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

In the new show’s catalog, Andrew Butterfield draws on the findings of the restorers to question the whole idea of a stylistic change over time in the creation of the doors. He argues forcefully that they were conceived as a whole and that the manipulation of space was far more subtle and complex than a concentration on single-point perspective would suggest. Discussions like Krautheimer’s treat space as it is created in paintings, or as observed in photographs of the Ghiberti panels, or as deduced from perspective drawings of them. But the space on the doors themselves is real—they are three-dimensional, in many variations of full figures, semi-rounded ones, and relief so subtle as to be a series of undulations and dimplings in the imagined distance.

Butterfield was able to measure and confirm something neglected in the scholarly literature so far—the effect of placement on the doors. The top row of two panels reached up thirteen feet above the average person’s eye level, and the two below them reached eight feet above eye level. A scale photograph in the exhibition at the Met makes it possible to see the placement of each episode. The top scenes have projections of higher relief than those below, and fewer and larger figures. This makes them more legible. The middle rows have less projection and more approximation to the single-point perspective that a frontal gaze at a painting involves. The bottom panels have the least projection, since the viewer is looking down at them. The lower scenes are also more crowded—Ghiberti, with obvious exaggeration, boasted that they held “hundreds of people.” Krautheimer believes that this showed Ghiberti’s loss of interest in individuals, and a tendency to repetitious routine, by the end of his labors.

But Butterfield notes that the earlier Bible stories necessarily involved fewer people in their narratives—Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons, Abraham and Isaac—while the lower ones involved either crowds or interior scenes. One cannot very well have a few people involved in Moses giving the laws or Joshua blowing down the walls of Jericho. In conceiving the series as a whole, Ghiberti created diversity, an interplay between rural and urban scenes, between private drama and public spectacle. He was not, at his age, growing and declining across the arc that Krautheimer traces. With the help of his collaborators, both young and old, he was exploring new possibilities in every one of the scenes represented.


Three Panels

Butterfield’s case that the panels were meant to be seen as a whole, in the order and at the height of their original placement on the door, makes it seem odd that only three panels of the ten should be sent to America for separate viewing. But we have reason to be grateful. When the doors are fully restored, they will be seen in a vitrine keeping the viewer at a distance from individual panels. In the American show, one can go very close, and look at the panels’ projections from the side. One can even see the panels’ backs, which will be hidden when they are remounted in the doors. Butterfield’s thesis can be confirmed, since the three panels (all from the left-hand door) come from the top, middle, and bottom, with their gradations of projection clearly evident.

  1. Adam and Eve. Ghiberti puts in one panoramic scene the four separate subjects Bruni had suggested for the top tier of the doors—the creation of Adam, the creation of Eve, the eating of the serpent’s apple, and the expulsion from Eden (see illustration on page 9). For the creation of Adam, the first man is seen reclining in full relief along the projecting shelf in the bottom left of the panel. He has the general posture that Michelangelo would give him on the Sistine ceiling half a century later. But while both these Adams have a classically athletic figure, Ghiberti’s (unlike Michelangelo’s) is bearded, which makes him more obviously the image of the God creating him.

Higher in this panel, separated from the first scene by a river in rippling relief (“A river went out of Eden,” Genesis 2:10), Adam now lies with his head in the opposite direction, asleep, his body slack, sprawled under an olive tree (from which he and Eve will later take leaves to cover their nakedness). In the first scene, lower in the panel, Adam’s flesh was set off against the bare rocks of unworked nature. Above the river, his head is laid in a pen, an artificial enclosure, which shows that he has had time to start imposing human order in Eden, before his loneliness leads to Eve’s creation. His limp form, in slumberous semi-relief, sets off the vibrancy of his response to his own creation on the lower level. In sleep his face is averted and obscured, as opposed to the dawning awareness of God in the other image.

From Adam’s sleeping body, Eve floats up toward God as he is forming her in his mind. Creative angels, acting as God’s instruments, raise Eve, holding and molding her as she takes form—in effect, they are Ghiberti’s surrogates, sculpting her in the air as she comes into being. One angel even strokes her near her pudenda. She is not yet fully conscious, as her semi-rounded shape suggests. There is the sexism of the times (and the Church) in the fact that God leans energetically into the creation of Adam, who responds with an animating charge of energy, but God almost leans back as he sees Eve born out of Adam’s side. No intermediary angels were involved in Adam’s creation. That others act in Eve’s formation shows a less direct order of reality than God’s immediate evocation of his own image in Adam. (Again, the sexism of the times.)

The eating of the apple is seen higher up on the panel, under trees, the figures in low relief, as if the sin were still only in the minds of the freshly created first humans. Eve is in the powerful position (on the left to us viewers, but on the right from God’s eternal vantage) against the normal iconography—she takes the initiative “against nature.” She is dominant, while Adam is partly obscured behind a tree and an angel’s wing overlapping from the scene of his own creation. While she listens to the devil, who is given a serpent’s body with a woman’s head, her left arm reaches up as if on its own to the apple above and behind her, denying her sin even as she commits it (Chagall treats her the same way in his Fall of Man at the St. Louis Art Museum). Her right hand pulls Adam’s right hand toward her, involving him in her act.

