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Colonial Pictures Frames in the New World

Colonial Frames of Peru and Bolivia From “Journeys to New Worlds” exhibit at PMA 2013


While visiting this show I was struck by the distinct Italian style of many of the frames so it was not surprising to learn the earliest European painters to arrive in Peru in the late 17th century were from Italy. Some of note are Bernado Bitti and Angelino Medoro, both active in Peru. Brought to the New World to decorate churches these painters, sculptors and artisans were involved in the construction, carving and gilding of alters. With the intent to inspire awe, these alters were very extravagant in design favoring extreme Baroque elements.

Italian Renaissance tabernacle frames with the characteristic architectural foundation were used for alters. They featured carved niches to house paintings of saints, sculptures and images of Madonna and archangels. Frames for private shrines commissioned by wealthy patrons were smaller yet no less resplendent. This Tabernacle style can be seen clearly in frames as the one pictured here. Note the intricately carved upper entablature, lower predella as well as the vine wrapped columns. 


Saint Joseph and the Christ Child by Melchor Perez Holguin is framed in an elaborately carved, pierced, reverse-slant polychrome example beautifully produced by an indigenous craftsman. Initially European artists did all the work themselves. It was decades before local apprentices were allowed to do the actual painting and carving. 


Deeply carved border frames, reflective of Venetian astragal reverse ogee of the 17th century, were used on many of the larger paintings. Featuring tapered volutes, abstract leaves and flowers, gilded enhancement to both religious figures and private portraits, the gold leaf is not only beautiful but also illuminates the large paintings in dark interiors with reflected light. Gilt paint was used in the paintings themselves, on the clothing and drapery as well as halos or crowns to indicate heavenly light.  



The exhibit includes some examples of simpler designs as in the cassetta frame which features flat decorated panels. Graceful hand-painted or sgraffito designs, sometimes titles, and often symbols relative to the imaculata or martyrdom grace these panels.





A fine example of the Spanish influence on frames can be seen on the Our lady of Candlemas. This massive frame has plain panels with exaggerated floral carvings at corners, centers and carved and notched inner frame. Artists from Spain also had a love for the exuberant Seville Baroque style. 





Period frames constructed of gilded wood rarely survived so many of the frames in the show are likely newer copies. As styles changed the preferred frames became less elaborate and much narrower. Modern reproductions are prevalent and are often presented in a modified somewhat cruder version of the pierced acanthus-leaf frame of 17th century Bologna.


Silver was an abundant natural resource and used extensively in religious objects and decorations including picture frames. Early examples of silver frames are proportionately very wide and often Baroque in style. Highly skilled native craftsmen were able to reproduce designs both with silver and carved, gilded wood. The result is a synthesis of European and indigenous influences with a wonderful and distinct Latin American flavor.