The Frame Blog

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

An introduction to Greek Orthodox iconostases

Thanos Andronikos, graduate in Arts Management and owner/manager of Heartbeat Gallery, Sheffield, describes the evolution of some of the world’s largest frames of sacred works.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the rituals related to the liturgical service are expressed through ecclesiastical sculptures and other works of art – for example, the pulpit, the throne, the altar and the icons; but mainly through the iconostasis which separates the sanctuary from the nave. The iconostasis is a vast screen, related to the rood screen of English mediaeval churches, but unlike them it is a closed and solid structure. In the iconostasis, which in Greek means ‘icon stand’, architecture and sculpture collaborate on a large scale, forming a gigantic sculptural frame, like the frame of a Western polyptych.

The early Christian templon

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATemplon of the Church of Panagia (with modern icons), Monastery of Hosios Loukas, c.959-63, Distomo, Boeotia

The iconostasis developed from the Byzantine templon, which had appeared during the 5th and 6th centuries AD, and which may have been influenced by the proscenium in classical theatre, or by the barrier before the adyton (sanctuary) of a Greek temple[1]. This structure was diffused through the Christian world of the near East from its centre in Byzantium, with local variations such as the seminal Cretan iconostasis. The latter can be traced back to the island’s Second Byzantine Period (961-1204): after the liberation of Crete from Muslim rule in 961 by Nikephoros II Phokas, later Emperor of Byzantium, many Byzantine families migrated there, and inaugurated a period of artistic and religious growth.

From an altar rail with an open vista to the altar itself, the templon evolved in parallel with the Western rood screen, sprouting colonets which supported an overhead architrave carrying a crucifix. It diverged from the rood screen when icons were hung from the architrave, and then when curtains were installed between the colonets, providing a flat background for the icons, but cutting off the nave from the inner sanctuary. The curtains were eventually replaced by a permanent and solid wall, in which the icons could be set, and doors closed the vista to the altar. Over the years this solid structure evolved a formal arrangement of tiers, according to a liturgical hierarchy.

The structure of a Greek iconostasis as it developed from the 16th century

Templo parts smImage: Dimitris Stamelos, Νεοελληνική λαϊκή τέχνη, Gutenberg, 1993

A typical arrangement of elements in an iconostasis; this may be slightly modified in its details

1)   The base

Thorakion: an oblong panel which, whether wood or marble, may be carved or painted

3) Staphyle (or grapevine): a narrow strip decorated with carved grapevines ( ‘I am the true vine…’, John 15)

4) Lower ketabes (probably from the Turkish): a rectangular board which is frequently used as support for icons

5) Tier of ‘Despotic Icons’ (from ‘despotes’, Greek for Lord, or Christ): six icons comprising, usually from left to right, the archangel Michael, a patron saint or important event, the Virgin Mary, Christ, St John the Baptist, and the archangel Gabriel

6) Upper ketabes

7) Kemeri (from the Turkish for belt): an arcade with carved or painted decorations; in the central arch is The Last Supper

8) Columns, which separate the ‘Despotic icons’ and their auxiliary elements (2-6), and form the supporting structure of the iconostasis

9) Peristera (literally ‘pigeon’, as in a bird’s beak moulding), protruding decorative area where hanging candle-holders are usually attached

10) Orea Pyli (the Beautiful Gate) consists of two hinged doors with carved decorations and miniature icons attached on their surface. They are considered to be sacred and may only be entered by ordained clergy.

11) The Holy Grail crowns the doors: not the Sangraal of legend, but the cup of the Eucharist.

12) The canopy above the doors is composed of carved decorations, usually depicting horrifying scenes: gorgons or dragons being slain

13) A representation of the Tree of Jesse, showing the ancestry of Christ

14) The Twelve Feasts: scenes from the life of Christ, representing the main feast days of the liturgical year (the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Raising of Lazarus, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Assumption into Heaven, and Pentecost). These may vary as to order & number.

15) Miniature icons, usually of prophets or apostles, surrounded by carved floral decorations

16) The Crucifix

17) A flying dragon, representing Satan in the form of a serpent

18) Cherubs enclosing icons of the Virgin (left) & St John (right); these may also be supported on the dragon’s tail

Generally the parts of an iconostasis are categorized into three zones: the ‘Despotic icons’ (1-12), the miniature icons (13-15) and the ‘Coronation’ or crest (16-18).


The task of the wood carver or stone mason who executes an iconostasis is to unite the earthly and the divine, so that the world he creates on his great wall of wood or marble is peopled by humans, saints and animals, existing in harmony amongst fruit, flowers and foliage, and in harmony with God. The liturgical subjects, themes and treatment required by the Church restrict his hand in many ways; yet in the design of the carved ornament which holds the icons in each tier, borders and twines about the dividing areas, and overflows onto the gates and their canopy, the craftsman’s imaginative and stylist freedom is uncontrolled. The divine mingles with naturalistic local detail, and blends the style of Byzantium with the Baroque or Rococo.

Regardless of the material used and the style of an iconostasis, this monumental frame symbolizes the union of Heaven and Earth, and the conversation between God and human. In the Orthodox tradition, during the divine liturgy God comes down to earth and blesses the worshipper, and the templon is a ladder through the hierarchy of saints where the prayers of the faithful can climb up to heaven.

