The Frame Blog

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

Recreating an Auricular frame

The Dutch sculptor and woodcarver, Maarten Robert, who also works in the restoration of antique carvings and woodwork, describes how he carried out a commission from the Rijksmuseum to recreate an historic frame for the Portrait of a man by Ferdinand Bol, based on an existing original model. The model is discussed at the end of Maarten’s article.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Ferdinand Bol (1616-80), Portrait of a man, 1663, 124 x 100 cm, Rijksmuseum.

Research into the form and function of the 17th century picture frame in the Netherlands was fundamentally altered by the work of P.J.J. van Thiel and C.J. de Bruyn Kops; their effort – and the effect it had in institutions around the world – should never be forgotten. Van Thiel, a former curator of 17th century paintings in the Rijksmuseum, was passionate on the subject of historic frames: a passion which resulted in a major exhibition in 1984, Prijst de Lijst, with its accompanying eponymous catalogue [1].

Both exhibition and catalogue may have influenced other museums and galleries to examine the frames in their collections, and their relationship with the paintings they housed. At that point, the Rijksmuseum was one of those institutions which judged it important to find more suitable frames for works in their collection which were noticeably misframed. This was not a problem when the question was one of obtaining an antique frame in a generic style; however, when a one-off or individual carved period frame was called for, there were various objections to making a replica.

One of the main problems was an overriding feeling that the product even of a master carver could appear disturbingly anachronistic and of its own time, or would at best date quite rapidly. Moreover, there is an enduring opinion that a copy of a sculpted frame is inauthentic, and does not therefore belong in a traditional museum. Thus, when Pieter van Thiel decided to look for a master sculptor to reproduce a suitable historic setting for Ferdinand Bol’s Portrait of a man, it was a courageous and idiosyncratic decision. It was, however, supported by all the research by both Van Thiel and De Bruyn Kops which had produced Prijst de Lijst.

Opnamedatum: 2013-08-22 SK-L-1175 Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of a man in its previous 17th century Italian frame

Until that moment, Bol’s portrait had been displayed in a 17th century Italian frame; however, the evidence accumulated in the exhibition and catalogue had rendered that both inappropriate and undesirable. Van Thiel decided to reframe it, and since no original frame was available he opted to have a replica made. He looked for a master carver: someone who could execute the work in such a convincing manner that it would please even the most critical eye. No wonder I felt so honoured when I was entrusted with this commission.

 Creating the replica frame

3 & 11 Baen J de  Portret van Johan de Witt met lijst ed sm

Jan de Baen (1633-1702), Johan de Witt, 1669, Dordrechts Museum 

The frame design had already been decided upon. The model chosen was one of two superb carved frames from the late 1660s, made for Jan de Baen’s portraits of Johan and Cornelis de Witt in the Dordrechts Museum (see below for a discussion of these frames, and those on De Baen’s portraits of Johan & Cornelis’s parents). They have shallow profiles decorated with modest Auricular ornament, overlaid with alternating branches of olive leaves and bay leaves which form wreaths at the top, around shields with the family’s coats of arms.

It was decided to retain the shield in the design for the replica frame, but to leave the field empty, as it is not known who is represented in Bol’s painting – an empty coat of arms being quite acceptable today. By keeping the shield in the crest, the compositional elements of the frame could be maintained. As with similar picture frames in the Rijksmuseum, limewood was to be used for making the copy, so that the frame could either be gilded or stained and polished. The decision to gild the frame or not was to be postponed until the carving was completed.

Although the portrait by De Baen is slightly bigger than that by Bol, both paintings have the same proportions: the De Baen measures 131.6 x 106.8 cm, and the Bol, 124 x 100 cm. The outside measurements of the new frame would be 155 x 132 x 7.6 cm.

4 Drawing of frame Maarten Robert, drawing of bottom rail of De Baen frame, with mascaron, displayed on a chimneypiece

Armed with a great many photographs of all the significant details of the model frame, I made a detailed full-scale drawing from it. Only at this stage could one begin to empathize with and understand the complexity of the composition, and appreciate how beautifully it had been carved by some 17th century master craftsman. A good drawing is not only used as a functional working tool, but also helps in studying the object.

5 Drawing of frame detail

Maarten Robert, drawing of bottom rail of De Baen frame, detail (turned perpendicularly, for clarity)

It was soon apparent that each carved leaf had its own individual shape and expression. This was something I had to focus on. It is one of the fascinating qualities of 17th century wood carving, giving it its own unique character compared with wood carving of a later period. Another idiosyncrasy of the frame was the relative smoothness of the Auricular ornaments – particularly of the acanthus leaf motif in the top corners, and the scrolls in the middle of the frame. And there was a certain mysterious clumsiness in the head of the sea monster, with its drowsy gaze, in the centre of the bottom rail – so characteristic of the Auricular style. It was a challenge to execute all these features with the same élan as the original. An Auricular frame is, in effect, composed of four different pieces of sculpture, which come together to compose the frame.

6 Mitred halving joint

 Mitch Peacock explains the mitred half-lap on his channel, WOmadeOD : click on image

After the drawing was approved, I started work on the construction of the frame carcase. Most Auricular frames are joined by what is known as a ‘mitred halved joint’, or a ‘mitred half-lap’. This has different lap joints at the front and back of the respective rails: or, in other words, there is a diagonal mitre at the back, and a perpendicular butt joint at the front. The video, above, shows very clearly how this is made. The double nature of the joint means that shrinkage of the wood is minimized, avoiding damage to the carving on the front, and also the spectator is hardly aware of how the frame is constructed.

7 Maarten Robert carving

Maarten Robert: carving the frame in an upright position

In order to begin the process of carving, the drawing was transferred onto the lengths of wood. At first the four rails were kept separate, and they were arranged flat on the bench for me to work on; however, at a certain point I joined them together in the form of the frame they would become, so that I could continue carving with the wood in an upright position. I still believe this is the best way to work on a frame of this size, in order to have a good overview of the whole object. It was also of great importance to have the right light falling from above, in an approximation of how the finished object would appear in the museum. Toward the end of the project it is important to keep the carving lively; – it has to be crisp and look natural, and must never be overworked. Altogether it took ten to twelve weeks to finish carving the whole frame.

Finishing the frame


Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of a man in new replica frame before finish was applied

After Pieter van Thiel had visited my studio to see the progress of the frame, it was decided to have a trial fitting in the Gallery of Honour at the Museum, in order to see how the Bol portrait worked in its new frame. Seeing it hung with the other paintings on display in the Gallery gave a sense of how the new frame would relate to its surroundings, and what had to be done in order to harmonize it with this setting. This was an enormously thrilling moment for everyone involved; I remember how excited we all were on seeing it in place. It was at this point that the decision was taken not to gild the frame, but instead to finish it with a warm brown polish and a patina as if of age.

Opnamedatum: 2011-03-24 SK-L-6235

Details from the two side rails of the finished frame

Colouring a piece of carving as complex as this frame is a very delicate business, I must say, especially when it has to harmonize with the painting. I referred to other frames in the Rijksmuseum as models, and launched into the final stage of the work. This was done first by applying a layer of orange-yellow stain to the wood, diluted with white spirit. I then built up the colour with successive layers of brown stain, some modified with black, until exactly the right tint and tone were achieved. The frame was then finished with a coat of hard bees’ wax, and rubbed softly to give a gentle lustre.


The painting in its new frame in the Rijksmuseum

When the portrait had been fitted with its new frame it was displayed in the Gallery of Honour in the Rijksmuseum, of which I was very proud indeed. Even today, when I have worked on so many other beautiful projects, I feel that this one was one of the best and most interesting of all, and gave me great pleasure.

Pieter van Thiel sadly died in 2012; we owe his scholarship a great deal, and I would like to take this opportunity to pay him a posthumous tribute. He was a man of great knowledge with a fine eye for detail, who has left us a magnificent body of art historical research on 16th and 17th painters.

