This exhibition is no longer on view at the National Gallery. Please follow the links below for related online resources or visit our current exhibitions schedule.The term "tabernacle" characterizes a type of frame whose structure derives from architecture. During the Middle Ages in Europe, altarpieces and devotional images were customarily crowned with gables and canopies supported by piers, evoking the architecture of Gothic cathedrals (as in Nardo di Cione’s Madonna and Child). By the mid-fifteenth century in Florence and Venice, these Gothic tabernacles were replaced with ones whose structure and ornamentation were inspired by ancient Greco-Roman architecture, known at the time as all’antica (in the antique taste). Although such frames could provide protection from dust (or rain, if outside), their chief purpose was symbolic: to act as a shrine and elevate the image. Thus, tabernacles were also supplied for small religious images in the home and even for miniature bronze plaquettes.
Structure and Decoration
Renaissance tabernacle frames, sometimes called aedicular frames, share standard features but can be relatively simple or extremely elaborate, in accordance with the patron’s wishes and means. In his workshop logbook, the Florentine painter Neri di Bicci made sure to list the precise features his patrons demanded. For a painting of the Virgin and Child, for example, one patron requested a complex tabernacle frame "with columns on both sides and a corbel underneath, and above, an architrave, frieze, cornice, and pediment."
The Renaissance frames exhibited are less elaborate but include the basic characteristics of tabernacle frames: a plinth (base), columns or pilasters, and a crowning entablature. Their ornamentation, however, varies according to regional preferences. In early sixteenth-century Venice, where there was a taste for intricately worked surface and rich gilding, every inch of the frame was covered with ornamental foliage and grotesques—sometimes carved, sometimes press-molded. In contrast, frame makers in Florence after 1550 often left the surface of the walnut bare, with minimal carving, to draw attention to its dark, bronze-like color.
The Revival of Tabernacle Frames
in the Nineteenth Century
Tabernacle frames were progressively replaced in the sixteenth century by simpler, less architectural frames, which were better suited to secular works and densely hung picture galleries. However, they became the object of renewed interest in the nineteenth century when there was a novel and widespread taste for the revival of historical styles (in particular, those of the Renaissance) in the arts, including architecture, furniture, and even dress.
Tabernacle frames that had survived in churches and family collections over the centuries began to be recorded, collected, and imitated. Indeed, the unprecedented enthusiasm for fifteenth-century painting accompanying this "Renaissance revival" prompted collectors to commission frames that matched the historical period of their pictures. This was in direct contrast with attitudes prevailing in previous centuries, which always sought to harmonize frames with interior decoration in the latest style.
In the nineteenth century, tabernacle-style frames were thus fitted around religious images by Renaissance artists such as Botticelli, but they were also used (more anachronistically) for portraits and mythological scenes. Frame makers drew inspiration from original Renaissance frames but also from photographs of ancient frames such as those in the anthology assembled by the dealer and collector Michelangelo Guggenheim.
Nineteenth-century Italian frame makers were the heirs to a tradition of superior craftsmanship and their methods differed little from those of their Renaissance counterparts. Of course, they employed some modern tools and techniques, notably using a compact type of plaster to create ornamentation in higher relief than had been possible with the press-molding technique used in the Renaissance. Some frames were finely carved, but others were entirely cast in plaster. Furthermore, the practice of delicately painting blue grotesques on a gold background is a shorthand variation on the traditional technique of scratching through the paint to reveal the layer of gold underneath (called sgraffito). Nevertheless, these "neo-Renaissance" tabernacle frames demonstrate remarkable ingenuity in their imitation of historical styles—faithful but never slavish.
The Samuel H. Kress Collection
A passionate collector of Italian art, Samuel H. Kress (1863–1955) also had an interest in frames, which he acquired for use around his paintings and as works of art in their own right. The paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts he bequeathed to the National Gallery of Art form one of its founding collections. The Samuel H. Kress Foundation also donated more than two hundred Italian period frames. Many can be seen today in the West Building galleries.
Organization: Organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.