 The iconostasis from the 16th  to 18th century

Carved wooden iconostasis signed ‘1721 Χατζή Δημήτρη και Χατζή Λιονή’ 1721 Hatzi Dimitri & Hatzi Lioni Church of Panagia Agiogalousaina St Galas ChiosCarved wooden iconostasis, signed ‘1721 Χατζή Δημήτρη και Χατζή Λιονή’ (1721, Hatzi Dimitri & Hatzi Lioni), Church of Panagia Agiogalousaina, St Galas, Chios

Carved wooden iconostasis signed Nikolaos Nomikos 1824 Church of St George of Pyrgos Volissos Chios smCarved wooden iconostasis, signed ‘Διά χειρός Νικολάου Νομικού’ (by the hand of Nikolaos Nomikos), 1824, Church of St. George of Pyrgos, Volissos, Chios

A major architectural element with specific requirements, regardless of the material from which it is constructed, an iconostasis is closely linked to the life and fate of its church, and generally retains more information than any other sacred artwork, through inscriptions which record the time of creation, the sculptor (above), and the donor (below).

Mitrofani Monk Magitianos & Andreas Igireos Galatoulas 1711 St Thaleleos St Galas Chios smDetail of a carved wooden iconostasis, inscribed: ‘ΑΝΑΚΙΝὶΘΙ ΤΟ ΠΑΡΟΝ ΤὲΜΠΛὸΣ ΔΙὰ ΧΙΡΟΣ ΜΙΤΡΟΦὰΝΙ ΜΟΥΝὰΧΟΥ ΜΑΓΙΤΙὰΝΟΥ ΔΙὰ ὲΞΟΔΟΥ ΑΝΔΡὲΑ ΙΓΙΡὲΟΣ ΓὰΛΑΤΟΥΛΑ Κὲ ΚΤΙΤΟΥΡ –ΕΝ ΕΤΙ ΑΨΙΑ’ (sic), or ‘This templon was built by the hands of Mitrofani Monk Magitianos, paid by Andreas Igireos Galatoulas in the year 1711’, Church of St. Thaleleos, St Galas, Chios

The modern iconostasis evolved during and after the Ottoman conquests of the sixteenth century. More specifically, a fracture in the history of Christian art in the Aegean was precipitated by the end of Venetian rule in 1537-38, when the Turkish admiral Barbarossa Hayreddin conquered nearly all the islands of the Archipelago. Conflicts between Venice and the Ottoman Empire continued until 1750, but the Turkish navy slowly conquered the islands – Chios in 1566, Cyprus in 1570-71, Crete in 1669, and Tinos in 1715.

Iconostasis Chapel of St Nicholas Katapoliani Paros 1Iconostasis of white marble, parts possibly dating from the 16th century, with a Virgin Eleoúsa, Dimitrios, 18th, & Christ Panocrator, 17th century; Chapel of St Nicolas, Panagia Katapoliani, Parikia, Paros. Photo: Ekatontapyliani 

During Ottoman rule, Orthodox inhabitants of the islands were granted special privileges (aktinamedes), as the Osmanides sought to have the population on their side, and to prevent Greek co-operation with the Venetians. The most important aktinames given to Orthodox islands was that of 1580, according to which the repair or building of Orthodox churches was permitted. Following this charter many monasteries and old churches were renovated, and numbers of small churches and chapels were built in the Aegean. After the aktinames of 1580 the earliest group of marble iconostases begins to appear in in large churches and monasteries; for example, in the church complex of Panagia, Katapoliani, on Paros (above), and in the Monastery of Panachrantos on Andros. These are the direct ancestors of the stone, wooden and plasterwork iconostases we see today.

The multicoloured marble iconostases of churches on Chios were praised by the French monk André Thévet, who visited them in the 16th century, and the French geographer Nicolas de Nicolay, who stayed in Chios in 1551 [2]. Unfortunately, ecclesiastical marble sculptures from that period are now very scarce, since the island was devastated by the Turkish invasion of 1822, and what remained was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1881. However, Chian sculptors and wood carvers travelled outside Chios to work in other cities, and sell their skill in other markets, especially during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Icons painted directly onto marble 1744 Stavros Church Pirgos Tinos smIcons painted directly onto a marble iconostasis, 1744, Stavros Church, Pirgos, Tinos

Icons painted on marble iconostasis 1744 Stavros Church Pirgos Tinos detail smIcons painted on marble iconostasis, 1744, Stavros Church, Pirgos, Tinos, detail

The common factor in all the earlier iconostases is that the stone is worked like wood, with apparent linearity in design patterns, characteristic ‘wooden’ cuts, sharp edges as if it is carved with a scalpel, and woodwork joints, even though stylistically there are links to marble reliefs of the time. Typology and construction suggest models in woodcarving, and follow patterns used to decorate wooden items. ‘It is clear that the iconostases have been sculpted by marble masons who previously worked on wood,’ says N. Gaitis [3]. The impression of woodwork is occasionally emphasized by icons being sometimes painted directly on the marble.

Icons painted on marble iconostasis 1817 Metamorfosi Church Pirgos Tinos sm Icons painted directly onto a marble iconostasis, 1817, Metamorfosi Church, Pirgos, Tinos

Another important centre of religious art in the late 16th and, even more, the first half of the 17th century, is Heraklion, on Crete. Crete was one of the most important artistic centres of the post-Byzantine era; and, until its conquest by the Turks in 1669, painting, woodcarving and literature all flourished there. Notaries’ documents from the first half of the 17th century bear witness to the diffusion of Cretan woodcarving throughout the Near East: in Egypt, Palestine, Sinai and Mount Athos [4].