The portrait and its new frame were exhibited for about ten years, but then it disappeared from the Gallery. It went on tour on many occasions, together with other highlights from the Rijksmuseum [2]; and it caused much interest when it was displayed in the Schiphol branch of the Rijksmuseum. Unfortunately, like many other pieces of art, it has now been moved into store; it would be a wish come true for me to see it once more in the Gallery of Honour.

Making this Auricular frame so many years ago has had an inspiring influence on my work as a sculptor in wood. One result was a project consisting of a dozen carved frames, four of them based on the Auricular style, for which I invited well-known Dutch artists to paint a work inspired by one particular frame.

10  Matthijs Röling

Matthijs Röling, Garden, in walnut Auricular-style frame by Maarten Robert, 54 x 48 cm overall

This has resulted in some beautiful and interesting combinations of frames and paintings, which were exhibited in different galleries and expositions [3]. This project can still be seen on my website; it is called: ‘In het licht van de lijst’, or ‘In the brightness of the frame’.


I would like to thank Lynn Roberts for inviting me to write this article for The Frame Blog, and Hubert Baija, senior conservator of frames at the Rijksmuseum, for his comments and support.

Maarten Robert

Maarten Robert  is a sculptor and woodcarver, mainly in the fields of restoration, and a faculty member of The School for Restoration, part of the Instituut Collectie Nederland (ICN). He was educated at the Studio for Restoration of Ornaments and Architectural Sculpture ‘Uilenburg’ in Amsterdam. The commission to carve a frame for the portrait by Ferdinand Bol, recounted above, inspired him to make a number of frames based on the 17th century Dutch style known as Kwab Stijl or ‘Lutma’ frames; after subsequent work in Florence, he completed a number of sculpted frames inspired by the Italian Renaissance which well-known artists were invited to fill with their paintings; the second exhibition pairing such frames and canvases took place at the Nijsinghhuis in Eelde, Holland (2005). He has also lectured on his work.


The frames on the De Witt family portraits: a note by The Frame Blog

3 & 11 Baen J de  Portret van Johan de Witt met lijst ed sm Jan de Baen (1633-1702), Johan de Witt, 1669, Dordrechts Museum 

The model for the replica frame on Bol’s Portrait of a man was one of four in the Dordrechts Museum, made for a group of family portraits by Jan de Baen. They fall into two pairs – a father and mother, Jacob de Witt and his wife, Anna van de Corput, painted c.1665, and their sons, Johan and Cornelis de Witt, painted after 1667, possibly in 1669. The frames have been through almost as much as the family, with the result that the two which frame the parents have been replaced by plaster copies, probably some time after the four were auctioned together in 1859 [4]. The two sons still retain their original carved frames (although even with these, parts have been reconstructed in plaster), and the one on the portrait of Johan de Witt (above) was chosen as the model for reframing the Bol.

11A Sea monster mascaron

Sea monster mascaron on the bottom rail of one of the frames

The two original frames and their copies have shallow, flattish profiles decorated around the edges with modest Auricular suggestions of shells and segmental forms, and voluted mascarons of sea monsters at the base. The Auricular style, with its marine motifs and cartilaginous ear-like ornament, was a Mannerist genre which used organic rather than classical references. The marine forms were especially popular in the sea-going Netherlands, and can be found in many 17th carved Dutch frames. In these particular examples, they are overlaid with alternating branches of olive leaves and bay leaves, carved in deep relief, and forming wreaths at the top around the family’s coats of arms. The top corners are decorated with acanthus leaves.

12 Jacob de Witt before restoration sm Jan de Baen, Jacob de Witt, 1665, Dordrechts Museum; framed in a replica of the original frame & before restoration removed the overpainted black ground

Olive leaves (for peace) and bays (for achievement) represent the diplomatic and political lives of father and sons: although these later ended tragically – most notably for the siblings, Johan and Cornelis [5]. Jacob de Witt, the father, was a lawyer, ambassador, burgomaster and Republican politician. Johan was also a lawyer, but became a civil servant with influence and power amounting to that of a Prime Minister; he engineered peace with Britain on terms prejudicial to the House of Orange, built up the Dutch navy, and then oversaw an even more successful peace treaty after the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Cornelis de Witt was another lawyer and burgomaster who took part in two sea battles against the English and French. These are men who, in other circumstances, affiliations, countries or eras, might have chosen to have innumerable martial and naval trophies carved on the frames of their portraits; they chose more peaceful and symbolic garlands of bay leaves and olives, however – peculiarly poignantly, in view of their respective ends.

13 Jan de Baen Jacob de Witt Ferdinand Bol Portrait of a man

Jan de Baen, Jacob de Witt after restoration; Ferdinand Bol, Portrait of a man in replica frame

Ferdinand Bol’s Portrait of a man is very close in date to De Baen’s De Witt portraits, and in many ways close to them in presentation and composition. Bol’s sitter is posed in a similar attitude to De Baen’s Jacob de Witt, seated almost frontally, leaning on a support at the left, against a stormy sky; and yet how different both these subjects are from each other! Jacob de Witt is ascetic and lawyerly, static, withdrawn in gesture, the only richness of colour in the painting the carpet on which he leans and the lurid sunset in the background. The portrait of Johan de Witt, which provided the model for the frame of the Bol portrait, is perhaps even more austere than that of his father, lacking both colourful silk carpet and sunset; the animation here resides in his face, the mouth slightly open, as if about to speak, and the hand poised in rhetorical gesture. In contrast, Bol’s unknown man – variously identified as the artist and architect Jacob van Campen (1596-1657), the Flemish sculptor Artus Quellinus (1609-68), who probably taught Grinling Gibbons, and Louys Trip (1605-84), arms dealer and builder with his brother of the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam  – is relaxed, bohemian and expansive, surrounded by the work of his hands and opulently clothed in coloured velvet and silk. The branches of bay leaves are equally suitable for his achievements, since the bay is Apollo’s attribute, and Apollo is patron of the arts; if the sitter were indeed Artus Quellinus, this garland of carved limewood leaves would by coincidence be particularly appropriate – given the work of both Quellinus and his putative pupil, Gibbons.

Just as Bol’s portrait is flamboyant and colourful, where De Baen’s pictures of both Jacob and his son Johan are sober and monochrome, so the replica frame of the former is, as it were, the reverse of the latter: dark polished wood, instead of gleaming gold leaf. Paintings and frames have become, fortuitously, positive and negative images of each other, and it would be fascinating to see them exhibited side-by-side. Considering this juxtaposition, it is now also ironic that it is the modest and austere lawyers who are identified by colourful coats of arms, and the dandified sitter who sits beneath an empty shield.

14 Cornelis de Witt before restoration ed sm Jan de Baen (1633-1702), Cornelis de Witt, 1669, Dordrechts Museum, before restoration removed the overpainted black ground of the frame

Compared with the images of his father, his mother and his brother, the portrait of Cornelis de Witt is another reverse. The picture of a man of action, set against a distant warship on a sunset sea, Cornelis wears the most extraordinary ceremonial uniform, weighed down by gold and silver braid, cinched with a tasselled sash, and finished by a rich lace cravat. He holds a baton of office, has a chased sword on his hip, and is set against a swooping red velvet curtain. He seems to exemplify the power of war, where his brother demonstrates the power of words. The scene shown in the background of the painting is the Raid on the Medway of 1667, in which the Dutch fleet, commanded by Michiel de Ruyter and supervised by Cornelis de Witt, attacked part of the British fleet which was at anchor in the River Medway. Two important British ships were captured, whilst others were lost or burnt. The Dutch victory led to the Treaty of Breda in July 1667, ending the second Anglo-Dutch War; the olive branches of peace around Cornelis’s frame are thus as appropriate as for his father and brother.

15 Anna v d Corput before restoration sm Jan de Baen, Anna van den Corputlow (d. 1645), 1665, after Gerard van Honthorst, 1639; shown before restoration, Dordrecht Museum

The four De Witt family paintings and their frames were restored in 2005 for an exhibition in the Dordrechts Museum, The De Witt brothers: Power and helplessness in the Golden Age.


