Lay Brother with a Fictive Frame

oil painting of bearded man wearing white religious robes, in almost full profile, surrounded by a painted fictive wooden frame

Giovanni Battista Moroni 
Lay Brother with a Fictive Frame, ca. 1557
Oil on canvas
21 3/4 x 19 7/8 in. (55.2 x 50.5 cm)
Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main (904)

 
One of Moroni’s most accomplished portraits despite its modest size and seemingly humble sitter, this depiction of an unidentified lay brother of an uncertain monastic order (several wearing white habits) raises questions. What is the purpose of the fictive wood frame painted on the canvas — which is so convincing that it has often been mistaken for an actual frame — and consequently, where, how, and for what purpose would the portrait have been displayed? The visible brushstrokes that articulate the sitter’s wrinkled, sunburnt face are unusual in Moroni’s practice and appear only in Lucrezia Agliardi Vertova and Giovanni Bressani.