Iconostasis Ch of Holy Sepulchre Jerusalem smColoured marble iconostasis of 1808, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Craftsmen from Heraklion carved the original large 17th century iconostasis for the Basilica of the Resurrection in Jerusalem (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as Western Christians know it), which was replaced after a fire in 1808 by version in Baroque style by the Greek architect Tzelepis Komnenos [5]. An iconostasis, coeval with the first templon in Jerusalem, was made by Cretan sculptors for the Portaiitissas church in the Holy Monastery of Iberians in Mount Athos, as was the large cross of Saint Nicholas in Cairo [6].

Iconostasis Basilica of Nativity Bethlehem sm Gilded iconostasis, 1764, Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem.

They also created the astonishingly rich iconostasis in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem[7]. As well as this and other examples in Palestine, Cretan iconostases were exported by ship to Mount Athos, Alexandria, Patmos, and Sinai.

1744 Ch of Annunciation Armolia Chios sm Polychrome and parcel-gilt carved wood iconostasis, unknown artist, 1744, Church of the Annunciation, Armolia, Chios

In Chios, Lesvos and Samos in the early 18th century we meet the first wooden iconostases in the Baroque style signed by Chian carvers.

Iconostasis Stavros fr Chios 1800 Ch Virgin Mary Plakotousaina Nenita Chios sm Carved wooden iconostasis, by Stavros from Chios, 1800, Church of Virgin Mary Plakotousaina, Nenita, Chios

Ch Virgin Mary Plakotousaina Nenita Chios detail thorakionChurch of Virgin Mary Plakotousaina, Nenita, Chios, detail of thorakion

Ch of Virgin Mary Plakotousaina Nenita Chios detail canopyChurch of Virgin Mary Plakotousaina, Nenita, Chios, detail of canopy

Iconostasis Church of the Panagia Lesbos Greece Photo Toby Garden smIconostasis, 1815, Church of the Panagia, Agiasos, Lesbos. Photo: Toby Garden The glazed box in the foreground contains a 4th century icon, reproduced in the 12th century silver-gilt icon set in the iconostasis immediately above it

The carving of an iconostasis was a complex job which required a great deal of preparation and patience. In the case of a wooden structure, the master builder and his assistants first looked for suitable wood from straight cypress trees, and cut it in January, on the days of the waning moon. The bark was stripped from the trunk – xechontrisma – with an adz, and the bare wood was then dried indoors. When it had been seasoned like this, it was then sawn up; the planks were sprinkled with olive or flaxseed oil, and were planed smooth, with a ρουκάνα (roukana).

Iconostasis Fragoulis Volisianos & Petros 1836 Ch St George Sikousis Chios smIconostasis of carved wood, signed by Fragoulis, Volisianos and Petros, 1836, Church of St George Sikousis, Chios

Iconostasis Fragoulis et al1836 Ch St George Sikousis Chios detail smIconostasis, Church of St George Sikousis, Chios, detail

Iconostasis Nikolaos Nomikos 1840 St Demetrios Armolia Chios detail 1 Beautiful Gate and Despotic icons, polychrome and parcel-gilt carved wood iconostasis, Nikolaos Nomikos, 1840, in Baroque style, St Demetrios, Armolia, Chios

Iconostasis Nikolaos Nomikos 1840 St Demetrios Armolia Chios detail 2The Twelve Feasts, St Demetrios, Armolia, Chios, detail

The carving of a whole iconostasis could take months; however, Cretan woodcarvers avoided signing their names on their work – partly out of humility, but also because they thought that it was sinful. Because of this, the identification of the sculptors of Cretan iconostases is not always possible. In some cases, the creator’s name has only been discovered from the contracts signed with the clients.

In the case of Greek iconostases more generally, we can deduce from these same contracts, and from the fact that signed iconostases carry only one name (or, rarely, two – see above for the example of 1721 in the Church of Panagia Agiogalousaina, St Galas, Chios), that a single craftsman would design, carve and decorate (i.e. paint and/or gild) the whole structure, although almost certainly employing assistants to help him. He would also enjoy relatively more credit for his work (where he was named and known) than many carvers and gilders of comparable Western European works, since the name associated with the creation of an iconostasis is the craftsman of the framing structure, not the painter of the icons which filled them. The iconographers were credited separately for their work; but an important templon is celebrated for its carving, rather than for its icons.

Methods of ornamentation were used which were peculiar to the region and period; for example, columns were carved roughly from tree trunks, wrapped in rope and then gilded. The gilding itself might also apparently be enhanced with goats’ hair; this seems to mean either that the gesso layer on which the gilding was applied, or the size which was used, employed goats’ hair in some way to strengthen the eventual finish.

Iconostasis Theodoros Papargyros 1869 Ch of Taxiarhis Anavatos ChiosIconostasis of carved wood, parcel-gilt & painted white, Theodoros Papargyros, 1869, Church of the Taxiarhis, Anavatos, Chios; detail, showing the Despotic icons and Twelve Feasts

In the early 19th century there are very impressive plasterwork iconostases, which use a combination of Baroque, Rococo and classical motifs. According to local tradition, the craftsmen of Chios copied Baroque and Rococo motifs from the work of Italian sculptors, who had been commissioned to execute the marble ornament in the first phase of the construction of the Old Royal Palace in Syntagma Square, Athens, in 1843.