Detail of one of the two original frames showing woodworm damage and the overpainted black ground. Photo: Dordrechts Museum

Their parlous condition is illustrated by the worm damage, above; presumably this was already advanced when the parents’ frames were replaced in the 19th century, and those of the sons repaired with spot reconstructions. In the course of the restoration the black ground which had been applied to the frames at some point was removed, returning them to their original golden finish [6]. The result was to render the frames far less emphatic and obtrusive, relative to the paintings; they became once more golden garlands of softly varying surface and light, focusing the attention but not stealing it.

17 Renée Velsink & Sander Paarlberg 2004

Sander Paarlberg of the Dordrechts Musem discusses the frame restoration with the restorer Renée Velsink in 2004. Photo: Dordrechts Museum

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA Restoration of one of the male coats of arms. Photo: Dordrechts Museum


Restoring one of the plaster frames. Photo: Dordrechts Museum

20 Johan de Witt detail after restoration

 Jan de Baen, Johan de Witt, detail of frame after restoration. Photo: Dordrechts Museum


With grateful thanks to the Dordrechts Museum for information and photos.

[1] Prijst de lijst: De hollandse schilderlijst in de zeventiende eeuw [Praise/Prize the frame: The Dutch picture frame in the seventeenth century], exh. cat. by P.J.J. van Thiel and C.J. de Bruyn Kops, 1984, Rijksmusem, Amsterdam; translated into English as Framing in the Golden Age, 1995 (117 illus. and diagrams).

[2] Picture and frame were part of the following travelling exhibitions: 2005, The Golden Age- Highlights from the Rijksmuseum, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia; 2005-2006, The Golden Age – Highlights from the Rijksmuseum, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, Kobe; 2007-2008, The Golden Age – Highlights from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China; 2009, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada; 2009-2010, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Pinacothèque de Paris, Paris, France.Kobe; 2007-2008, The Golden Age – Highlights from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Shanghai Museum, Shanghai, China; 2009, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, Canada; 2009-2010, Vermeer, Rembrandt and the golden age of Dutch Art: Masterpieces from the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Pinacothèque de Paris, Paris, France.

[3] 2005: In the brightness of the frame: Frames by Maarten Robert, Gallery Vieleers, Amsterdam, Netherlands; Museum de Buitenplaats, Eelde, Netherlands; Gallery De Galerie, Haarlem, Netherlands; Gallery Spierenburg & Ramon, Antwerp, Belgium.

[4] Prijst de lijst: De hollandse schilderlijst in de zeventiende eeuw, exh. cat. by P.J.J. van Thiel & Bruyn Kops, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1984, no 63.

[5] Johan and Cornelis de Witt were lynched in The Hague in 1672 by a mob supporting William III of Orange. Their coat of arms shows, with rather grisly clairvoyance, two hounds hunting a hare on a green field. Jacob de Witt, the brothers’ father, had moved to The Hague in his late 60s, but after the murder of his sons (when he was 83) he moved back to his birthplace, Dordrecht, where he died two years later. His wife had died decades earlier, in 1645, and Jan de Baen copied her portrait from one of 1639 by Gerard van Honthorst, updating her costume to that of the mid-1660s.

[6] Information from Sander Paarlberg, Curator of Old Master Paintings, Dordrechts Museum. The frame restoration was carried out by Renée Velsink in Gouda.

Frames in Focus: Sansovino Frames – an exhibition at the National Gallery, London

An exhibition at the National Gallery examines one of the most decorative and flamboyant of frame designs; it runs from 1 April to 13 September 2015, and is reviewed here by Michael Savage, otherwise known as Grumpy Art Historian.

 1 Cat sm

A partially gilded carved walnut Sansovino frame, probably dating from the 1550s; frame: 140 × 147 cm.; private collection. © photo The National Gallery, London; courtesy the owner

With their scrolls and swags of fruit, cherubim and grotesque masks, dark walnut and shimmering gilt, ‘Sansovino’ frames are a riot of decoration and a marked contrast to the sobriety of the tabernacle frames often used on contemporary altarpieces. They originated in sixteenth century Venice (although probably not with Sansovino) and became popular throughout Europe.

Picture frames have a subordinate function, both providing a setting for the picture and playing a part in the overall ‘look’ of an interior. That makes it easy to think of them in only a supporting role and to lose sight of their independent artistry. Frames were expensive and a good deal of thought went into design and execution. The best frames are finely carved and well conceived. But others are more summary, and more arbitrarily decorative. This exhibition made me appreciate some quite stark differences in quality that aren’t immediately apparent when looking only at the immediate overall effect.

2 Cat 10 sm

A carved and partially gilded Sansovino frame, 1560-80; frame: 75 × 100 cm.; private collection. © photo The National Gallery, London; courtesy the owner

The excellent catalogue proposes a later date for the more restrained frames, and suggests that the most wildly decorated were earliest. That suggests that the earlier frames borrowed broadly from sculpture and furniture, throwing together images playfully and exuberantly. The later frames seem to have been conceived with a narrower purpose in mind, more strictly subordinate to the pictures and with form more closely tied to specific purpose. Given the paucity of evidence, the proposed dating must be speculative and I suspect styles overlapped and persisted, but it’s a helpful way of thinking about groupings.


Titian, Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro, c.1528, o/c, 84 x 73.5 cm, NG3949. © The National Gallery, London

Seeing frames without pictures makes you focus on the artistry of the frames themselves, reflecting on quality and style. I always come back to their function, thinking about how they work with pictures and how they function in interiors. Two of the frames do have pictures in them, both recently reattributed to Titian with different degrees of confidence. The more likely, the Portrait of Girolamo Fracastoro, was recently reframed in this especially elaborate Sansovino frame. It looks splendid, the exuberance of the frame setting off the dour but swankily dressed Girolamo. It’s not a combination I would have thought of. Some of the more exuberant frames are hard to imagine paired with pictures, but this portrait shows how well they can work. A couple of pictures provided the right balance; more would have diffused attention away from the frames, whereas none at all would have divorced form and function too strictly.

Walnut cassone A 2nd half C16 Met Mus NY ed sm

Walnut cassone with Sansovino ornament, 2nd half 16th century, 22 1/2 x 67 1/2 x 21 1/8 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (holding image)

I love the fact that there’s a chest on loan from the National Gallery’s own building services department. It illustrates how details on ‘Sansovino’ frames were echoed in contemporary furniture, but the credit line conjures up wonderful images of NG offices looking like Renaissance palazzi; I imagined burly workmen interrupting a curator in his intarsio growlery to cart off a cassone for the frames show. It gives a different context for the frames. They are usually seen only in relation to pictures, but as works of art they often relate more closely to furniture. And that relationship was even closer in 16th century Venice, where cassoni themselves often had painted decoration framed with Sansovinoesque elements.

The exhibition is beautifully staged in a single room, frames hung against dark blue walls with substantive and useful wall text explaining the context. A much-quoted and disparately attributed bon mot says ‘I’m writing you a long letter because I didn’t have time to write a short letter’. As with letters, so with exhibitions. The small ones require extra effort to distil the best, and they’re often more rewarding for that. Many of my favourite shows at the National Gallery have been in this little room on the left of the main entrance. ‘The best’ in this case doesn’t mean the finest examples, but rather that they have gathered a selection representative in terms of quality as well as design.

In the exh ed

It’s been interesting to watch visitors. Some poke their heads in and then leave to seek the paintings. One couple came in to look at the two paintings, then left ignoring the frames. But the people who do visit seem to linger. First time or infrequent visitors understandably want to see the NG’s paintings, but people do want to learn more about the frames. I’ve seen people studying the wall text and catalogue more closely here than in any other exhibition I can recall. It’s commendable that the National Gallery puts on such interesting and unusual shows as well as popular blockbusters. It’s touted as the first in a series of shows highlighting frames, and it has whetted my appetite for the next in the series.

Detail of the Christ Child with Simeon from Cat. 13

Cat. 13: detail of a gilded poplar frame, probably 1560-1580, with the figure of Simeon holding the Christ Child on the crest; private collection. © photo The National Gallery, London; courtesy the owner


Michael Savage is ‘Passionate about the arts, particularly old master drawings and paintings. Keenly interested in history, philosophy, economics and most things in the humanities and social sciences.’ As Grumpy Art Historian he keeps a very beady eye on the more inane doings of the art world, which prompt him into the sort of curmudgeonly criticism that we all whole-heartedly agree with.


