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The Loveliest Doors

The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Gary M. Radke, with essays by Andrew Butterfield and eleven other contributors.
an exhibition at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, April 28–July 15, 2007; the Art Institute of Chicago, July 28–October 13, 2007; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, October 30, 2007–January 13, 2008.
High Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 182 pp., $45.00

The image of Florence that leaps first to mind for modern tourists is probably Brunelleschi’s immense dome on the city’s cathedral, the Duomo. But the dearest image of the town for Florentines over the centuries has been the smaller octagonal building that stands before the Duomo and serves as its baptistery. This, the most honored and sacred place in the city, is the church of Saint John the Baptist. Dante, who called it mio bel San Giovanni, “my lovely Saint John’s” (Inferno 19.17), was baptized there in 1265.

Where the present cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, stands, there was, before the fourteenth century, the much smaller parish church of Saint Reparata. That could not compete with the shrine of the Baptist, who is the patron saint of Florence—what Saint Mark is to Venice or Saint Peter to Rome. Florence is “the city of the Baptist” (Inferno 13.143)—so much his city that the local coin, the florin, bore his image. This shrine of Saint John is where his relics were guarded—his jaw and two of his fingers, including the index finger that pointed to Jesus as “the Lamb of God.” The most powerful guild in Florence, the Calimala, or cloth merchants, made the care and adornment of this place its special concern, lavishing on it princely sums century after century.1


Lovely Saint John’s’

What is now called the Baptistery is old enough to have been mistaken by Florentines as dating from ancient Roman times, when it was supposed to have been a temple of Mars (Paradiso 16.47). It is true that there are Roman foundations under the building, as under much of central Florence, and it seems there was a small fifth-century baptistery built over those remains; but the present building was raised in the eleventh century. It is Romanesque, with marble columns taken from the Forum (today the Piazza della Repubblica) of the Roman city, Florentia—whence the confusion about its Roman origin. Saint John’s church, as the most revered structure in Florence, was decorated with priceless works of art within and without. The interior held works of the greatest Florentine artists of their day—mosaics, statues, tapestries, silver altar and cross and reliquaries. Most of these are now kept in the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The exterior was given colossal statue groups over each of the three portals—three episodes from the Baptist’s life, the most ambitious sculptural program of its time.

What more could the Calimala do for John’s honor? Well, there were still the three entrances to the church, from three different directions (east, north, south), high portals each with two heavy doors. The final glory of the place would be a series of lead-relief sculptures for each of the six doors at the three portals. The first doors to be ornamented were on the east side, the main entry facing the interior altar. In 1329 Andrea Pisano was commissioned to tell the story of John the Baptist in the twenty-eight lead-relief scenes on these doors.2 The casting of the great bronze frame and the individual panels was so complex and innovative that technicians from Venice had to be summoned to realize Andrea’s vision. The unveiling of the doors in 1336 was a great civic event. The city’s rulers came in a formal delegation from the Palazzo della Signoria to witness it.

In 1401 the Calimala authorized a competition to ornament another set of doors. Seven leading artists submitted a sample panel for the proposed twenty-eight scenes on these doors. The twenty-four-year-old Filippo Brunelleschi competed, but he lost to the twenty-three-year-old Lorenzo Ghiberti—Lorenzo’s father had to sign the contract for him, since he was not yet a master in his guild. The Calimala wanted the young Renaissance to speak for it, and that is what Ghiberti did.

The doors of Andrea Pisano were not going to be discarded, just moved from the east side to the south, so the winner of the competition could not simply create another account of John’s life. Instead, since John was considered the last of the Hebrew prophets before the coming of Jesus, the guild ordered that the main events of Jewish history be represented in another twenty-eight panels. The event assigned for the competition panel was Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac at God’s bidding. Two of the seven bronze competition samples that were cast, the ones by Ghiberti and by Brunelleschi, survive and are on display in Florence’s Bargello. Brunelleschi put the writhing Isaac in the very center of the scene, with Abraham and the intervening angel acting symmetrically on either side of him. Ghiberti, by contrast, put the towering Abraham in the center, since it is his faith that is being tested. Isaac is on the far right of the scene, and the angel is on this side, too—flying, dramatically foreshortened, out of the distance, in a race against the poised knife of Abraham. The kneeling Isaac is a frontally nude classical figure, a vision of youth and beauty, modeled in fully rounded shape.

Though Ghiberti won the competition and would supervise the creation of the doors, the Calimala was watchful throughout their production. It once again changed the program of the doors, substituting the life of Jesus for the panels on Jewish history. The guild wanted these doors to be even more beautiful than Andrea’s, so they would put the new ones in the honored east place (the main entrance facing the altar). This site, so the guild thought, should not be given over to the Jewish preparation for the Gospel, but to its fulfillment in Jesus, the figure for whom John was the forerunner. The sacrifice of Isaac was abandoned, and Ghiberti began the long labor (of twenty-one years) to create doors that show the life of Jesus from the Annunciation to Mary to the Resurrection and Pentecost.3 The Calimala paid other great artists to be Ghiberti’s assistants in this all-Florentine endeavor. Donatello, Uccello, and Michelozzo were engaged in the time-consuming final labor of chasing (detail-chiseling) the scenes once they were cast.4