Iconostasis Lazaros Mperantakos Ch St Markella of Chiopolitida Chios White marble iconostasis, inscribed above the gate ‘ΔΙΑ ΧΕΙΡΟς ΛΑΖΑΡΟΥ ΜΠΕΡΑΝΤΑΚΟΥ’ (by the hand of Lazaros Mperantakos), 1870, Church of St Markella of Chiopolitida, Chios

According to oral information given by the marble carver Yiannis Filippoti of Pyrgos, Tinos, to Alexandra Goulaki Voutyra & Giorgos Karadedos in 1990, the craftsmen of Tinos likewise learned to produce lifelike or naturalistic floral and foliate decoration from Italians in Romania, where many worked in the second half of the 19th century. Indeed, Italian stuccoists, including Ferdinando Iasevoli (who completed the interior plasterwork the Cattedrale di Acquaviva in Puglia), worked from c.1863-73 on the interior of the Church of the Annunciation in Braila, Romania. Many Tinian craftsmen were also employed in Braila, as well as in other Romanian cities such as Bucharest, Galaţsi and Iaşi, so it is more than likely that they learned elements of pattern and design from migrant Italians.

Iconostasis Georgios & Isidoros Fragakis 1895 Ch Neos Taxiarhis Mesta ChiosPlasterwork iconostasis, Georgios and Isidoros Fragakis, 1895, Church of the Neos Taxiarhis, Mesta, Chios, detail

According to further oral information from the painter and stuccoist Fotis Vangelakis, plasterers in Mesotopos on Lesbos also possessed original Italian designs. It has long been known that there was direct trade with Italy: for example, the iconostasis of Tourliani in Mykonos was made in Florence in 1775; also that Italian craftsmen introduced the Rococo style to both Russia and Constantinople.

Iconostasis Stavros from Chios C19 detail crest Evangelistria Vouno ChiosCarved wooden iconostasis, parcel-gilt and white, Stavros from Chios, second half of 19th century; detail with dragons on the crest; Evangelistria,Vouno, Chios

The iconostasis in the 20th century

C20 Church of St Achilles Larisa 1990s BWhite marble iconostasis, 1990s, Church of St Achilles, Larisa, detail. Photo: the author

Greek woodcarving and sculpting still continues, in a tradition uninterrupted for the last one-&-a-half thousand years; although in the 20th century the methods used may have changed slightly, to include mechanical aids such as the pantograph[8]. This process will probably soon have moved on itself to CAM, or computer-aided manufacturing. The detail (above) of the modern marble iconostasis in St Achilles, Larisa, reveals that the carving is relatively shallow, relying on piercing and engraving, and is much less plastic than in earlier examples. Although it was produced by mechanized carving processes, it is still opulent in its materials and decoration, vying with those of the 17th-19th century.

C20 Wooden Church of St Velisarios Larisa 1980to90s B Wooden iconostasis, 1980s-90s, Church of St Velisarios, Larisa. Photo: the author

Wooden iconostases are also still produced; again these are carved with the help of mechanical processes, and again this has not impinged on the opulent scrolling foliate and zoomorphic decoration used in more traditional templa. The modern examples in St Velisarios, Larisa, and St Riginos, Skopelas, are – like the marble templon in St Achilles – much flatter and less sculptural, but their ornament still seeks to blend the earthly and the divine, and to celebrate the natural world.

C20 Wooden Church of St Riginos Skopelos 1980to90s B Wooden iconostasis, 1980s-90s, Church of St Riginos, Skopelos, detail. Photo: the author

C20 Church of St Achilles Larisa 1990s AWhite marble iconostasis, 1990s, Church of St Achilles, Larisa, showing carved barrier forward of the templon. Photo: the author

One contemporary trend is for iconostases in Greece to become lower in height, returning to the forms and scale used in the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia, and allowing the natural light and the spacious layout of the church full play. The templon in St Achilles, Larisa, is relatively low compared with the height of the dome. This ioconostasis is also notable for incorporating a second carved barrier in front of the first; a low pierced wall of carving which recalls the low altar rail of the early Byzantine templon. In these modern versions of an ancient structure, style and format appear to be circling around and renewing themselves from their roots.


Article and images based on Αλεξάνδρα  Γουλάκη – Βουτυρά, Γιώργος Καραδέδος,Χίος, Λέσβος και η εκκλησιαστική γλυπτική στο Αιγαίο, Μέθεξις, 2011, 502 σελ, ISBN 978-960-6796-20-3

(Alexandra Goulaki-Voutyra & Giorgos Karadedos, Chios, Lesvos and Ecclesiastical Sculpture in the Aegean 16th – 20th Century, Thessaloniki 2011, Methexis Publications)

The author would like to thank Yannis Karadedos and Methexis Publications, for permission to adapt text & information and to republish images; also Andronis Andronikos, Olga Andronikos, Larisa Gorina and Valeria Sapegina for all their help and support; and Lynn Roberts for editing.


[1] ‘Adyton’ means ‘cannot be entered’. Interestingly, although ‘iconostasis’ is a Greek term, the objects themselves are referred to in Greece as ‘templa’ from the Latin for temple.

[2] Αργέντης-Κυριακίδης Η Χίος παρά γεωγράφοις και περιηγηταίς, 1974, τ. Α ́, pg. 17, 46, 60 και τ. Γ ́, 1339.
Γουλάκη-Βουτυρά/Καραδέδος/Λάββας, Η Εκκλησιαστική μαρμαρογλυπτική στις Κυκλάδες από τον 16ο ώς τον 20ο αιώνα, 1996, pg. 59, σημ. 81.

[3] N. Gaitis , Γραψίμματα, 1982, p.42.