Listen to Peter Schade, Head of Frames at the National Gallery, and Harriet O’Neil, co-curator of the exhibition, talking about Sansovino frames with Anne McElvoy on Radio Three (27 minutes and 42 seconds into the programme).

See also the review by Peter Crack in Apollo, 14 April, 2015  

In the exh 2

A note on the catalogue by The Frame Blog

Cat cover

The Sansovino Frame, by Nicholas Penny, Peter Schade & Harriet O’Neill, exh. cat., National Gallery Company Ltd, 2015, £9.95

The accompanying catalogue, The Sansovino Frame, is slim – as you would expect for an exhibition of this size – but it’s beautifully produced, and far more substantial in terms of information and depth of scholarship than can be said of weightier, superficially more ‘important’ catalogues. It’s nicely bound, with a double turnback card cover which adds volume and substance, and it has a good picture-to-text ratio, with a section at the back of illustrated entries for all the exhibited frames, so that you can walk round them with the catalogue in your hands: a definite and unusual benefit in these days of monster tomes.

The main essay begins with a helpful definition of what exactly is meant by a ‘Sansovino’ frame – its structure, whether architectural, with pediment and base, or symmetrical on both axes, like a linear frame; its ornament (this exhibition has a very high angel count, not to mention greedy birds and some magnificent goats); its finish (gilded, or parcel-gilt and painted, or parcel-gilt and polished walnut); and its stylistic connections (Venetian, Tuscan or Roman Mannerism). We begin to see how various this type of frame may be, an aspect which is demonstrated by the different sizes, designs and complexity of the actual exhibits.

San Nicolò dei Mendicoli (Venice) Organ

Organ loft, S. Nicolò dei Mendicoli, Venice, with inset canvases by Carletto Caliari, c.1581. Photo: Didier Descouens

The relationship of frame and furniture is also dealt with, as Michael mentions in his review, above, not only in terms of the cassone, one example of which is on exhibition, but in terms of the diverse objects which were also decorated in ‘Sansovino’ style. For example, wooden organ lofts, noted as close in structure to cassoni, and like cassoni often decorated with paintings in framed compartments; also wooden ceilings with scrolled ornamental cartouches containing paintings, which date from the mid-16th century.

The complicated genesis of this frame style is unpicked; in spite of its name it has always been clear that the latter has come about rather by association than because Jacopo Sansovino himself had any active part in its design. Like the Spanish architect, Juan de Herrera, whose name has also been annexed to a Mannerist style of frame mostly at odds with the severe classicism which characterizes his work, Sansovino’s architectural and sculptural work is very unlike the scrolling Mannerist exuberance of the ‘Sansovino’ frame (notably in an altarpiece setting actually attributed to him, in S. Salvador, Venice).

Alessandro Vittoria Ceiling of the Scala d Oro Palazzo Ducale Venice Photo Saliko sm

Ceiling of the Scala d’Oro, Palazzo Ducale, Venice. Photo: Saliko

The nearest he is admitted to complicity with the style is relative to the garlanded and voluted stucco ceilings by his pupil, Alessandro Vittoria, for the ceilings of Sansovino’s Scala d’Oro in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice, which ‘…he must have approved’.

Palazzo Thiene Vicenza 5 ed

Video on the Palazzo Thiene, and its extraordinary stucco decoration; click on the image

Vittoria was a young and talented stuccoist, who in 1552, at the age of twenty-seven, was working on the ceilings of the Palazzo Thiene in Vicenza, in which much of the vocabulary of Sansovinesque ornament springs to life in a plethora of curling clasps, flutes, swags of fruit, amorini, and parcel gilding. By 1558 he had started on the stuccowork of the Scala d’Oro, and one strand of the parentage of these frames was in place.

Jean Mignon after Luca Penni Lamentation etching British Museum ed sm

Jean Mignon after Luca Penni, Lamentation, 1540-55, etching. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The authors are careful, however, to admit the influence of jewellery and engraved designs, noting, for instance, printed representations of the paintings and surrounding stuccowork in the Château de Fontainebleau, such as those by Luca Penni, etched by Jean Mignon. Other ingredients may include heraldic shields, and cartouches – for example, one drawn in c. 1551 by Veronese.

Bellini The Madonna and Child with Doge Barbarigo 1482 San Pietro Martire Murano sm

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Doge Barbarigo, 1482, in a frame dated 1634, S. Pietro Martire, Murano, Venice.

The dissemination of the style is charted, as well as competing patterns of frame in Venice, and its survival there as late as the splendid example (above) on a Bellini. Exactly contemporaneously with this, ‘Sansovino’ frames had migrated as far as Britain, turning up in a typically flattened form on, for instance, the portrait of Thomas Coventry, 1st Baron Coventry, by Cornelius Johnson (1639, National Portrait Gallery).  Having reached London, elements of the ornament became naturalized: the authors see them reviving in the decoration of the more elaborate ‘William Kent’ frame, and popping up again in 19th century revivals of the form.

Altogether, then, the catalogue delivers an all-round view of this very three-dimensional style, whilst managing to remain remarkably succinct. Like the exhibition, it is a bravura beginning to what is publicized as the first in an occasional series on picture frames. Do go to the exhibition – and, if you can’t get to it, do buy this very useful book.

Small goat

Detail: a partially gilded carved walnut Sansovino frame, probably dating from the 1550s; frame: 140 × 147 cm.; private collection. © photo The National Gallery, London; courtesy the owner

National Gallery reframings: Mannerist frames > here

National Gallery reframings: a Venetian pastiglia frame> here

Reframing the Renaissance: Museums and Madonnas> here

National Gallery: reframing Mantegna> here

National Gallery frames: an interview with Peter Schade> here

Norwich Castle frame appeal…

Help Norwich Castle Museum, Norfolk, to regild the antique frame of its spectacular 17th century painting, The Paston Treasure: YOU can make a difference to the presentation of this important and fascinating work. NB: the end date for donations has been extended, so there is still time to give!

Paston Treasure framed sm

Netherlandish School, The Paston Treasure, mid-1670s, Norwich Castle Museum, Norfolk

The Paston Treasure is an extraordinary still life – an assemblage of rare and precious items from four continents, which were collected by the eponymous Paston family [1], and were recorded in this painting, commissioned in the 17th century by Sir Robert Paston (1631-83). It was probably painted by a peripatetic artist from the Netherlands, who was travelling though Norfolk (there was a very busy trade route between East Anglia and the Low Countries from an early point, as wool was sold from Norfolk and Suffolk to the weavers, dyers and clothmakers across the North Sea, and bought back as fabric). He has been tentatively identified as Franciscus Gysbrechts, and latterly as Pieter Gerritsz. van Roestraten (c.1630-1700), a pupil and the son-in-law of Frans Hals, who is recorded in London from about 1660 [2].

Original Paston Hall sm Engraving of Oxnead Hall, Norfolk, built 1580, remodelled by Nicholas Stone, 1631-42

The collection had been assembled mainly by Sir Robert and his father, Sir William Paston of Oxnead (c.1610-62/63). Sir William was Sheriff of Norfolk from 1636-37, but had also travelled quite widely in Europe and in the near East; his son was a traveller too, in Europe, and together they built up what has been described as ‘a world of curiosities and some very rich ones, as cabinets and juells’ [3]. They created their own wunderkammer – a cabinet of curiosities which would express in miniature the marvels of the natural, scientific and artistic worlds, and would display their taste and learning to friends and acquaintances. This was housed at Oxnead Hall in Norfolk, a large and handsome mansion built in the reign of Elizabeth and updated by Sir William in contemporary Caroline style.

