Picture frames are much older than you think – in fact, they existed long before photographs. Did you know that the first picture frame has been traced to the ancient Egyptians? In addition to decorative framing borders used to divide scenes in ancient Egyptian and Greek wall paintings, the earliest known frame originated in the 2nd century AD, where a Fayum mummy portrait was discovered in an Egyptian tomb surrounded by a decorative wooden frame.
Frames did not change much from this original model, until they started showing up in Europe around the 12th-13th centuries. These frames were made out of a single piece of wood, carved into a raised border and backing. The painted areas first had to be covered in a plaster and glue mixture (or “gesso”) and the raised border gilded. When artists realized that producing frames this way was both time-consuming and very costly, they looked for faster and cheaper alternatives, giving birth to the modern “engaged” frame design. This frame construction consisted of mitered molding strips attached to a flat wooden panel. While this new design looked similar to the one-piece carved frames it was much cheaper and easier to produce, creating wider availability and use of frames in artwork, though they were still considered a luxury.
At the start of the 14th and 15th centuries most frames were commissioned by the Church as alter pieces or part of the extravagant architectural church designs that were prevalent at the time. Eventually it became common practice for wealthy estates to commission private works of art with frames, which brought on the advent of more portable frames, as opposed to frames built directly into the surrounding architecture. These frames, unlike their predecessors, were designed and crafted by furniture builders instead of artists and architects, resulting in a combination of artistry and new functionality. Picture frames continued to evolve and reflect the design styles of the times, such as elaborate carved ribbons, leaves and other embellishments during the ornate Baroque period. All of this before the invention of photography in the 1800’s!
Even further advances have been made to the industry with the introduction of digital frames, with a wide variety of styles and technologies. In fact, one of the world’s most expensive picture frames is a digital frame valued at an estimated $70,000(!). Made in Korea, the 4-fold frame also serves as a room divider. But a frame can be as easy and simple as applying a filter or border with software on your own phone camera.
As long as society has been documenting daily life via paintings, portraits and photos, frames have been there to protect and enhance the memories.