[4] Μ. Καζανάκη, Εκκλησιαστική ξυλογλυπτική στο Χάνδακα τον 17ο αιώνα. Νοταριακά έγγραφα (1606-1642), 1974, pp. 251-283; and 
G. Gerola, Monumenti Veneti nell Isola di Creta, 1908, Venice

[5] Architect of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

[6] See the notaries’ documents of 1640-42, quoted by Μ. Καζανάκη, Εκκλησιαστική ξυλογλυπτική στο Χάνδακα τον 17ο αιώνα. Νοταριακά έγγραφα (1606-1642), 1974, pp. 251-283; and M. Chatzidakis, ‘Iconostas’, Reallexikon zur byzantinischen Kunst, 1973, Stuttgart , pp. 326-353

[7] See note 6.

[8] For use of the pantograph for carving, see this video of the sculptor, C.S. Jagger, reproducing a half-size clay model of a sculpture from a smaller maquette with the use of a pantograph.


National Gallery frame appeal…

Help the National Gallery, London, to buy a superb antique frame for Titian’s Allegory of Prudence: YOU can make a difference to the presentation of the national collection.

Venetian frame 1

Titian (fl. c.1506-d.1576) & workshop, An allegory of prudence, c.1550-65, o/c, 75.5 x 68.4 cm, in projected new frame. NG 6376

Titian’s Allegory of prudence is a mysterious painting. It might almost be called a problem painting, by analogy with the group of ‘problem plays’ written thirty or forty years later by Shakespeare. Like those, it is ambiguous, complex, neither dark nor light, and it shifts its tone and meaning as different critics reinterpret it. The head of the mature man in the centre, which springs like one flower of three from a single stem, is a mesmeric and powerful study of a man in the prime of life, and is agreed to be from the hand of Titian; the other two heads seem to be by different hands – pupils or workshops assistants – as do the three animals, wolf, lion and dog.

In the most straightforward interpretation, this is an allegory of the ages of man – youth, maturity and old age – echoed by the animals which were supposed to embody the qualities of those ages. They may be purely generic representations, then, taken from anonymous models; however, the head of the elderly man in the red cap has been seen as reflecting the features of Titian himself. This theory is based on comparison with his Self-portrait of c.1562 in the Prado, although if this is so, his face is reflected as if in a distorting glass of pain, rage or malice. The central head under this reading is that of his son, Orazio (although it could also be the middle-aged Titian, from his self-portrait in Berlin). The young man on the right, it has been hazarded, may be Marco Vecellio, a cousin; although Nicholas Penny has pointed out the likeness of this profile to the workshop portraits of the three boys on the left of Titian’s Vendramin family, c.1540-43 to c.1550-60, National Gallery .

The enigma of the painting is magnified by the inscription which curves above the three heads: ‘ex praeterito   praesens prudenter agit   ni futura actione deturpet’ – or, ‘out of [the lessons of] the past /the present acts prudently/lest it spoil the future by [rash] action’. This is a verbal expression of the iconographical figure of Prudence: traditionally a figure with three heads, representing the present drawing upon the experience of the past to guide the deeds of the future. It has been suggested that these triplets might also stand for the aged and remorseful Titian regretting the sensuality of his youth and the pride of his maturity, or that it may depict an artistic dynasty, with each generation learning from the one before [1].

Titian Allegory of prudence current frame sm Titian & workshop, An allegory of prudence, in its present Baroque French frame

The ambiguity of this painting only increases its power and fascination; and the different hands apparent in its creation add further layers of interest. It was acquired by the Gallery in 1966, and is currently set in a 17th century French frame with three orders of ornament, the torus moulding on the frieze being carved with a bound garland of oak leaves and acorns. This setting is overpowering and distracting, closes in the composition, and detracts from the strengths of the painting. It is also of the wrong period and place; it’s a Baroque French frame, rather than Renaissance Italian, and thus unsuitable on every level for such an idiosyncratic and intriguing work.

Venetian frame 1 Titian & workshop, An allegory of prudence. Mock-up in the projected 16th century Venetian cassetta

Peter Schade, Head of Framing at the National Gallery, has recently found an extremely beautiful 16th century Venetian cassetta of almost exactly the right size for the Allegory of Prudence. As you can see, it lifts the painting onto a completely different plane, revealing the sculptural qualities of the composition, opening it out from the claustrophobic darkness of the present setting, and magically illuminating the whole work.

This frame – a cassetta, or ‘little box’ frame, the earliest style of moveable or non-integrated border for a picture – has a flat architrave profile, which acts like the embroidered margin of a tapestry, providing a decorative field of transition between the real world and the mysterious otherworld of the painting. This particular cassetta has a central frieze carved with undulating vines, scrolling acanthus and cosses-de-pois, or pea-pod ornament, amongst which little zoömorphic dragons play.

Dragons 2 sm

This last detail has a fortuitous iconographical connection with the three beasts in the painting. In Renaissance symbology, animals stood for the seven deadly sins; and if the lion means superbia or pride, the wolf, aravitia or avarice, and the dog, luxuria or lust – often found in combination as the three major sins – then the dragon is mors, or the death which will swallow up all such failings [2].

In ornamental terms, however, the dragons which grow from the vines and acanthus leaves are descended from the Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea, or Golden House, which when excavated in 1488 was found to be decorated with fantastical painted arabesques, delicate, playful, and swarming with strange figures and beasts.

Raphael & Giovanni da Udine Grotesques in the Loggia

Studio of Raphael, detail of Pilaster IX, with acanthus foliage populated by animals & flanking half-pilasters, 1516-17, Loggetta Bibbiena, Vatican. With thanks to Alberti’s Window.