Only surviving wing of Oxnead Hall smSurviving wing of Oxnead Hall (2009). Photo: courtesy of Cameron Self 

Unfortunately, the Pastons overreached themselves by extending their handsome house to palatial dimensions, and then by entertaining Charles II in it, both of which severely dented the family fortunes. This setback was repeated when Robert became Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk in 1676, a ruinously expensive position; he was created 1st Earl of Yarmouth in 1679, but by then the family was already beginning to sink into debt [4].  Robert’s son, the 2nd Earl and another William, was predeceased by his sons and other male heirs: he died old and impoverished in 1732, the infant title became extinct, and a hundred years after the remodelling, Oxnead had to be sold. Shortly afterwards it was demolished, save for the kitchen wing (the long, outlying wing on the right in the engraving). The cabinet of curiosities was sold, and scattered to the four winds.

Flagon (one of a pair)

Flagon, one of pair, 1597-98, London, silver-gilt, 12 3/8 x 6 ½ x 4 ¾ in., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 

Its contents can be seen in museums across the world: for example, there is a pair of silver-gilt flagons now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, one of which is held by the coloured servant on the left of the painting. The decoration is based on scallop shells, which clasp the body of the vessel, and ornament the lid and the foot; this fishy motif is reinforced by the finely-chased dolphins and other marine creatures on the collar, foot and reposes.

Silver flagon in pic & life

Silver-gilt flagon, detail of The Paston Treasure; & displayed in the Metropolitan Museum.

These flagons were made in London, but many of the other precious objects in The Paston Treasure came from the Netherlands or Germany: for instance, the mounted nautilus shell on the right side of the painting, between the hourglass and the globe.

Nautilus shell cup Prinsenhof Museum Delft 3

Nicolaes de Grebber, nautilus cup, silver-gilt, glass, enamel, 1592, Delft; later engraved on the shell with the Paston coat of arms; Stedelijk Museum Het Prinsenhof

Nautilus shell cup Prinsenhof Museum in pic & life 2

Nautilus cup, detail of The Paston Treasure; & displayed in the Prinsenhof Museum

This is now in the Prinsenhof Museum in Delft, having returned to the town of its birth. It was made by a Flemish goldsmith: one of those who, from the 1580s onwards, settled in Holland – Delft being a magnet of prosperity, principally because of its flourishing brewing industry. Marine motifs were popular in the Low Countries, with their sea-going bias, and became an important component of Mannerist design in the late 16th and 17th centuries; the ornamentation of the mount reflects this, with its snarling sea monster steered by a tiny figure of Poseidon, and its foot moulded with fish. The lip of the cup is decorated with scenes of Jonah on a ship and with the whale [5].

Strombus Shell cup Norwich Castle Museum sm

Strombus shell cup, mounted with enamelled foot, Norwich Castle Museum

Mounted shells seem to have been a particular love of the Pastons; the painting contains eight examples, as well as mounted ostrich eggs. One item from the collection remains in Norwich Castle Museum: this is a strombus shell mounted as a cup on a decorative enamelled foot.

Strombus Shell cup in pic & life

Strombus shell cup, detail of The Paston Treasure; & displayed in Norwich Castle Museum

It appears in the picture lying on its side on the extreme left hand edge of the table, in front of the servant’s left shoulder. The pearly pink sheen of the painted shell indicates that this original specimen was probably broken at some later point, and a new shell was mounted on the foot.

Apart from these strange, rich, and beautifully-crafted examples of the goldsmith’s art, The Paston Treasure contains, for example, a globe by Willem Janszoon Blaeu of Amsterdam (1571-1638) [6]. Blaeu had studied for two years under the astronomer Tycho Brahe, before founding a workshop in his native Holland selling maps, mathematical instruments and globes. The latter were usually sold in pairs comprising a terrestrial and a celestial globe; here, in the painting, the presence of the former points to the travels of the Pastons, father and son, and to their consequent sophistication and knowledge (literally) of the world. The actual fruits of this knowledge orbit the globe in tangible form: not only the gold and silver items, but living things – the coloured servant, the monkey, the parrot, the peaches, grapes, orange and lemon.

Then there is a number of musical instruments of various kinds – a trumpet, mandolin and violin, amongst others, again denoting a knowledge of the arts and a social refinement. At this point, the various pieces of the still life begin to edge into metaphor and allegory, as the symbolic meaning they convey is overlaid on the pure representational aspect of the painting. Musical instruments, for instance, indicate a sense of harmony and rationality, and perhaps the idea that the wealth and sensibilities which have garnered such an apparently chaotic welter of objects can arrange them, like a tune or a dance, into a coherent and creative pattern, and through them impose order and reason back onto the anarchic universe which produced them.

Mary Paston

Mary Paston (c.1664/66-76), detail of The Paston Treasure

But beyond this metaphor again is a more potent and tragic theme. In front and almost at the centre of the still life sits a little girl.  She is assumed to be Mary, the daughter of Robert Paston who commissioned this painting; she died from smallpox in 1676. She holds a spray of roses; more lie on the table, whilst behind her, in the background to the left of the composition, a guttered candle, an hourglass and a clock are grouped, ominously.


Hesperides: or, The works both human & Divine of Robert Herrick, Esq, London, 1648, no 208

In 1648 Robert Herrick had published a number of his poems in the volume Hesperides, one of the most famous of these encapsulating the principle of carpe diem, with which – as it was popularized in an ode by Horace – the educated Pastons would have been more than familiar. Herrick’s poetry was a slow burning work, and it is uncertain how well-known (if at all) this particular poem would have been when he died in 1674, two years before Mary Paston. But it sums up, in its first two verses particularly, the spirit of the age – that enhanced sense of transience which the upheaval of the Civil War and the execution of a king had given to the country. The Pastons had entertained the heir of that dead king; they had reached the social eminence of an earldom and a great house; Robert had had six sons and three daughters; but life was tenuous and uncertain – debt hovered, and this little daughter died. The Paston Treasure, as well as a marvellous still life and a celebration of the world’s riches, is a meditation on change, ephemerality and death. It is what Netherlandish painters do so well, a vanitas: ‘this same flower that smiles today/ tomorrow will be dying’.

Paston Treasure framed sm

Netherlandish School, The Paston Treasure, mid-1670s, Norwich Castle Museum, Norfolk

Time has had its way with the physical picture, too. Once very dark and obscured, the painting has recently been conserved, and attention has now turned to the frame. This is because Norwich Castle Museum, in association with the Yale Center for British Art, is planning to exhibit as many of the objects in The Paston Treasure as can be reassembled. The exhibition will take place in 2018, and the painting will of course be the fulcrum of the whole display. Although the latter has been cleaned, nothing has yet been done for the frame, which has suffered sadly over the centuries. The original gilded finish was in such condition that, by the time the Museum acquired the work in the 1940s, it was necessary to remove the gesso layer along with the remains of the gilding in order not to distract attention from the painting, so it is now clean, bare pinewood, giving it a rather anachronistic air.

Frame corner detail sm

The Paston Treasure, detail of frame

It is almost certainly the original setting: a late Auricular frame contemporary with the painting, still fashionable in the 1670s and early 1680s. This style is related to Mannerist frames fashionable on the Continent; it grew out of the shallow, scrolling gilded British frames of the 1630s which were an assimilation of the Italian ‘Sansovino’ style, and of the fluid, organic ornamentation of ‘leatherwork’ frames.  It was influenced by silverwork, sculpture, and engraved, printed portrait ‘frames’. It retains the tied corner trefoils of the Sansovinesque pattern, and the central lion mask at the crest – here with a realistic hairy mane scrolling down around its threatening brow. On the bottom rail this lion mask is balanced by the mascaron of a ‘Green Man’, evoked from layered leaves and eared like an owl. Around the frame segmental marine forms, like shells and worms, morph and flow into leaves, architectural scrolls, and wings. It is an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Auricular British frame, and may have been made by a local carver.

