambition in life is to someday learn how to avoid making mouse slips in bullet games.

Frieze 2

[i] Catherina’s original testament is lost; but sections of her will are preserved in the archive of the Franciscan convent on Košljun; documents from 1520 – Processo del legato di Cattarina Frangipani.

[ii] For more on the circumstances in which Venice took control of the island and the subsequent fate of the last count of Krk see Vladislav Brusić, ‘Crkva sv. Marije od Navještenja na Košljunu’, in Bogoslovska smotra, vol. 21, n. 4. 1934, pp. 273-282.

[iii] There was some dispute between the heirs of the estate of Catherina’s first husband, Francisco Dandolo, the Franciscans from the island, and some other relatives of Catherina. The dispute was settled favourably for the Franciscans after they produced a number of witnesses who testified in their favour. See Brusić, ibid., pp. 276-280.

[iv] Fortunately, the commissioning document has survived. The most recent publication of the text can be found in Tizian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Veliki majstori renesanse, exh. cat., Galerija Klovičevi dvori, Zagreb, 2012, pp. 182-183.

[v] Still the best source for the Belliniani are the three volumes by Fritz Heinemann (Giovanni Bellini e i Belliniani, Saggi e studi di storia dell’arte, vol. i-ii, Venice, 1962, and Giovanni Bellini e i Belliniani: Supplemento e Ampliamenti, Hildesheim, Zurich and New York, 1991).

[vi] For more on these paintings see Oscar Batschmann, Giovanni Bellini, Reaktion Books, 2008.

[vii] For more on the iconographic program of the piece see Ivana Čapeta, ‘L’iconografia della Madonna nel politico di Girolamo da Santa Croce nella chiesa francescana sull’isola di Košunj’, in IKON, Journal of Iconographic Studies, n. 3, 2010, pp. 311 – 317.

[viii] One such famous example involves Leonardo da Vinci and the frame for his Virgin of the Rocks, now at the Musée du Louvre, Paris.

[ix] For more on the drawing see the Museum’s website. Writing in 1999, Bernard Aikema expressed his dissatisfaction with the attribution to Diana (see ‘Design for an Altarpiece’, in Renaissance Venice and the North, eds. Bernard Aikema and Beverly Louise Brown, Rizzoli, New York, 1993, p. 354). More recently the drawing has been given to Girolamo, as in Tizian, Tintoretto, Veronese, op. cit., p. 181.

[x] For more on the family see Alison Luchs, Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Yale University Press, 2009.

[xi] Peter Humfrey, The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, Yale University Press, 1993, p. 154.

[xii] As the Franciscans monks were very pleased with the painting they received, they awarded each of the artisans an additional sum on top of the previously agreed payment.

[xiii] See chapter ‘Completion of Merchandise: Delivery’, in Anabel Thomas, The Painter’s Practice in Renaissance Tuscany, Cambridge University Press, 1995, especially pp. 198-200.

[xiv] See Peter Humfrey, Cima de Conegliano, Cambridge, 1983, p. 203, and also The Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice, op. cit., p. 157.

[xv] On transporting large objects long distances throughout Europe see P. Spufford, Power and Profit: The Merchant in Medieval Europe, London, 2002, pp. 192-203, and C. Cipolla, ‘In tema di transporti medievali’, in Bolletino storico Pavese, V, 1944. pp. 3-36.

[xvi] Peter Humfrey, ‘Demand From Abroad’, in Venice and the Veneto, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 331-332.

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With thanks from The Frame Blog to those who have generously allowed their images to be used here.

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