These grotesques or grottesche (from the grotto or cave for which the Domus Aurea had been mistaken) were imitated by Raphael and his colleagues for the decoration of the Loggia at the Vatican, and by this means they became extremely influential for all types of applied and decorative arts. They appear on Renaissance frames in moulded or ‘dripped’ gesso forms, painted or sgraffito panels and corner ornaments, and – as here – in carved friezes.

Venetian frame corner sm

The quality of the carving is evident from this detail; the fluent swell and curve of the main vine stem; the variegated forms of the leaves; the triumphant swoop into an S-scroll across the corner, and the little dragon, his hindquarters transforming into a honeysuckle and his front legs becoming an acanthus leaf. The gesso ground behind the carving is punched, giving textural relief, and the red bole or gilder’s clay glows through the gold leaf, suffusing the whole frame with a sunset warmth.

This frame would be the perfect complement to a unique and important painting. Sadly, antique frames of this quality are exceedingly rare and correspondingly not exactly cheap. £10,000 has already been raised; you can help the Gallery to find the £17,000 it still needs for the purchase to go ahead. Please help – whatever you can give would be very gratefully received, and you would have a permanent stake in the presentation of an extraordinary work of art.

Just Giving NG header

Thank you!


[1] For a helpful essay on the different explanations of Titian’s Allegory…, see Philip McCouat, ‘Titian, Prudence and the three-headed beast’, Journal of Art in Society.

[2] See Simona Cohen , Animals as disguised symbols in Renaissance art, 2008, pp.225-27.

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Conserving a Stanford White frame

Tatiana Shannon, a post-graduate student at Smith College, Massachusetts, describes the conservation of a frame designed by the Beaux-Arts architect and designer, Stanford White (1853-1906).

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Stanford White frame before conservation, with Dwight Tryon’s November evening temporarily in place. Smith College Museum of Art

In 2003 William Myers, the frame conservator at the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA), formed the Frame Conservation Program; a volunteer training program for selected undergraduates from the University of Massachusetts (Amherst, Smith College, Mount Holyoke College, Hampshire College, and Amherst College). The Frame Conservation Program offers an introduction to conservation theory, and the opportunity to acquire hands-on experience in the conservation and reproduction of historic picture frames, from and for the SCMA’s collection. The training provided by the program has afforded current and former students the opportunity to intern and work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the de Young Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and LACMA, among other such institutions. Graduates of the program have gone on to win Guggenheim fellowships, and to earn Masters degrees in art conservation from programs across America and Europe.

Each fall, the students involved in the program select three or four frames on which they will concentrate their efforts that year, culminating in a public exhibition of their work in the SCMA the following spring. Over the past decade, students of the program have either conserved or reproduced approximately 50 European and American frames from the SCMA’s collection. As a member of the Frame Conservation Program for the last two years, I have had the opportunity to participate in the treatment of a number of historically significant and impeccably designed frames, the chief of which was a lovely and long-neglected early Stanford White frame which came to our attention last year.

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Stanford White frame before conservation. Smith College Museum of Art

After consulting with the SCMA’s curatorial department and our American Frame Survey, my fellow students and I decided upon this frame as one of our chief projects for the 2013-2014 school year. One of only four Stanford White frames in the SCMA’s collection, this particular example had high priority for treatment, given the historic and aesthetic value of such a designer’s work. We could see from the museum’s records that it had not been on display in the Smith College Museum of Art for over two decades.

Selecting this frame as one of the chief projects for the 2013-2014 year was only the first step in a complex and cautiously-undertaken process. If the Frame Conservation Program was to stabilize and conserve it, so that it could once again be put on display in the museum, we also needed to find a painting which would suit it: not only in its dimensions, but aesthetically and historically as well.

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Stanford White (1853-1906). Photo: National Park Service

Today Stanford White is primarily known as a Beaux-Arts architect and interior decorator par excellence, responsible through his firm, McKim, Meade & White, for many late 19th and turn of the 20th century public buildings in New York, as well as for privately-commissioned mansions in the city, Long Island and Rhode Island. Yet in his time he was also widely acknowledged as an innovative and talented designer of picture frames. Amongst his closest friends were some of the most talented and popular American painters and sculptors of the day, and it is clear that White was quite happy to bend his considerable talents towards designing or altering picture frames for them. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Thomas Wilmer Dewing, Abbot Thayer, Dwight Tryon, and George de Forest Brush were some of his close friends, and also patrons of his frame designs [i].  Aline Saarinen – the art critic and wife of the architect Eero Saarinen – would recall this aspect of his work in her unpublished memoirs:

‘His deft hand turned in many directions. For his painter friends he conjured up frames; some of them sparked with subtly raised snake-skin-like relief on flat moulding, others were so intricately lace-like that they must have taxed the ingenuity of the craftsmen who carved them from boxwood.’ [ii]

Whilst White would, as his designs became increasingly popular, authorize the reproduction and sale of certain patterns through the frame manufacturing company Newcomb Macklin, he was never a commercial frame designer. He made relatively little money on his elegant and innovative designs, as the majority of his frames were gifts for, or collaborations with, his artist friends. He made notable efforts to design frames that perfectly complemented the paintings or sculptures they enclosed, as well as the personality and interests of his friends, and as such tended to use and re-use particular profiles and specific types of ornament for the work of specific artists.