Frame detail

The frame would originally have been gilded all over on a smooth gesso base, creating an effect like ripplinging ormolu or molten gold – an appropriate setting for a work which depicts so many precious golden objects.  It needs this golden finish to define more clearly the transitional, decorative boundary between the real world of the spectator and the lost, idealized world of the painting. It needs to be gilded to restore its historical integrity; and it needs it especially in order to be transformed as the centrepiece of a unique exhibition, examining the creation and representation of a British kunstkammer. But restorations of this order aren’t cheap: the painting is 5 ½ feet tall and over 8 feet across (165 x 246.5 cm), and the frame is sufficiently intricate to absorb a great deal of labour and craftsmanship – never mind the books and books of gold leaf. £14,500 is needed to fund the regilding, in order to transform this unique frame into the jewel-like setting an extraordinary painting deserves…

Art Fund



Update: March 31: the target has been just been reached: with thanks to the 185 people who so kindly contributed!


[1] The Paston family correspondence, between 1422 and 1509, was eventually published as The Paston Letters, ed. James Gairdner, vols I-VI

[2] See The Paston Treasure (Norfolk Museums)

[3] Sir Thomas Browne (of Religio medici and Urn burial), who lived in Norwich from 1637-82, and presumably knew both the Paston family and their collection

[4] See Jean Agnew (ed.), ‘The whirlpool of misadventures’: Letters of Robert Paston, 1st Earl of Yarmouth, 1663-79, 2012.

[5] See Axel Ruger, ‘Silver and silver gilt’, Vermeer and the Delft School, 2013, Metropolitan Museum of Art, no. 143, p. 526.

[6] See The life of Willem Jansz. Blaeu 

An introduction to Greek Orthodox shrines

Thanos Andronikos, graduate in Arts Management and owner/manager of Heartbeat Gallery, Sheffield, describes the construction and development of the small ornamental shrines designed to hold a single icon.

ΟΔΟΙΠΟΡΙΚΟ ΑΓΙΟΥ ΟΡΟΥΣDetails of two of the shrines in Iera Skete Prophete Elia, Mount Athos, 1903. Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, shrines (or proskynetari – προσκυνητάρι – from the verb proskyno, meaning ‘to kneel in worship’), are small free-standing or wall-mounted constructions, in which icons are placed to be worshipped by the faithful. It is not known exactly when the first shrines appeared, but they are undoubtedly related to the evolution of the iconostasis, the large and solid screen of icons which is such an important liturgical feature of the Orthodox church. In some cases the shrine or shrines may extend the span of an iconostasis to the north and south wall of the church, or they may sometimes be used to connect the three parts of the iconostasis, when these are separated by small columns.

1A collection of shrines, Basilica of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one important example of a church containing a large group of shrines, seen above in a side chapel beside the magnificent main iconostasis, carved in 1764 [1].

 The form and purpose of the shrine


 Grey marble shrine dedicated to Neomartyros Theodorou (the Martyr Theodore), Church of Hagee Pateres, Ano Halikas, Lesvos; inscribed: ΤΗ ΦΙΛΟΤΙΜΩ ΔΑΠΑΝΗ ΤΗΣ ΣΥΝΤΕΧΝΙΑΣ ΤΩΝ ΣΑΠΟΥΝΤΖΙΔΩΝ ΚΑΙ ΣΥΝΔΡΟΜΙΤΩΝ/1863 ΜΑΡΤΙΟΥ 15 ΑΓΙΑΣΟΥ, ‘Paid for by the guild of soap-makers and contributors/ March1863, Agiasou’

4 Shrine dedicated to Neomartyros Theodorou (above); detail, with inscription

 Shrines are generally commissioned from the carvers by private donors, or – as in the example above – by a particular body or group; in this case the ‘Guild of Soap-Makers’. They are placed at various points inside the church – either along the walls, or free-standing where there is space. They are usually morphologically related to the iconostasis of the host church: they may be dedicated to the patron saint of that church, or to the holy event the church is named after, with particularly popular subjects being the Virgin Mary (Theotokos-Panagia) or scenes from the Life of Christ; they may also be linked to the donor’s name saint or to the saint in charge of some specific area of influence. They could be described as free-standing altarpieces, usually with an icon set upright in an elaborate frame, and sometimes (or instead) with an icon set immediately beneath in a canted position, which is intended to be kissed and venerated by the worshipper. The base of the structure, below the level of the icons, echoes the lowest level of the iconostasis, and contains a panel (the thorakion) which may be carved or painted with decorative motifs, with a religious scene, or with a symbolic or emblematic device.


Byzantine thorakion, The tree of life between two lions, late 11th– early 12th century, marble. Photo: Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

 The thorakion was originally a block of stone used in the parapet of a classical temple to create a low protective wall, and similarly describes the stone, and later wooden, panels in the lowest tier of an iconostasis. The thorakion was also often ‘framed’, as above, in a decorative border of foliate and floral ornament. Its use on the base of a shrine meant that the structure as a whole reflected a single bay from an iconostasis, from the level of the entablature to the ground, as though the grand liturgical sweep of the icon screen had been synthesized into an intimate private chapel, for the use of a single worshipper.

 The production of the Greek Orthodox shrine


Carved giltwood & polychrome wall shrine with icon of the Holy Trinity, 1741, Iera Moni Taxiarhi, Nenita, Chios (note the Eucharistic grapevine at the side).

The earliest examples of these small shrines date from the 18th century, when they are most often carved in wood, and are frequently very elaborate, as in the example above. As with the making of an iconostasis, the timber used to build a shrine is resinous: it was produced from straight cypress logs which were cut in January on the days of the waning moon. The first stages in processing the wood were quite basic: removing the bark with an adz, drying the logs indoors, followed by sawing them into rough planks. The wood was then impregnated with olive oil or linseed oil and planed [2].


Carved giltwood and polychrome shrine, Μονή Κοιμήσεως Βουτσάς (Monastery of the Dormition, 1680), Voutsas, Ioannina, Epirus, Greece. Photo: Τριαντάφυλλος Σιούλης

The design for the frame and other decorative parts of the shrine were transferred to the wood in exactly the same way that images had been transferred to panels for the artist to paint, ever since the earliest Byzantine icons. The patterns used are known as the woodcarver’s ‘anthivola’ (Ανθίβολα), which by the 19th century had come to be known as στάμπες, or – literally – ‘stamps’ [3]. They are the same size as the piece of wood to be carved, and the lines of the design are perforated with pins, creating small holes, millimetres apart. The patterns derive from the anthivola used by Byzantine artists and craftsmen, which diffused through Greece via Crete and those Greek islands under the control of Venice.

28 A 19th century anthivolo, designed by the woodcarver Ioannis Halatsis, c.1860. Photo: Emmanouel Ioannis Farsaris

The carver laid the perforated pattern on the planed surface of the wood. He would then enclose finely powdered coal or charcoal in a piece of loosely-woven cotton cheesecloth, called ‘touloupani’ (τουλουπάνι), and rub this cloth bag over his anthivolo. The coal dust was forced through the pinholes, and the design was imprinted on the wood.

The growing demand for icons, iconostases, shrines and thrones, and later on the dissemination of paper as a design material, gradually spread the use of the anthivola throughout Greece in almost all important centres of post-Byzantine art.

29 The Dormition and Assumption of Hagios Inoannis o Theologos, (St. John the Theologian), anthivola, Sinai, 15th-16th century, 22.4 x 20.2 cm. Photo: Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

 The 15th-16th century Dormition and Assumption of Hagios Inoannis o Theologos is one of the earliest works in the Byzantine and Christian Museum’s collection of anthivola; it shows the type of pattern used for a painting, rather than a piece of decorative carving. It was probably produced by a Cretan painter, and may have been intended for purposes of demonstration or teaching. The reverse has been covered with later written notes and sketches.

30 Icon depicting the Dormition and Assumption of Hagios Inoannis o Theologos, early 17th c. 21x31cm. Photo: Byzantine and Christian Museum, Athens

Anthivola were valuable assets, passed from artist to artist in commercial transactions, by exchange or through inheritance, creating a corresponding traffic in iconographic conventions and woodcarving practices between one artistic workshop and another. This partly explains the reason Byzantine icons and murals are so similar; this was the intention, to reproduce as exactly as possible a venerated image. In the same way, the ornamental motifs used to frame iconostases and shrines reproduce the same designs from region to region, and era to era. The popularity of naturalistic decoration in all styles – Baroque, NeoClassical and revival Byzantine is clear; extravagant foliage, often filled with birds and animals, appears ubiquitously. Vines are a particular favourite, as they are both decorative and symbolic.