At the panel’s lower right the sinners are being chased out of the garden by the angel, who flies at them through the gold portals of Eden—the very porta del Paradiso that would become the nickname of these doors. Above the figures, in a film of angel-clouds, God is ordering the expulsion with a punishing rod in his hand. Eve’s body is now almost fully rounded, and Adam’s is in semi-relief behind it, to continue the sexist theology of the time, showing that she is the one responsible for the fall and the punishment. The visual structure of the piece is bound together in a counterpoint between the two horizontal bodies of Adam, on the left and in the center, and the two vertical bodies of Eve, slim but voluptuous, in the center and on the right. On the ground before the erring humans as they flee is the apple that caused their downfall.

In line with Butterfield’s observations, this panel has projecting trees that form a canopy, echoed in the canopy of angel wings. Some angel wings jut out at right angles to the panel. Rounding out the picture of original creation, birds perch in the trees, and lizards slither along the ground, among the flowers.

  1. Jacob and Esau. The first panel showed the drama of creation against a cosmic background. The action in this one takes place before and within an echoing architectural framework. Krautheimer called it the finest piece on the doors, since it best exemplifies his concern for single-point perspective. The story is told in two registers, higher and lower, and in two compartments, left and right, as befits the story of competing brothers and a manipulative mother. There is a kind of crisscrossing (chiasmic) interplay between the actors and events, stabilized by the high intersecting arches that both divide and unite the actors. On this as on other panels, Ghiberti draws us into the scene through a subordinate event, around which the other parts of the story are arranged as if by suggestion or memory. Prominent in the foreground are four women in a cluster of revolving figures recalling the classical three graces (see illustration on page 10). They are visitors to Rebecca, lying on her bed of parturition, ready to deliver her twin sons. The women are like a Greek chorus, inside the action yet outside it, observers, our surrogates.

Rebecca is the impresario of all the busy story told here—she is seen four times, three of them in low relief and diminutive, as an operator behind the scenes. First, high on the right-hand portico, she is seen praying for children. Then, under the left-hand arch, she is in childbirth with them. Under the right-hand portico, she is seen telling Jacob to use the lamb in his hand to cover his neck with its wool, to resemble his hairy brother Esau. Finally, she stands behind Jacob as he works this trick on his brother.

Isaac is seen twice in the foreground, once with each of his sons (though he thinks he is dealing with only one of them). On the left, he sends Esau out hunting. The bow is on the floor behind Esau, and his two hunting dogs are at his heel (one sleek, the other tufted, like the human brothers). Esau is seen dwindling off to the right on his hunting effort, outside the containing arches, with his bow on his shoulder and his quiver at his belt. Then, on his return, hungry from the hunt, Esau appears under the central arch accepting the “mess of pottage” Jacob offers him for his birth-right. Finally, in the right foreground, Isaac is seen rubbing the fur on Jacob’s neck, mistaking him for Esau, while Rebecca stands by, triumphant. To make such a complex skein of activities seem as orderly and inevitable as a Greek tragedy is the proof of Ghiberti’s powers of composition.

  1. David. In the autobiographical Commentaries that Ghiberti wrote, ten years or so after the doors were completed, he boasted of putting hundreds of people in his Baptistery panels. That is almost true of the lowest two panels—the ones more easily read than those on the top tier. One of these tells the story of David and Goliath. David in the foreground has already slain the prone Goliath and is cutting his head off—Goliath’s thick hair ripples away on the ground with a suggestion of blood spurting from him. David has rejected the armor that was given him—the slingshot with which he brought Goliath down lies on the ground under his right foot. Behind David, the heavily armed Israelites, led by Saul in a high chariot, drive the Philistines away after their champion is slain. Since this panel is at the bottom of the door, the helmets of the warriors standing behind David obscure their faces, making them anonymous cogs in the war machine, contrasted with the lone figure of David relying on God’s favor. High over the scene we see David leading a triumphal parade up toward the city walls, holding the head of Goliath, as women come out of the city to sing in celebration, led by a woman with a tambourine.

The catalog of the exhibition reflects the immense research that went into the discovery of Ghiberti’s working techniques on this singular achievement of Renaissance metallurgy. The door frames were formed in a single casting, in firepits specially dug for them. The doors weigh more than sixty tons. The bronze for the frame alone, 17,000 pounds of it, was ordered from Flanders in 1440. Another 14,263 pounds of bronze had to be ordered from the same source to make the panels. The total cost of the endeavor equaled the annual defense budget of Florence, and was only slightly less than what the city paid to acquire a whole town (Sansepolcro) at the time.7

The catalog contains not only Butterfield’s fine account of the doors’ artistry but chapters on Ghiberti’s collaborative practices, the documentary history of the production, the mercury-process gilding, the final chasing, and the casting techniques used. This restoration required a series of creative acts itself—in historical and aesthetic scholarship, in scientific investigation, and in technological restoration. All these were combined to accomplish, in effect, the work of a new Calimala.


The Gates of Paradise December 20, 2007

  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.

  7. 7

    Paolucci, The Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Vol. 2, p. 155.