When we examined the Stanford White frame we were to conserve, we noted several stylistic and design markers in common with frames for the paintings of the American tonalist painter Dwight Tryon (1849-1925). The reverse ogee profile sloping away from the picture surface, covered overall with an imbricated scale (or feather) pattern, bordered by a bay-leaf torus at the sight and a simple row of beading at the top edge, is consistent with a number of settings White designed for Tryon over the years.[iii] The frame in the SCMA’s collection is a close match to others produced for his numerous tonalist landscapes, and indeed the quiet, formal idiom of such frames is well suited to their peaceful and contemplative moods (for example, Dawn – early spring, 1894, Metropolitan Museum of Art).

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 Stanford White frame before conservation, with November evening by Dwight Tryon. Smith College Museum of Art

Dwight Tryon was professor of art at Smith College from 1886 to 1923, and he left a number of his paintings to the college’s museum. So – with the help of the museum’s registrar, Louise Laplante – it was a relatively simple affair to find one of his paintings in the SCMA’s collection which both fitted our Stanford White frame and harmonized well with the gilded finish. November Evening, one of Tryon’s last paintings before his death in 1925, was the best match, both meeting all criteria and lacking a suitable frame of its own. Having found a suitable painting to complement the frame, the students of the conservation program began their investigation of its manufacture and material history, so as to approach its conservation with an accurate understanding of its construction and current condition.

From existing studies of Stanford White’s career it is clear that he had little or no hands-on experience with the construction of the intricate and innovative frames he designed. Nevertheless, he was particular about their manufacture, cultivating strong working relationships with a handful of talented craftsmen capable of translating his visions into impeccably-constructed reality. We consulted the museums’s American Frame Survey, which helped us to determine that our frame was stylistically compatible with other early examples produced in the workshops of Joseph Cabus. Cabus, a talented cabinetmaker and framemaker, produced the majority of Stanford White’s frames from 1882 to 1894, with the assistance of his son Alexander.[iv]

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Area of original compo ornament, slowing cracks and concavities

A visual examination of the frame revealed several problems which would need to be addressed to restore it fully. Fluctuations in temperature and humidity had, over the course of a century, caused considerable damage to the applied composition ornament (compo), resulting in radiating fissures and shrinkage cracks over the surface of the frame, as well as several significant areas of loss which had destabilized large sections of the cove.  A past attempt to correct this damage had resulted in clumsily-cast fills, coated with a layer of oxidized bronze powder over interference gold which contrasted strongly with the original ornament and gold leaf.  Respect for the history and evidence of past treatments to a piece of art is an important consideration when it undergoes further conservation; but in this case, the fills had been executed so poorly that they represented a significant distraction from the aesthetic impact of the frame. They also posed a major challenge to our aim of stabilizing the original ornament, due to the poor fit of the cellulose-based filler and its lack of malleability.

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Corner of frame, showing earlier repairs and oxidized ‘gilding’

Our treatment of the frame was defined by three key concerns. First, we needed to stabilize the original composition ornament without damaging either its integrity, or that of the gold leaf. Secondly, we needed to to excise the previously executed fills without doing further damage to the extremely fragile ornament on the cove. Finally, we needed to find a filler which would allow us to replicate the existing compo ornament with such precision that the existing areas of loss would be indistinguishable to the naked eye from the orginal ornament.

While the reverse ogee profile of the frame was one which White returned to many times in the course of his career, its constructon was still very much in question. During the 2013 fall semester we communicated with frame historians and conservators, read every available article that mentioned Stanford White’s work as a frame designer, and conducted numerous examinations of the frame using a number of different tools. By simply tapping gently on the expanse of scale or feather ornament, we were able to determine that the frame itself was hollow; but we did not know whether the compo was laid over wire mesh, paper backing or a wooden chassis. It was critical that we should determine precisely how the compo shell was supported, so as to draft an effective treatment plan – since unless we knew exactly how it was suspended above the wooden armature of the frame, there was no way of knowing whether or not it was safe to remove the previous fills on the cove.

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Examining the compo through a digital microscope

In our efforts to uncover more information about its construction, we first examined the frame under a USB microscope at 200 X magnification.  The microscope allowed us to capture invaluable high-resolution images instantaneously, and to use minute manual adjustments of the field of view, focus, and resolution to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the surface. During this examination, we discovered a number of randomly-placed nailheads which appeared to have been hammered into the original ornament on the cove. This made it likely that the compo was nailed to a form of wooden chassis extending under either part of the cove or its entirety.

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Microscopic close-up of a nail beneath the compo

To determine how far this chassis extended, we needed a non-invasive method of examination which would allow for an unimpeded view. Through the Smith College alumnae network we contacted Dr. Elizabeth Gatti of Valley Veterinary Hospital, Hadley, MA, who offered us the use of the hospital’s X-ray machine. A lateral X-ray of the frame revealed an unidentified continuous mid-gray band of material, probably wood, situated underneath the moulded compo on the cove and the top edge. Now we knew that there was a stable and continuous support to the ornamental shell, the next step was to determine how we could coax the compo to lie flat against the chassis.

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Lateral X-ray of frame, showing substratum of wood to which the compo is pinned

Compo holds several key advantages over plaster and wood as a frame-making material. It is a thermoplastic substance which, when properly cooled, hardens to a stone-like solidity – but which can easily be returned to a pliable state if exposed to heat. When compo is applied to a wooden substrate, this pliability allows framemakers to stretch or compress it to fit a design without fear of damaging the detail. The chief downside of compo, however, is its reaction to repeated fluctuations in humidity and temperature. Due to the moisture-sensitive nature of rabbitskin glue, one of its key ingredients, compo expands and contracts in sympathy with changes in the atmosphere; and over time will often begin to separate from the wooden substrate to which it has been fastened, as the wood expands and contracts at a different rate from the compo [v]. In the case of the Stanford White frame, the problem was compounded by the nails Cabus had used to keep the hardening ornament from shifting after it was set in place. The compo moved, pressing against the nails and adding to the network of fissures.