3Carved & polished wooden shrine, Church of Agios Athanasios, Mytilene, Lesvos; inscribed ΕΠΟΙΗΘΗ ΕΙΣ ΤΑ 1884 ΔΙΑ ΧΕΙΡΟΣ ΙΩΣΗΦ ΠΕΤΡΟΥ ΑΠΟ ΧΩΡΙΟΝ ΚΑΡΑΚΙΟΙ, or ‘Built in 1884 by the hand of Iosef Petrou from Karakeae village’

The same craftsmen who made the shrines were also responsible for iconostases, thrones for the Patriarchs, pulpits, crosses, chairs and statues. In the peak years of production – especially in Crete – there were workshops organized under a master carver (‘protomastoras‘), with a group of assistants, each in charge of a particular area of the process, depending on their experience. The guild system oversaw the hierarchy of the workshop, just as in Western Europe.

Icon and worshipper

Because many shrines are not mounted in fixed positions on the wall, but are free-standing and small enough to be portable, the icons they hold may also be used in open air litanies or processions (Λιτανεία), being carried on the shoulders of worshippers. This usually forms part of the ceremony carried out on the name day of the patron saint [4].

9 ed Icon of Axion Estin carried in the litany of Ieros Naos Protatou, Mount Athos, on the second day of Easter. Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης

In the litany of Ieros Naos Protatou on Mount Athos, above, the icon being carried is that of the “Άξιον έστιν“ or Axion Estin. This is translated as ‘It is truly meet’, and is another title of the Theotokos (or Mother of God) holding Christ. It is one of the holiest icons of Orthodoxy, and is kept in the church of Protaton in Karyes, Mount Athos.

Axion Estin

Icon Axion Estin, without its silver cover, 980 AD

The original icon is made from tempera or encaustic wax on wood, like most portable Byzantine icons; it dates from the tenth century, and was painted in Constantinople, copying a portrait of the Madonna and Child supposed to have been painted by St Luke himself. This is a direct expression of the ‘vera icon’ or true image which could be passed down by reproducing exactly the original painted portrait. The story of St Veronica, and the image of Christ which was transferred to her veil after she wiped His face, is an allegory of this exact recreation of a holy icon.

Axion Estin in silver cover

Icon Axion Estin, within its cover

The silver and gold cover of the icon (the επένδυση – ‘ependesi’ or what, on a Russian icon, would be the ‘riza’), was made in 1836 on Mount Athos, and incorporates its own integral ‘frame’ or border, with a tree of Jesse springing at the bottom and winding its way, in the guise of a Eucharistic vine, around the medallion busts at the sides to the angels, Virgin and risen Christ at the top. The cover reveals only the faces of the Madonna and Child, and has helped to preserve the condition of the painting over the last two hundred years; although it has been much restored.

10Carved giltwood shrine of Axion Estin, late 19th century, Protaton Church, Mount Athos. Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης

The icon is thus framed twice – once by its precious covering, and again by the carved and gilded wooden shrine in which it is mounted. Whilst the ‘frame’ of the cover is emblematic, and expands upon the meaning of the icon itself, the shrine is purely decorative, presenting the image of Mother and Child like a precious jewel in a golden ornamental setting. Where altarpieces in Catholic and Protestant churches are usually removed slightly from the presence of the congregation by their setting and their size, the Orthodox shrine brings the holy image it contains close to the individual worshipper, who can pray before it in an intimate relationship, touch it, and kiss it as a sign of veneration. The frame of the shrine and the armour-like covering of the ependesi are not, therefore, intended (as it may appear) to close off the icon, but actually to bring it nearer to those who come to pray.

6 Carved giltwood shrine, 1871, Monastery of Agioi Anargiroi, Chios, with blue-painted details

The polychrome shrine, above, in the church of Agioi Anargiroi, is carved in revival Baroque style with NeoClassical medallions and arabesques on the panel beneath the icon and the lower pilaster panels; the icon has also been framed in a conventional NeoClassical pattern. The thorakion, the panel beneath the icon, is decorated with the scene of a martyr undergoing death by stoning.


 Carved giltwood shrine in Agioi Anargiroi (above); detail

The free-standing columns to each side support – rather than an entablature, as in an altarpiece – two polychrome and gilded angels, and the Baroque pierced cartouche at the crest is topped with the crown of Greece. As in this example, many shrines hold icons from older churches which have been destroyed or demolished [5]; sometimes these might be icons which were originally part of an iconostasis, and have been salvaged from the larger structure.

11Free-standing white & grey marble shrine with dome by Demetrios Zervas, 1910, Church of Evaggelistria, Paleohore Plomari, Lesvos

 Types of shrine: wall-mounted

Depending upon their position inside the church, shrines are classified into two general kinds: in the first are wall or pillar shrines, where the rear panel is not visible and therefore is not decorated. This type of shrine usually holds the icon in an upright position, though this is not always true. The second category is the free-standing shrine, where the icon is usually placed in an angled or horizontal position.

13 B

 Faux grey marble shrine of St Michael the Archangel, 18th & 19th century, Church of Taxiarhis, Asomatos, Lesvos. Photo via Panoramio

In the first group of wall and pillar shrines three different types can be identified. Shrines of the first type (above) seem to echo – as described previously – a single bay of the iconostasis, as if one of the despotic icons, together with its thorakion, columns, and crest, had become detached from the main structure. These shrines tend to have very little depth from front to back; they are frequently decorated in Baroque or NeoClassical style. In the example above, the shrine of St Michael the Archangel is probably a reconstruction of older pieces; behind the Despotic throne next to the shrine is the inscription: Ὁ Μέγας Ἀρχιερεύς, 1846 νοεμβρίου α΄ (The Great High Priest, 1846 November a’).

14 Shrine of St Michael the Archangel, 1795 & later (above); detail

The capitals are characteristic of Chios, and the crest of Naxos. The crest was probably added in 1795 when the icon was moved from the left to the right side of the church.

k3 last image Carved giltwood and polychrome shrine of St Nikitas, mid-19th century, Church of Hagios Demetrios, Armolia, Chios, with angels on the crest

The rather later shrine of St Nikitas, above, dating from the mid-19th century, is another example of this first category of shallow wall shrine with a complex, aedicular form of frame, based on a bay from an iconostasis.

The second type of wall-mounted shrine looks rather like a chair in its structure, as it is built with a large base or desk, allowing for the angled placement of the icon for purposes of veneration. Canting the icon back like this encourages the worshipper to kiss the icon whilst making the sign of the Cross. The impression of a chair is reinforced by the solid back and pillared sides, usually supporting an arched apex. This type is rare; it derives from marble shrines on the island of Tinos.

Shrine of St Andrew Cathedral of PatrasShrine of St Andrew, 20th century, Cathedral of St Andrew, Patras

Wall shrines of the third type are shaped almost like a small church, with four columns, an entablature, and a pedimented gable or small dome (above). They may also have a canopy supported by cutaway sides, like a Despotic throne [6].

15 Shrine by Ioannis Xatzidiakos, dedicated to Zoodohos Pege, 1912, Church of Zoodohos Pege (Mary of the Spring), Mesagros, Lesvos.

The early 20th century shrine above, which similarly imitates a small temple in austere classical style, holds an icon of Zoodohos Pege, inscribed ‘Διὰ Συνδρομῆς καὶ ἐξόδων τοῦ κυρ. Χατζῆ Δούκα Μαλιάκα, χεὶρ Ἀντωνίου 1801 (commissioned by Mr Xatze Douka Maliaka, by the hand of Antoniou, 1801).


Shrine by Ioannis Xatzidiakos (above); detail

It exemplifies the respect for icons of whatever age, and the continual recreation of appropriate ways of framing and presenting them as objects of timeless veneration.