Porta del Paradiso

The idea of depicting the Jewish prelude to the Gospel was not abandoned. After Ghiberti completed the Jesus panels to the entire satisfaction of the Calimala, the guild commissioned him—with no competition needed this time—to complete the ring of doorways with a Jewish set on the north entrance. Once again Ghiberti began a long and immensely complicated labor, which lasted twenty-seven years. He had gone from youth to middle age in making his first set of doors. The second set would take him from middle age into his seventies. Once more he had artistic helpers of the highest quality—the ever-present Michelozzo, Donatello again, but also Luca della Robbia, Benozzo Gozzoli, the twenty-year-old prize pupil of Fra Angelico, and Ghiberti’s own two artist sons. The work finally produced, a survey of Jewish sacred history, was so spectacular that the Calimala continued its game of musical doors. Andrea’s doors had been shifted from the east to the south entry to make way for Ghiberti’s Jesus panels. Now the Jesus doors would, in their turn, be shifted from the east to the north, clearing the way for the new ones to be in the honored place. An earlier objection—that Jewish history was not as appropriate for the main entry as the story of Jesus—was trumped by the fact that the new reliefs were so much more beautiful than any doors that preceded them. In fact, all the other great works of art in and on the Baptistery were now considered mere preludes or accompaniments to this supreme masterpiece of the place.

They soon became known as the Porta del Paradiso, “the Gates of Paradise,” a phrase attributed implausibly to Michelangelo.5 Despite the esteem given them at the outset, the doors have undergone much abuse. When the gilding on them became splotchy, they were given dark varnishes, to which the grime of centuries added even more blurry accumulations. The figures were worn by (among other things) kids climbing on them. During World War II the doors were dismantled and stored in a railroad tunnel. After their return to the Baptistery, several panels were dislodged by the great flood of 1966. These were taken to Florence’s marble workshop, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, for restoration. In 1990, all the doors were taken to the Opificio and replaced with casts. Since then the restoration has gone forward in meticulous detail, and all the regilded panels will soon be replaced on their original frame for permanent display in a special structure of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. But before then, as a gesture of gratitude for American help in the restoration, three of the ten panels have come on tour to America, culminating in their exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the making of his supreme work, Ghiberti’s artistic authority had reached a height from which he could defy the Calimala. The guild had authorized the famous scholar Leonardo Bruni to draw up a lists of events to be shown on the doors. He repeated the pattern of the earlier doors, evidently at the guild’s direction, separating these doors too into twenty-eight panels. But as Ghiberti was finishing the Jesus doors he accepted a commission to create two of six panels on the baptistery font in Siena, with episodes from the Baptist’s life. He placed the Siena panels in more expansive settings than the multiple and contained scenes of his Jesus doors. He wanted the new panels for Florence also to breathe in larger spaces, with a suggestion of great distances behind the figures. Therefore he substituted ten large panels for the twenty-eight small ones prescribed for him. To make up for the resulting reduction in the number of scenes that could be represented, he put several episodes in all but one of the panels.

The new approach can be seen by contrasting his treatment of the sacrifice of Isaac with his piece on the same subject for the first competition. Now he makes Isaac squirm in three-quarter profile, while Abraham raises the sword on one side and the angel comes in laterally from the other side—it is the composition of Brunelleschi’s losing submission! But Ghiberti has now shrunk this scene and placed it on a distant mountain, high on the right side of the panel, in very low relief. Below, in high relief, Abraham receives the three angels who predict the birth of the very son he will later be asked to sacrifice. Behind the patriarch, his wife Sarah brings food to place on the table for the heavenly visitors. The issue of Abraham’s faith, in good times and bad, is the focus of interest now, not the dramatic last-minute rescue of Isaac.

The boldness of Ghiberti’s new approach can be seen in the combination of vast spatial vistas, continuous and unifying, with discontinuities in time in the same panel. What takes place in the distance (like the sacrifice of Isaac) has occurred before or after what we see in the foreground (like Abraham with the angels creating the conditions of the sacrifice). One action is implicit in another, as a precondition or a consequence of it. The spatial inventiveness this leads to has made the German art historian Richard Krautheimer and others treat the panels mainly as exercises in Renaissance perspective. Krautheimer judged the entire door complex in these terms. He thought that Ghiberti was uncertain in his experiments with perspective in the earliest panels, those at the top of the doors, but that he came close to full command in the middle rows, though he gradually lost interest or control in the lower ones.6

  1. 1

    The merchants’ guild was called Calimala, “Main Street” (Calle Major), after the site of its principal warehouses. This is the same kind of metonymy that makes us refer to financiers as “Wall Street” or lobbyists as “K Street.”

  2. 2

    Andrea divided the two doors into four vertical rows of panels, two rows to each door, with seven panels in each row, the top twenty scenes devoted to the life of John the Baptist, the bottom two rows of eight panels showing personifications of the virtues.

  3. 3

    The top twenty panels depict the life of Jesus, the lower eight show the four evangelists and the four Latin fathers of the Church.

  4. 4

    The Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, edited by Antonio Paolucci (Modena: Franco Cosimo Panini, 1994), Vol. 2, p. 413.

  5. 5

    Richard Krautheimer lists the reasons for doubting Vasari’s claim that his hero Michelangelo said the words attributed to him, including this: when men tried to create a rivalry between the dreamily lyrical Ghiberti and the stormily dramatic Donatello, Michelangelo was decidedly a Donatellian. See Richard Krautheimer, in collaboration with Trude Krautheimer-Hess, Lorenzo Ghiberti, third printing with new material (Princeton University Press, 1982), p. 18.

  6. 6

    Krautheimer, Lorenzo Ghiberti, pp. 195–198, 201–202.

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