Picture in Its Proper Frame: Quinten Massys and Framing in the 16th Century

Quinten Massys, The Crucifixion, c.1515. Oil on oak, 51 x 36.5 cm. Purchased 1954. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

While the National Gallery of Canada is closed to the public, a core group of dedicated staff continue working to ensure that the building and collections are being kept safe and sound. Most of us, like most of you, are currently working remotely, even though some of us have roles that require working directly with works of art: studying them, keeping them in good condition and preparing them for travel and display. Obviously, we cannot perform these activities in the same way, and are therefore taking the opportunity to work on projects that were sidelined by the demands of a regular working day at the Gallery.

Quinten Massys’ Crucifixion was painted on an oak panel around 1515. At the time, the Flemish artist (1466–1529/30) was a leading painter in Antwerp, a wealthy trading port that was rapidly turning into an important artistic centre in the 16th and 17th centuries. Massys’ painting is small, just over 50 cm tall, but draws in the viewer closely to fully appreciate its fine and precise detailing. The subject is a pivotal moment of the Christian faith, and the painting’s size suggests that it was made for personal devotion: the patron who commissioned it would use it for meditation on suffering and sacrifice, and the fundamental nature of life.

Detail of frame of Quinten Massys, Crucifixion. National Gallery of Canada Photo: NGC

When the painting was acquired by the Gallery in the early 1950s, it arrived in its current frame, most likely put on by the picture dealer from whom the work was purchased. It is a running-moulding type frame called a cassetta that is related to classical architectural forms, notably an entablature. While it appears in structures such as altarpieces in Italy in the latter part of the 15th century, its use as a frame moulding did not evolve until the first quarter of the 16th century as a distinctly Italian type. In fact, the moulding used in the Massys frame is very likely re-purposed from a larger, late 16th-century Italian frame. Cut down to fit the panel painting, it has been given a thin plywood masque to accommodate the arched top. It has been gilded, with unusual painted forms added in the frieze, and then clumsily patinated to make it look old.

Like the Italian designs, this Flemish painting would originally have had a frame based on an architectural feature, but in this case, it would have been a Gothic window, complete with rain sill along the its bottom. An example of a contemporary 16th-century northern frame in the Gallery’s collection can be seen on the marriage-portrait diptych painted by Cologne artist Barthel Bruyn in 1544.

Barthel Bruyn (the Elder), Christian von Conersheim and his Wife Elisabeth von Brauweiler, 1544. Oil on oak, 47 x 35 cm. Purchased 1913. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

This frame and panel would have been made by the same person, and would have been presented to the painter as a unit, with the panels engaged within the frame. Massys’ panel would also have been paired with a frame from the outset.

The forms of frames in northern Europe in the 15th and early 16th centuries all follow architectural precepts and are well documented. Those interested in greater detail can consult Hélène Verougstraete's comprehensive study, published in e-format by the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage. It is fundamentally an archive of frame profiles, categorised by places, dates or by works of known painters. It is also a valuable tool when researching an appropriate frame type for Massys' painting.

The original frame would have been made using only hand tools, and to make a reproduction, it is essential that only hand tools are used beyond the initial cutting of the stock. Mechanically created moulding does not have the slight, almost imperceptible undulation that brings the frame to life and lets the nature of the wood show. During the current crisis, the Gallery's Senior Framer is able to work on this project and create a convincing reproduction to frame the 16th-century panel. In a follow-up article, we will share his experience in carving oak across the grain and working out the complex joinery, while setting his work in the wider discussion of how museums make decisions regarding the framing of works in their collections.


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