Despotic throne, Church of Hagios Georgios, Volissos, Chios, 1842, carved giltwood with white paint in Baroque style.

throne (2) Despotic throne, Church of Hagios Georgios (above); side view.

With the type of shrine shaped as a Despotic throne, the icon displayed is always of Christ, since he is the original Despot (Δεσπότης); in most cases it is mounted vertically in this type of shrine. The structure itself is generally 19th century or later, and carved of marble from Tinos.

A sub-branch of wall-mounted shrines completes this category; these are framed shrines, either of wood or marble, which have no base. They are very similar to the smaller, domestic type of altarpiece familiar in Western Renaissance art, made to stand upon a chamber altar, prie-dieu or on brackets on a wall. Many of these shrines, especially those of carved wood, are transformed into magnificent compositions with double or triple columns and intricately decorated entablatures, pediments and crests.

18 Carved giltwood and polychrome wall-mounted shrine to Hagios Fanourios, date unknown, Church of Hagios Georgios, Sekouses, Chios

The example (above) of a wall-mounted shrine with no base is carved in Baroque style, and features naturalistic motifs of flowers and birds around the columns. The crest is supported by two prominent angels. It probably dates from the 19th century.

19 Carved giltwood and polychrome wall-mounted shrine, The presentation in the temple, end of the 19th century, Church of Hagia Triada (the Holy Trinity), Elata, Chios.

Another instance of a wall-mounted shrine with no base is that of The presentation in the temple, framed in provincial Baroque style, with, again, a plethora of flowers and birds, carved and picked out in turquoise, gold and red. This shrine possesses a small thorakion at the bottom, in spite of its construction, which holds a representation of the Holy Ghost at the centre.

Types of shrine: free-standing

20 Carved wooden white & parcel-gilt free-standing shrine, Church of Taxiarhis, Anavatos, Chios.

There are four distinct kinds of free-standing shrine. The first kind is shaped like a lectern, with a higher back and a sill, which support the icon canted at an angle. These are ideal for the display of icons intended for personal worship and veneration. Since the whole structure is free-standing, the exposed back is decorated equally with the front (in this case, above, the front is carved with the Expulsion from Eden; the icon shows The Miracle at Chonae by St Michael the Archangel). The most interesting shrines of this type are those sculpted from marble by Tinian artists.

The second type of free-standing shrine is a version of the Despotic throne with a canopy or dome. The back in this case is open, or carved with pierced patterns; the icon is placed on a lectern in a slanting position. Many examples of this kind of shrine are carved in wood, in Baroque style, but again the more remarkable instances from the Aegean region are marble shrines of Tinian creation.


Free-standing carved giltwood & polychrome wooden shrine in Baroque style with dome, end of 19th century, Church of Neos Taxiarhis, Mesta, Chios.

The wooden example, above, is mounted with four angels at the corners of the dome, the front two of which carry candleholders, echoing the two on either side of the icon. This is reminiscent of the angelic lightbearers on the frame Bellini had designed five hundred years earlier for his triptych in the Church of the Frari, Venice.

21 Free-standing carved giltwood & polychrome wooden shrine in Baroque style with dome, end of 19th century, Church of Hieros Naos Zoodohou Peges, Kene, Chios.

Even more prominent angels are poised around the silver coated icon in its mini-cathedral, placed by the pulpit in the Church of Hieros Naos Zoodohou Peges, Kene, on Chios (above). They are a reminder that Orthodox churches, which tend to have fewer and smaller windows than, for instance, French and British churches, need every possible aid to illumination, including a prevalence of white paint and gilding, as well as candles on or around each individual object of reverence. Candleholders were often a necessary, as well as a symbolic and ornamental, part of the design of a shrine.

22 Free-standing carved wooden shrine, 1884, Church of Hagios Athanasios, Mytilene, Lesvos.

The third type of freestanding shrine is capped by a domed canopy, standing on a drum supported on four gables, which are themselves supported by four pillars. This is an older design, first carried out in carved wood, and adopted in the early 20th century on the island of Tinos, where it was revived in marble, in classical style. Most marble creations in this category are thus either Tinian projects or copies of them. Examples carved in wood are earlier in date, and are usually Baroque in style; they also appear more like a large piece of ornate furniture and less like an architectural construction, as marble shrines tend to do.

?????????? ?G??? ????SDifferent types of free-standing shrines, early 20th century, Skete Hagiou Andrea (the Monastery of St Andrew), Mount Athos. Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης

The iconostases and shrines in the Monastery of St Andrew, Mount Athos, are made in the Russian style. The monastery was occupied by seven hundred Russian monks until the 1917 Revolution; between 1918 and 1941 the Orthodox Church suffered persecution and closure on a massive scale, and it was impossible for more monks to travel to Mount Athos. The last surviving monk died in 1971, and the monastery is now run by the Greek Orthodox Church. The canopies of the shrines, like the arches and finials of the iconostasis, are very much Russian rather than Greek in derivation, with cusped ogee arches and scalloped pendants. The shrines are of the free-standing lectern form, but the icons they support are generally larger than is customary for this type of shrine in the Greek Church.

24 Free-standing pillar shrine, 1999, Church of Hagios Georgios, Vrontados, Chios.

The final type of free-standing shrine is constructed like a small table-lectern with a central supporting pillar; it is relatively rare and almost always made of marble. The late 20th century example (above) holds an icon of St George, and is decorated in Byzantine style, with crisp, shallow relief decoration. This revival of Byzantine motifs dates from the 1930s, and follows the Baroque fashion (18th century and first half of the 19th), and a NeoClassical revival (second half of the 19th century, and first quarter of the 20th).

?????????? ?G??? ????S Magnificent carved giltwood iconostasis and shrines, 1903, Iera Skete Prophete Elia, Mount Athos. According to legend it is made out of two tons of gold. (Photo: Ιερός Ναός της Παναγίας Αλεξιωτίσσης


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. Especial thanks are due to the Holy Church of Panayia Alexiotisa for letting me use any image I wished from their amazing blog.

An Introduction to Greek Orthodox Iconostases > here


[1] See Τσίρου – Μαρκαντωνάτου Βασιλική Φιλόλογος-Θεολόγος-Ἱστορικός Τέχνης ΜΑ, ΠΕΡΙΟΔΙΚΟ ‘Ἐρῶ’ , Δ΄ ΤΕΥΧΟΣ, ΟΚΤ.-ΔΕΚ. 2010 (Tsirou – Markantonatou Royal Scholar – Theologian – art historian MA, Magazine ‘Question’, Oct-Dec.2010).

The Basilica comes under the jurisdiction of three churches (Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian); however, during the 1850s Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, and – in answer to an attempt by the French to wrest back control – the Sultan of Turkey issued a 15-page firman (1852), declaring that, by the rules of cohabitation, all icons and the keys to the basilica belonged to the Orthodox Church. This also meant that woodcarvings dating from the mid-19th century (the iconostases, the shrines, and any frames) are Greek Orthodox in origin  (see Nick Bakounakis, Μπακουνάκης Νίκος, To Vima, 22 December 1996).

[2] Εμμανουήλ Ιωάν. Φαρσάρη: α) Οι ξυλογλύπτες (νιταδώροι) Μέσα Λασιθίου Οροπεδίου Λασιθίου (αυτοέκδοση, 2001).

[3] Ibid. And see Byzantine and Christian Museum, ‘Από το Ανθίβολο στην Εικόνα’ .

[4] The Orthodox church celebrates a saint on his or her name day, as does every worshipper who has that name.

[5] See ‘Προσκυνηταρια’, Τριαντάφυλλος Σιούλης, 2006, Οδηγός Περιφέρειας Ηπείρου.

‘The shrine’, Triantaphyllos Siulēs , 2006 , Guide to the region of Epirus

[6] The Despotic throne stands in front of the iconostasis, and is occupied by the Patriarch when he visits the church. It is made of wood or marble, and echoes the thrones of the Emperor and Patriarch of early Byzantine churches. After the fall of Constantinople, when the title of Emperor ceased, the two thrones became one (Γιουλακη Βουτυρά Καραδερος, 2011, p. 70).


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