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X-ray of frame from above, showing the system of cracks in the compo

We first needed to heat the compo gently, allowing it to relax just enough so that we could press the cove back down onto the wooden chassis underneath without damaging either the fine detail of the ornament or the gilding. Several methods were tested on sample sections of the frame – for example, using a hand-held steamer, which proved too uncontrollable, whilst using a heat gun on its own was ineffective. In the end, in order to heat the compo ornament without damaging the original gold leaf, a warm mixture of rabbbitskin glue was wicked behind the areas of loss and blind cleavage on the cove. Then the heat gun was held over an envelope of silicone mylar, which was pressed over small sections of the cove. The warmth of the heat gun reactivated the rabbitskin glue, releasing steam into the silicone mylar envelope and rendering the compo ornament pliable enough to be pressed gently back onto the wooden chassis beneath.

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Examining the frame under ultraviolet light

Having stabilized the original compo ornament, we needed to find a filler which would allow the fine detail of the decoration to be replicated; we also needed to remove the poorly-executed fills on the cove. When the frame was examined under ultraviolet light, we were quickly able to pinpoint these previous attempts at conservation. Through a series of solubility tests we determined that the fills were comprised of a cellulose-based, acrylic-bound filler. We used acetone to soften this mixture, and the remainder of the fills were removed with the careful use of micro-scalpels.

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Student removing previous areas of fills

The wooden chassis underneath was revealed to be in remarkably good condition, with much of the original gesso layer still intact. The only exceptions to the removal of the previous fills were the bands of foliate ornament laid diagonally above the mitres of the frame. As there were no original examples of these left, we stripped the interference gold from the ornament and left the cellulose fills in place, refining the leaves with wood-carving tools.

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Areas of loss, after removing previous repairs

We then created a dam – made of foam core and silicone mylar – around an undamaged section of the cove, poured on a two-part, liquid silicone rubber mould-making material, and let it solidify. The silicone rubber mould was able to catch a finely-detailed impression of the scale ornament, into which we poured a dual-phase thermoplastic urethane component – colloquially known as liquid plastic. Liquid plastic has been used as a filler material in the lab for the past eight years, so there is a considerable amount of information as to its unique properties. It is a stable material, with some degree of malleability when exposed to heat, and it is significantly less brittle than many other filler materials. This last quality meant that we were able to shave the fills quite thin (less than 3 mm thick), so that they would lie flush with the original ornament, and there would be no concern as to their snapping in half.

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Student inserting liquid plastic into areas of loss

Once the new fills had been adhered to the wooden chassis underneath, they were were painted with red bole, which was then gently sanded and smoothed out. To match the tone of the original gold leaf on the frame a combination of interference gold, golden acrylics and 23 ¾ carat gold powders were applied to the new fills. With these final steps, the frame was ready for exhibition.

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Student gilding the repaired areas

When the painting, November Evening, had been fixed inside the restored Stanford White frame, the whole work was now ready to hang as part of Framework X: A Decade of Research, Collaboration, and Research, May 9th-25th, 2014. Frameworks X showcased the exacting, professionally-executed work of the students involved in the 10th year of this innovative program, as well as paying homage to the achievements of students in past years. Alongside November Evening, our exhibition highlighted two exciting historical replica frame projects; George W. Bellow’s Pennsylvania Excavation (1907) in an elegant reeded moulding, and a hand-carved frame inspired by Newcomb Macklin designs for William Closson’s Fighting Peacocks (c. 1886–98). Whilst the show itself was a brief one, the efforts of the Frame Conservation Program have ensured that November Evening and its accompanying frame will keep their place in the SCMA’s permanent collection.

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The finished frame on exhibition


[i] Nina Gray, “Within Gilded Borders: The Frames of Stanford White” in The Gilded Edge: The Art of the Frame, ed. Eli Wilner (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000), 83.

[ii] A. Saarinen, unpublished manuscript on Stanford White, n.d., Archives of American Art; microfilm reel 2073, frame no. 352. Quoted in Tracy Gill, Beaux Arts & Crafts: Masterpieces of American Frame Design 1890-1920 (New York: Gill & Lagodich Fine Period Frames, 2011), 22.

[iii] Ibid., 23 (see Plate 23)

[iv] Nina Gray and Suzanne Smeaton “Within Gilded Borders: The Frames of Stanford White” American Art 7, no. 2 (1993): 34.

[v] Jonathon Thornton and William Adair, “Applied Decoration for Historic Interiors Preserving Composition Ornament,” Preservation Briefs 34, (Washington DC: National Park Services, May 1985) , 7-8,


With thanks from The Frame Blog to Smith College for the use of their images.

NOTE: The scale or feather pattern used by Stanford White in this frame, together with the foliate motif above the mitres, is very similar indeed to the imbricated feather ornament found in Renaissance pastiglia frames; see National Gallery, London: a Venetian pastiglia frame . White had lived in Europe for 18 months before returning to set up his architectural practice in New York with Charles McKim and William Mead, and he would almost certainly have brought back sketchbooks full of the buildings, architectural details and motifs which fed his subsequent designs.

Conzen 11th Antique Frame Auction 2014

…to be held on the 5th November 2014 in Düsseldorf. Viewing: 20th October – 5th November 2014


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