Founded in 1907, Lowy is recognized as the country's leading fine art services firm.

Metropolitan Museum of Art, Making of a Tabernacle Frame

January 27, 2006

5 minute read

A Tabernacle Frame

Lowy was presented with a unique challenge when master carver Allan Webb was called upon to create a tabernacle frame similar to one that might have originally accompanied a panel painting by Lorenzo Monaco. Allan’s task was particularly complex because the panel had warped and curved with age. “We had to create a freestanding frame that looks as if it had curved over time like the panel,” says Allan. “Every element, from the flat fields to the moldings had to follow this curvature closely along irregular planes, yet remain non-intrusive and, for the most part, be constructed remotely from the painting.”

George Bisacca, conservator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, provided Lowy with reference materials on panel paintings and helped determine the appropriate design for the frame. “Approximating the original frame proved to be a challenge because the painting was executed at a transitional time, when there was still a lot of stylistic experimentation going on with frames,” Bisacca observes. “Like the painting, the tabernacle frame was likely not quite Gothic and not quite Renaissance in style, but rather a hybrid of the two.”

Bisacca found inspiration for the frame design in two marble tabernacle niches in Florence. At the beginning of the Renaissance, sculptors often displayed their works in niches that functioned as architectural features on buildings. One of the niches, which is located at the Orsanmichele Church, was designed in 1419 by Lorenzo Ghibertti for his own sculpture.

Taberbacle frame detail

“This niche displays interpretations of classical architectural motifs such as a pediment, dentil course, and pilasters that are common during the Renaissance,” Bisacca says.  “And its pointed arch is a nod to the Gothic style. The other niche, at the Museum of San Marco, was designed by Ghiberti 15 years later to house a Fra Angelico tryptich. Using these two examples, I came up with the frame form that I thought would best fit the Monaco painting.”

Based on Bisacca’s suggestions, Allan made a full-size drawing of the tabernacle frame design. As a consequence of the curved panel, the original moldings that would have been applied directly onto the surface of a panel of this age would have followed this movement, creating a curved plane for image and frame, according to Allan. “The challenge was to try and replicate this look, making the frame appear to be original,” Allan says.

For the design, it was most important to capture both the Renaissance and Gothic motifs that would have characterized a frame from this transitional period. “Elongated pilasters, for example, were elements that expressed the Gothic style, while the round frame  arch, which fit the half-rounded top part of the image,

was typical of the Renaissance style,” Bisacca explains. The design ultimately had to respect the physical evidence of framing found in the painting, such as a rounded gesso edge that indicated the original round frame arch. Other evidence, according to Bisacca, included top corners that were cropped out, and areas at the bottom of the arch on each side where the gilding stops, leaving a triangular space and indicating that this part of the painting was covered with a bracket or corbel.

Allan mounted a cut-out of the final frame design onto cardboard, which was then laid onto the panel painting to ensure accurate proportion, size, and shape. He then made an exact replica of the rectangular panel using a complicated wood framework that he laminated with a thin sheet material. Such a structure is called a former. “On top of this former, I cross-laminated thin layers of basswood using strap clamps and weight to ensure faithful following of the curves,” says Allan, who then had to determine the sight opening for the image, which was arched at the top. He accomplished this by making a mylar tracing of the panel and affixing it to the former, thereby allowing him to make the appropriate cuts. “Absolute accuracy was needed at this stage, so that the frame would not obscure the painting,” notes Allan.

He fitted the frame to the panel painting to verify accuracy before proceeding with the final steps. Allan and his team made the frame ornament—which included ogee, cove, and bead moldings—from separate pieces of basswood. “When the moldings were applied with adhesive, they could have created unwanted tension on the thin laminate base of the frame,” Allan explains. “I had to avoid this by shaping pieces of wood to fit the curvature of the arch by back-carving them to ensure a total fit. This was very painstaking and tricky, especially because the moldings change constantly in two curved planes around the arch.”

The final tasks were carving the dentil cornice at the top of the frame and gluing silk to the inside areas of the arch to enhance the strength and stability of the frame. “Eventually, everything took shape,” says Allan, who rates this project as among the most challenging of his 23-year career. “We did a final fitting of frame to painting, which enabled us to fine-tune the mating of the sight edges to the panel surface with small additions or subtractions to the frame, making a near perfect marriage between old and new.”

The reproduction tabernacle frame was then ready for gilding at the capable hands of Lowy’s Tanya McGivney. Tanya first applied a layer of glue size—a mixture of rabbit-skin glue and water that lends added strength—followed by four layers of gesso and a final layer of thick rabbit-skin glue mixed with cornstarch and whiting. The cornstarch allows the top layer to dry more quickly than the bottom layers, which creates a crackle effect on the surface that is typically found on antique frames. Before gilding, Tanya brushed on a layer of red clay mixed with water and rabbit-skin glue, which enhanced the burnished finish (areas of wear on antique frames typically reveal an underlying clay layer).

Tanya’s favorite part of this project, though, was creating the pastiglia, or raised gesso decoration, in the spandrillas—recessed triangular areas at the top right and left sides of the dentil cornice. “We chose a floral ornament based on frame examples from the period,” Tanya says. “Pastiglia design differs from the 14th to 15th centuries. The pastiglia on this frame displays the softer edges typical of 14th-century designs.”

Thanks to the efforts of Lowy’s talented craftspeople, combined with the scholarly advice of a museum conservator, Monaco’s panel painting received an exquisite tabernacle frame appropriate to its style and stature. “The craftsmanship was excellent,” Bisacca says. “Lowy succeeded in creating a plausible replacement frame that does justice to this fine painting.” The Annunciation was ready to be displayed to optimal effect at the Lorenzo Monaco retrospective that opened at the Accademia in Florence in May 2006.