Panel and frame
This painted panel dated 1428 was once part of a larger altarpiece commissioned by a wealthy merchant in the Central Italian city of Perugia. The altarpiece was originally placed in the church of San Domenico in Perugia, in the chapel of the Apostles, where it would have provided a focus for devotion and prayer.
Many large altarpieces have been broken up into smaller parts, particularly in the 19th century when they were sold as separate pieces. The V&A's panel entered the Museum in 1860, along with a carved and gilded arched frame. At some point, the panel and frame were dismantled and displayed as separate objects.
In 2006 an Italian museum asked to borrow the panel and frame for a temporary exhibition. This provided curators and conservators at the V&A with an opportunity to study the object in more detail and to reinvestigate the relationship between the panel painting and frame.
Did the two pieces originally form part of the same object, or were they brought together at a later date? It is not uncommon for paintings to have several different frames over time. If the original frame is badly damaged it might be replaced. Alternatively, a new frame might be made to reflect fashions of the time or the taste of a different owner.
The relationship between panel and frame
Although the frame and panel were acquired together it was uncertain whether the two elements were originally part of the same altarpiece. Normally, the painting, gilding and decoration of the panel end where the frame begins, so any undecorated areas would be concealed beneath the frame.
When the V&A conservator examined the panel and frame in the Studio she found that the frame did not entirely cover the undecorated areas. This suggested that it was not originally attached to this panel. On closer inspection, however, it became clear that the undecorated areas also corresponded to areas of damage on the frame, where carved ornament is now lost. This missing carving probably once covered the blank areas.
Further clues were found that also suggested similarities between the frame and panel. The halos of the figures on the panel have been decorated with a punchwork pattern. The figure on the cornice of the frame, David, has a halo decorated with the same punchwork.
The shape of the frame, with its Venetian Gothic arch, echoes the architecture depicted in the background of the Virgin and Child.
Furthermore the figure of David is often found depicted above the Virgin and Child.
Although we will never be completely sure that the frame and panel were made for each other, it was decided to re-unite them. They were acquired together and displaying them separately would remove them yet further from their original context.
Assessment and treatment of the frame
When the conservator examined the frame it became clear that it was extremely fragile and badly warped. There was a significant amount of woodworm damage and several losses to the carved decoration. The screws used to fix the frame to the panel had corroded and caused the wood to split, breaking the frame into three pieces.
There were many areas of poor repair. For example, a large area of replacement carving on the right-hand side had been painted with bronze paint to imitate the
surrounding gilding. This area had darkened over time
and become visually disturbing. Several other areas had
also been retouched with bronze paint.
To prepare the frame for re-mounting with the panel, the conservator carried out a programme of repair. The screws were removed and the three broken sections fixed together. A section of lost carving on the inner arch was replaced using the symmetrical opposite side as a reference. The discoloured bronze paint was removed and these areas, together with the newly replaced ornament, were re-gilded to match the surrounding area.
Finally, in order to re-unite the frame and panel, and to provide support for the weakened and warped structure, a specially designed mount was made. The image to the right shows this new support. The newly conserved frame, now reunited with the panel, will be displayed in the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries.