Friday, December 01, 2006

The Gates of Paradise

Lorenzo Ghiberti's lofty reputation begins and ends with essentially 2 works: the bronze doors depicting New Testament stories on the north portal of the Baptistery (just outside the Cathedral of Florence), on which he worked for 21 years (1403-24), and the bronze doors on the east portal of the same building, on which he worked for 23 years (1425-52).

In 1402, as a 24 year-old painting student without any formal affiliation in metallurgy he entered the competition for a set of bronze reliefs for the north doors, the test subject of which was a panel depicting Abraham's aborted sacrifice of his son Isaac, and was chosen as one of the top 2 entrants, the other being Filippo Brunelleschi. Comparing Brunelleschi's design to Ghiberti's, it is not hard to see why Ghiberti was given the commission. While Brunelleschi's design is bold, naturalistic and dramatic, his twisted figures tearing their way to and fro within the boundaries of the quatrefoil panel, Ghiberti's entire composition displays a graceful, delicate unity, subtly revealing the inner lives of Abraham and Isaac while drawing the eye along the sweeping shapes and lines through a deliberate use of lighting effects. His figure of Isaac is sometimes referred to as the first truly Renaissance nude figure, demonstrating naturalistic values in his detailed rendering of young Isaac's musculature, while at the same time letting the figure exist quietly, in the manner of the very silent nudes of antiquity. (In addition, it turns out that Ghiberti's bronze casting technique was less costly than Brunelleschi's would have been. The Baptistery booster club may not have known anything about art, but they sure knew how to save money.)

Brunelleschi never forgave Ghiberti for winning the competition, and in 1404, when Ghiberti and Brunelleschi were chosen as part of a committee to design the cupola of the Cathedral of Florence, Brunelleschi did his best to make Ghiberti look silly at every turn, setting engineering traps into which the less experienced Ghiberti repeatedly and publicly blundered. For the most part that mattered little to Ghiberti, who was shrewd enough to retreat quietly from the project and to spend most of the energies of the rest of his life finishing the Baptistery doors.

In 1425 he was given the commission for the east doors, which have come to be known as the "Gates of Paradise" (according to legend, so named by Michelangelo, who said they were truly worthy of the honor), depicting Old Testament stories, this time in heavily gilded square panels appearing like paintings rather than reliefs.

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