This beautiful piece of art is really, really old – it was painted in the 14th century – that’s over 600 years ago! It shows a colourful but sad scene of Jesus and two other men on crosses, with lots of people, gathering at their feet. And under the main painting, there are some smaller circular paintings of important saints and religious characters. The whole piece is set in a beautiful ornate golden frame.
It’s actually an “altarpiece”! An altarpiece is a special painting which is made to go on the altar in a church. They were really popular in medieval times and often depicted saints, or characters, linked to the church. They were usually painted two or three sections, but sometimes had quite a few more sections than that.
A lot of altarpieces have awesome golden frames, mainly to show how important these pictures were and how important bible stories were. Another reason was that back in the 14th century, they didn’t have any electric lights like we do today. Churches could be quite dark places, only lit with candles. Golden frames would catch this dim glow, and sparkle and shine, throwing the candlelight onto the canvas so the paintings could be seen.
If you take a wander around the gallery today you can see that gold and silver have been used in paintings throughout the ages. Again it’s often to show that someone or something is very important, and to capture the light. Often real flakes of gold and silver are used, carefully layered onto the paint or frames. And as you can imagine, this is very expensive to do! And so sometimes it was a way of showing how wealthy the person in the painting was, or to show the wealth of the owner. A bit like wearing loads of blingy diamonds and gold chains!
And did you know there’s another way paintings can be shown off – the frames! You probably have pictures and photos around your home in frames. With your school photo, the frame might be plain so that your lovely face is what people notice. Or if you have a big picture on the wall, it might have a fancy broad frame to make the picture look even grander.
Here at the gallery, curators know that the wrong frame can take attention away from a picture and so they take a lot of care to make sure each one is just right. Finding the right frame can mean making sure it shows off the art or improves the way it looks. It’s often important to make sure that the frame is similar to what would have been framing the painting at the time it was created. This means curators are always on the look out for antique frames which they can clean up and restore and put to work around art of that time.
Galleries quite often also have framing departments that make completely new frames but through a careful process so they look old.
Have a go at framing your own painting!
Can you imagine how you would frame different pictures and photos of yours?
What type of frame would you use for an abstract painting of yours and a photo? Would they be different colours? Different shapes? Different sizes? And why do you think that is?
How would you start?
Pick some different paintings you have done – different sizes of photos, paintings and drawings, and see if you can design each of them a frame.
What material would you choose for your frame?
Frames in the National gallery are usually made of wood. If you don’t have wood to hand at home, what about using car or paper? How would you make different textures? What can you use to make them different colours – paper, paint, pencils, crayons?
Where would you hang them?
Would you group all of the paintings together on the wall, or would you have a mixture? Experiment with different heights, groups and frame types and see if you can see which looks the best. Have a think about why they look good there, too! The National Gallery takes lots of time and thought when they put the paintings up.