Why Frame a Picture?

30 07 2010

Is it necessary to put a frame or a border around a painting? If you wander around art galleries of Old Masters or stately homes all the paintings seem to be lovingly framed, which suggests that they used to think so at least. In contrast, if you go around any museum of modern art you will see oil paintings hanging on the wall without any frame at all. It seems to look neater and tidier to have a frame but that probably isn’t sufficient reason to say that it ought to be framed? Is it? Is there any other justification?

When I went to icon painting classes from Orthodox teachers, I was always asked to put a border around the image of the icon I was studying. I was told that this served the purpose of mediating between the image, which portrays the heavenly dimension and the natural world. The border in this case was a flat painted or gilded region raised slightly from the plane of the image. If the composition allowed for it, we designed the icon so that a figure encroached slightly into the boundary region, perhaps the sleeve, a foot or the halo. Aidan, my teacher, told me that this encroachment communicates the idea that nothing can contain God.

Looking generally, at images painted in the iconographic tradition the principle of the boundary represented in some form appears to be the norm. Going around the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts this week with my icon-painting class from the Thomas More College summer programme, all had a boundary painted on and most, but not all, had a raised boundary. These were all wooden panel icons. Iconographic images in other media, such as mosaic, fresco and illuminated manuscript will, from what I have observed, generally have a painted border, but the image and frame in the same plane.

In Western iconographic imagery, such as Celtic, Ottonian or Romanesque art, the border is painted as an ornate abstract pattern, often geometric in form. This is consistent with the previously stated idea of the border or frame mediating between the image and the world we occupy. The world of geometry, like that of mathematics, is an idealized domain that sits between the natural and the supernatural. We can think of the ideal shape of a triangle in the abstract, separated from all matter; but at the same time this ideal it can be applied, albeit imperfectly, to matter and we can construct, for example, wooden triangles. Also, the world of geometry and mathematics also obeys the rules of logic that govern the natural and the supernatural realms. This intermediary status makes patterned, geometric or mathematical art perfect for the adornment of a border. (It is also the reason that the study of Euclidean geometry was seen as an important part of the traditional education the ultimate goal of which was the study of the supernatural in theology.)

It has occurred to me that there is a practical reason for having a raised border on wooden panel icons. Unlike frescos and mosaics, they are portable and are meant to be handled, kissed and raised in procession. It is inevitable that they will get chipped and damaged in the rough and tumble of devotional prayer! Raising the border, will help to ensure that it gets damaged rather than the image it frames – just like the idea behind the fender on a car. Aidan always used to joke that an icon hasn’t been serving its purpose if it isn’t bashed about a bit.

So what about the other liturgical traditions of the Church, the gothic and the baroque? They do not portray the heavenly realm in the same way – is there need for a frame there too?

In consideration of this we need to state that a baroque or a gothic painting are both traditions that portray Holy Icons, in the broader sense of the term in which ‘icon’ means ‘image’. This is the sense of the word ‘icon’ used by the 7th Ecumenical Council and the great Father of the Church who opposed the iconoclasts, Theodore the Studite. Theodore made it plain that an image is distinct from the person depicted – that is, the person is absolutely not present in an icon. There is, however, a profound relationship established with the saint depicted when we look at an image because the icon directs the imagination of the person who regards the image to the real saint in heaven. The icon does this by virtue of the distinctive characteristics of the saint captured in the image; and the writing of the name of the saint on it.

Thinking now about how this applies to the other liturgical art forms: the starting point may be different in each case, but what all three traditions have in common is their goal, thecontemplation of heavenly things. To illustrate this point: we can say that ‘iconographic’ tradition, which we have been referring to so far, portrays Eschatological Man; the baroque portrays Historical Man, that is fallen man; and the gothic portrays the transition between the two by degrees – it is the art of pilgrimage. So in the dynamic of prayer Eschatological (‘iconographic’) art, takes directly to heaven, it starts and finishes there, as it were. The baroque on the other hand starts in a fallen world, but from there directs our thoughts to heaven.

Given this common aspect of direct our attention to heaven, any argument about a frame or border that applies to iconographic art, applies as much to the gothic or the baroque. And when we look at the gothic and the baroque, it is no surprise that they are always framed. These borders are not always the hard-edged geometric patterns, but can also be shapes evoking a sense of idealized, ordered vegetation incorporating gracefully flowing lines. All three traditions seem happy to use either form of pattern, or none at all in their borders. However, if there is a trend, one could say that that the baroque frame is most easily identified with idealized form of vegetation. The form is most commonly referred to as a ‘baroque scroll’ portrays, often ornately carved and gilded rather than painted, wonderful flowing lines of leaves and branches, especially incorporating the shallow ‘S’. This is in keeping with the baroque basis of idealization, which focuses on the portrayal of the fallen nature from a heavenly vantage point, and has a more subtle idealization and hence is closer to natural appearances than its sister traditions.

So what about the mundane? Should traditional landscapes or portraits be framed too? The answer is yes, in my opinion. Baroque art is not just sacred imagery. There portraits and landscapes too, which were not intended to be simply naturalistic representations. Reflecting an authentic Christian humanism, the artists sought to reveal the Creator in the beauty of his Creation, and in doing so used the same visual vocabulary of sacred art, namely the variation focus, muted colour and contrast between light and dark that was developed first for baroque liturgical art. I have written a series of articles about this in regard to landscape on my blog,here.

Whether intentional or not, this principle seems to apply in modern art too to some degree. In the secular, atheist materialist world view there is no recognition of the supernatural. If that is the case, there is no need to mediate between the natural and the supernatural if you don’t believe the supernatural exists. Perhaps this is why museums don’t see the need to frame these works. On the other hand it might be just as much a reflection of the general trend of a casual approach in presentation – just as men no longer wear a tie for the opera, the theatre or for church…but this is a different debate.

Images from top are examples of the following styles: baroque 17th century, iconographic, Celtic 8th century (Western iconographic), Ottonian 11th century (Western iconographic), Romanesque 12th century (Western iconographic).

12th century, early gothic

13th century, crucifixion, gothic

Ghent altarpiece 15th century, gothic

close up of baroque scroll on carved, gilded frame

Mark Rothko, 20th century




2 responses

29 11 2010
Where Should Catholics Go to Learn Icon Painting? « The Way of Beauty

[…] Inspired by this, when I seek to paint in the iconographic form, I look to our Western forms that grew up in the Roman Rite. For example, rather than have a plain raised border, I paint abstract patterned borders and backgrounds, taking inspiration from the Romanesque. (I wrote about this particular variation previously in Why Frame a Picture?) […]

21 01 2011
A Coptic Icon of Stella Maris « The Way of Beauty

[…] This particular icon has been blessed by Pope Benedict XVI. I especially like the monochrome designs in the decorative border (for those who are surprised that this should be on an icon, I refer you to a previous article ‘Why Frame a Picture?’. […]

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