From the Framing Desk: The Secret History of Framing


When were the first frames made? What were they made out of and how were they used? How did they evolve to the picture frames we make and use today? Read on to discover how mummy portraits and the Italian Renaissance both factored into the secret history of framing.

A fayum mummy portrait

The First Frames

Frames have existed since the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, but they looked very different from the picture frames we know today. They weren’t physically separate from the paintings, pottery or relief sculptures they enclosed; instead, they were incorporated into the artwork. These frames used lines, patterns or other imagery to mark the borders of the artwork.

That said, the earliest frames are thought to have been stucco frames used for fayum mummy portraits - a type of realistic portrait that was painted on wooden boards and attached to upper-class mummies in Roman Egypt. Before the portraits were attached the mummies, it is thought that they were framed and hung in the owner's home until the time of death, at which point the portrait was placed over the mummy. One of the earliest such physical frames dates back to 50-70 AD.

The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano

The Evolution

The kind of picture frames that we are familiar with today — carved, wooden, and separate from the artwork — began to appear in 12th and 13th century Europe. These frames were initially exclusive to churches, where they were permanently incorporated into altars and often echoed the spires and towers of the cathedrals.

The Italian Renaissance during the 14th and 15th centuries marked the rise of more secular art. Wealthy nobles like the Medici family commissioned allegorical, devotional and portrait paintings – and frames – to add to their vast estates. This was the advent of the portable or moveable frame. The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano is the first altarpiece made with panel and frame in two separate pieces, making it the first independent frame as we know it.

From there, the framing market continued to grow, and framing styles and techniques evolved with the centuries.

Custom frame by Michael Murphy Gallery

Frames Today

Today, frames are widely available across the world, in antique to modern styles, from premade frames to handmade masterpieces. They protect and enhance artwork, photos and memorabilia. Custom-made museum-quality frames allow us to exhibit fragile historic artifacts; sleek digital frames wirelessly display our latest vacation photos in our homes and offices.

Frames are an ever-evolving art form. Who knows where they’ll go next?

Learn more about our custom framing here.

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