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Ghiberti's Gleaming Gates of Paradise

Three Restored Panels Set to Travel Stateside
A Special Exhibition Preview by Stan Parchin


Atlanta, Georgia's High Museum of Art announced on October 16, 2006 that it will host an intimate exhibition featuring three gilt bronze panels, recently restored, from the famous eastern doors of Florence, Italy's Baptistery of San Giovanni, cast by Renaissance goldsmith, sculptor, architect and author Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455). The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece will appear in Atlanta from April 28 to July 15, 2007. In collaboration with Florence's Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and Opificio delle Pietre Dure, the High Museum's presentation will describe: the Baptistery's doors; their fifteenth-century artistic conception and execution; and their painstaking restoration that has taken more than 25 years to complete. These works may eventually be exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. After the precious panels' individual transatlantic travels, it's unlikely that they'll ever be seen outside of Italy again, making their United States appearance a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an American audience to appreciate them stateside. Ghiberti's works will eventually be returned to the Baptistery's doors, hermetically sealed in a custom-designed display case and placed on view within Florence's Museo dell'Opera del Duomo for future generations to admire.

Image © Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence; Used with permission
Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1455)
Self-Portrait from the Gates of
Paradise
, 1425-1452
Baptistery of San Giovanni
Florence, Italy
Gilt bronze
Diam. approx 5.8 in.
© Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence



In 1401, Florence's Signoria (government) and Guild of Merchants sought an artist skilled enough to fabricate the northern doors of the Romanesque Baptistery for its Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the city's massive cathedral also known as the Duomo. The contract for their design and execution was to be awarded by means of a competition. The contest attracted some six sculptors, among them the talented Tuscans Jacopo della Quercia (1374-1438), Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1466) and Lorenzo Ghiberti. All of them were assigned the Old Testament story of the Sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham. Their models in bronze were to appear within a quatrefoil (four-lobed) outline.

Competition was fiercest between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti. Their completed submissions reflect the artists' different aesthetic sensibilities. The stark verticality and angular bodies of Brunelleschi's work, whose components were cast separately, are strongly characteristic of Italian Late Gothic sculpture. By comparison, Ghiberti's two poised scenes are divided diagonally by a mountain range. And according to his unfinished three-part Commentaries (ca. 1450), Isaac's smooth and graceful anatomy was modeled after a sculpture from classical antiquity that had recently been unearthed near Florence.

The judges ruled in favor of Ghiberti's refreshing rendition of the Biblical tale. His work was influenced by the prevailing elegant International Gothic style and cast economically in one mold, demonstrating Ghiberti's artistic and technological prowess. After the competition's conclusion, the theme of the 28 panels for the Baptistery's northern doors was changed from the Old to the New Testament. In order to complete his commission, which took 24 years, Ghiberti assembled a workshop that trained artists who could assist him in his monumental endeavor. Among them were the architect Michelozzo di Bartolommeo (1396-1472), the sculptor Donatello (ca. 1386-1466) and the painters Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) and Benozzo Gozzoli (ca. 1420-1497).

Image © Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence; Used with permission
Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1455)
Sacrifice of Isaac, 1401-2
Gilt bronze
53 x 44 cm (21 x 17 1/2 in.)
© Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Buy a reproduction



Ghiberti began work on the second set of bronze doors for the Baptistery's eastern entrance in 1425. Ten rectangular panels were cast in high and low relief (determined by how far each image would project from the panels' background surfaces) using the lost wax technique. In this revived antique method of casting, each panel's detailed wax model was covered by a heat-resistant material in viscous form, such as plaster or slip clay. After this outer covering had dried and hardened, the wax model was dissolved by heat and removed, leaving space available for liquid metal to be poured into the mold to capture the model's exact impression.

Completed in 1452, Ghiberti's panels illustrate more than 30 different moments from the Old Testament. They begin with the Creation of Adam and Eve and end with Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Surrounding the 10 scenes are small statues of prophets and sibyls (female seers). Also visible are busts, two of them portraits of identifiable Renaissance personalities (Ghiberti and his son, Vittorio). Others are idealized images based upon Roman sculptural prototypes, indicating a renewed interest in classical Roman art. Impressed by Ghiberti's craftsmanship, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1476-1564), the Italian High Renaissance artist and poet, later called the sculptor's glorious doors the Gates of Paradise because he thought they were worthy to stand at the entrance to heaven.

Image © Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence; Used with permission
Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1455)
Gates of Paradise, 1425-1452
Baptistery of San Giovanni
Florence, Italy
Gilt bronze
H. 5.64 m (18 ft. 6 in.)
© Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence



The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece will exhibit three restored works from the left door of the Baptistery's eastern entrance. The first is Ghiberti's earliest panel that depicts the Creation of Adam and Eve (ca. 1435). It displays the artist's adept observations of human anatomy and nature while portraying marvelous heavenly beings.

Image © Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence; Used with permission
Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1455)
Creation of Adam and Eve, ca. 1435
East Doors, Baptistery of San Giovanni
Florence, Italy
Gilt bronze
79.4 cm (31 1/4 in.) square
© Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence



The second gilt bronze relief to be exhibited is Jacob and Esau, whose story from the Book of Genesis is about twin brothers and their father's misplaced blessing. The narrative's separate incidents are portrayed simultaneously within a single frame. The panel's bold imperial Roman arches recede into the work's background, adding an illusionistic sense of depth to the composition. The work reveals Ghiberti's mastery of linear and atmospheric perspective and attests to Quattrocento Florence's growing interest in classical antiquity in keeping with the tenets of Italian Renaissance Humanism.

Image © Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence; Used with permission
Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1455)
Jacob and Esau, after 1435
East Doors, Baptistery of San Giovanni
Florence, Italy
Gilt bronze
79.4 cm (31 1/4 in.) square
© Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence



The exhibition's trio is rounded out with Saul and David (Israel's first two kings), probably the last panel that Ghiberti cast for the Baptistery's eastern doors. This relief sculpture illustrates the ingenuous artist's interpretation of a violent battle set within a remarkable urban landscape, signaling the zenith of Ghiberti's artistic career.

Image © Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence; Used with permission
Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1455)
Saul and David, ca. 1452
East Doors, Baptistery of San Giovanni
Florence, Italy
Gilt bronze
79.4 cm (31 1/4 in.) square
© Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence



Also planned for inclusion in the Atlanta exhibition (and as yet undetermined by the show's curators) are two idealized heads and a pair of standing prophets from Ghiberti's prestigious Gates of Paradise. His achievements in art clearly reflect his firm grasp of a new and progressive visual vocabulary that emerged in Renaissance Florence, one that distinguished Ghiberti from his city's medieval predecessors. The High Museum of Art's upcoming special exhibition, devoted to three panels from the artist's famed Gates of Paradise, amply demonstrates this point.

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From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history, and a regular contributor to About Art History. You may read all of his Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews here.

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