An Italian Notebook XI
Bill Long 7/9/06
The Doors of Paradise--Ghiberti's Baptistery Bronzes
If anyone ever asks you what you consider the most important date and place in the history of Western Art, you should say "around 1425, in Florence, Italy." Why? Because it was around this time that the notion of "perspective" in art was invented--giving depth to figures and making it appear as if they were standing in three dimensional space. The two artists who contributed most to the early development of perspective were Masaccio and Ghiberti. The former's 1425 Trinity fresco in the Church of Santa Maria Novella (near the main Florence RR station) made it appear as if Christ was crucified in the foreground, that God the Father is standing above him in the background and that the ceiling above is a three dimensional barrel-vaulted roof of a medieval church. The latter designed the ten panels for the East Door of the Baptistery from about 1425-1452, panels which were so much richer and different from his earlier panels (1402-22), now on the North door, that Michelangelo could call them the "Doors of Paradise." This essay tries to describe the theology and artistry of the 1425-52 panels; enlargements of a few of the reliefs are here.
A Word of History and Artistic Significance
The Baptistery (where all Florentines were supposed to have been baptized until the late 19th century) is probaly the oldest building in Florence, having been constructed probably around the 9th or 10th century. From 1330-36 Pisano designed a 28-panel double door for the East end of the Baptistery (facing the Duomo; these panels are now on the South door). In 1401 a contest was held to design the North doors of the Baptistery, with the seven competing sculptors (among them Donatello, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti--then 21 years of age) required to submit a design of Abraham & Isaac as their trial piece. After Ghiberti won the contest (I have read conflicting reasons for his "victory." Some sources say that it was a tie and Brunelleschi, in disgust, refused to participate further and went off to Rome; some say that Ghiberti probably won because he gave a cheaper price for the project), Brunelleschi vowed never to sculpt again--and he kept to his promise. Over the next two decades, then, Ghiberti designed the 28 panel North doors, which still stand on the North doors to this day. Twenty of these panels depict various aspects of the life of Christ, with the remaining eight being divided into the 4 Evangelists and the 4 great Fathers of the early Church (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, Gregory).
After completing the design of the North doors, Ghiberti was simply given the commission to do the doors which would replace Pisano's East doors. These 10 pieces (and there are only 10 of them) occupied him for 27 years. Yep. 27 years. It is these bronzes which are now in the Duomo Museum to the Northeast of the Duomo, having been moved there only in 1990. These are also the bronzes on which Ghiberti showed that he, too, had mastered the art of perspective, begun really by Masaccio in the mid 1420s. Thus, by the time Ghiberti finished his astonishing panels in the early 1450s, the concept of perspective was deeply embedded in the Italian artistic consciousness. That is why the date of around 1425 is the most important date in the history of Western Art.
A Description of the East Doors
As I mentioned, the East doors of the Baptistery only have 10 panels (total) on them. These panels are unique because each one depicts several scenes from the story it is presenting. For example, the first panel (upper left) is of Adam & Eve, a good way to begin any Old Testament depiction. There are at least four scenes from the days of our first parents on this bronze: (1) The creation of man by God (though the Scriptures say that God "breathed" into Adam the breath of life, it appears here that God was, like God in Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling of the early 16th century, bringing Adam to life by touching his hand); (2) The creation of Eve out of Adam's side; (3) The appearance of the serpent, wrapped around the tree, to the first couple; and (4) The expulsion of Adam & Even from the Garden of Eden. Here is a close up picture of the first panel.
Time does not permit a survey of all 10 panels. Let's quickly run through their themes, however. Panel 2 depicts the story of Cain & Abel. Panel 3 limns Noah and the Great Flood; Panel 4 is about Abraham & Isaac; Panel 5 shows Jacob & Esau; Panel 6 shows the Joseph Story; Panel 7 portrays Moses receiving the law; Panel 8 depicts Joshua taking the Holy land; Panel 9 shows David's victory over Goliath (he cuts off Goliath's head...another example of someone's head being lopped off, a favorite theme in Florentine art); Panel 10 shows the meeting of Solomon & the Queen of Sheba. Some scholars consider the Joseph panel to be the most perfectly executed one, though I would be hard-pressed to declare one of them my "favorite" over the others.
The Theology of the East Doors
So, why would a series of Old Testament themes be facing the Duomo, when you already have pictures from the lives of John the Baptist and Christ on the South and North Baptistsery doors, respectively? I think, and I am not alone in this supposition, that the Old Testament themes were selected primarily because they betoken the redemption that the others so clearly present. How so? Because after the expulsion from the Garden (panel 1), the people behind all the rest of the panels except panel 10 (Solomon & the Queen of Sheba) are present in the great New Testament narrative of faith in Hebrews 11. Note that this chapter begins in 11:4 with the following: "By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain's." Then, following in v.7 is the story of Noah. Others in panels 3-9 are mentioned throughout Hebrews 11.
Theologically speaking, then, Panel 1 speaks of what is lost, while Panels 2-9 speak of people of faith who were rewarded for their faith. In a sense, they "overcome" the expulsion of Panel 1. But what, then, is the purpose of Panel 10, the meeting between Solomon and the pagan Queen of Sheba? Well, if you look closely at the panel you see that Solomon and the Queen are clasping right hands--a symbol of faithful connection between people. And, the Queen of Sheba is alluded to by Jesus in Mt. 12:42 as an example of faithfulness:
"The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!"
Thus, the Baptistery door begins with an expulsion and ends with a faithful consummation; by the time you "read" the scenes closely and get to the end, you are ushered into the world of faithful living and recognition of God's messenger (Solomon, in this case). It isn't a great leap, then, to recognize God's greater messenger, Christ. Thus, the theology of the doors....
While it is no doubt essential to know the artistic techniques and developments which made Renaissance art the precursor of the modern, it is no less essential to know the inner rhythm of the stories whic are depicted. The next essay, a sort of digression, reflects on the value of knowing classic texts for appreciating this art.
Copyright © 2004-2009 William R. Long