Today on Renaissance Wednesday we’re going to meet one of the Founders of The Renaissance – Lorenzo Ghiberti.
Ghiberti’s famed Doors on The Baptistery of St. John in Florence continue to astound viewers today for their drama and artistry. Michelangelo referred to them as ‘The Gates of Paradise…’ – that is a strong accoclade indeed.
So exactly who was Ghiberti and why does he matter in Art History?
Contemporary to artists and architects like Brunelleschi and Donatello, Ghiberti was born in Pelago (near Florence) in 1378.
He received formal training, first as a painter by Gherando Starnina and then studied as a goldsmith and sculptor (his stepfather was a goldsmith). In his stepfather’s studio, Ghiberti worked alongside of well known artist Antonio del Pollaiuolo.
Unfortunately the terror of The Bubonic Plague forced Ghiberti to retreat the area around Florence. He briefly moved to Rimini where he received employment by Carlo I Malatesta. He assisted in the completion of frescoes on the walls of the castle…So while Ghiberti is most known for sculpture – he had a deep love and passion for the art of painting.
Upon hearing about about a once in a lifetime competition in Florence to design a set of Baptistery Doors, Ghiberti was given leave from his fresco project and embarked on a journey that would change art history forever.
The Baptistery Doors Competition:
- The Baptistery of St. John the Baptist has long been an essential hub of Florentine life. Built from 1059-1128 AD, The Baptistery is one of the oldest buildings in Florence. It has an octagonal shape with a Florentine Romanesque style. Like the neighboring Duomo and Campanile (built after The Bapistery) it is defined by its mix of Italian marble that form unique designs.
- For a time it was said in order to be a true daughter or son of Florence, you must be baptized in St. John’s Baptistery.
- The Baptistery is named after St. John the Baptist, who is the Patron Saint of Florence.
- In Medieval and Renaissance times it was common to have your baptistery outside of the main church. The concept was that only the baptized would enter the church for communion. So you must first be baptized in ‘the baptistery’ – this of course is not the standard today, but helps you to understand the concept of separate baptisteries in early churches
- The interior of this Baptistery is unique and worth a visit. It includes an array of dazzling mosaics in a Byzantine style (unique for Florence)
The Baptistery was the ‘gateway to the Christian faith’ and an important spot in Florence. The Baptistery has three separate entrances:
In 1330, renowned sculptor Pisano was entrusted to create doors for the East Entrance, but unfortunately the North and South doors were not completed.
After seventy-years of this project languishing, it was decided to hold a competition to find a sculptor for The South Entrance Doors.
The rules? To create an example panel of ‘The Sacrifice of Isaac’
At the time of his submission, Ghiberti was only twenty-one years old! The judges were flabbergasted by his detail and storytelling that they publically praised his work before viewing equally talented Brunelleschi’s example.
- The judges couldn’t decide between Brunelleschi and Ghiberti – both provided amazing, yet different nuances in their examples.
- The verdict: They asked them to work together on the doors. Brunelleschi preferred to work alone and declined the offer (he went on to work on The Duomo commission) and Ghiberti won the chance to create a set of doors for The Baptistery
The Doors: The Theme originally was a series of panels telling stories from The Old Testament, but this later shifted to The New Testament (South Entrance)
Ghiberti set up a studio and began work. It took him twenty-one years to create the first set of bronze doors that instantly astounded Florence with their nuanced perception and vivid storytelling.
With the success of his first commission, the City of Florence asked him to create a second set of doors for the North Entrance. In this commission, Ghiberti was given more freedom in design, which enabled him to create ‘The Gates of Paradise.’
These bronze cast and gilded doors revolutionized scupture and design moving the craft fully to a New Era – The Renaissance.
- As we learned in an earlier post, Brunelleschi had invented the system of linear perspective, which Ghiberti readily adopted in the second set of doors.
The Gates of Paradise tell the story of The Old Testament and no doubt influed Michelangelo and others in Ghiberti’s representation of such subjects as The Creation, Adam and Eve and Isaac.
- The Old Testament Doors (Gates of Paradise) include 28 scenes across 10 rectangular panels. They are naturalistic in style, nuanced and provide deep realistic storytelling through perspective
Look at this remarkable image of one panel – telling the story of Adam and Eve:
- God creates Adam who is relaxed and trusting as God is seen as a Father figure – pastoral and in full command of creation.
- The story shows the delicacy of God forming Even from Adam’s Rib
- The goodness of God’s creation is in the foreground, which to me is a humanist reflection of God making humanity good at the heart of the soul (a Renaissance theme)…sin, which destroys that goodness and relationship (anti-humanism if you will) is shown in the shadows of sort, with Adam and Eve being tempted by the serpent behind the glory of creation.
- This is symbolic and powerful theologically and artistically
- His interpretation of God reaching out to touch Adam to give him full life inspired Michelangelo in his interpretation of Creation in The Sistine Chapel
When you visit Florence stop at The Baptistery and admire ‘the doors…’ to see how they originally looked on the site. The current Baptistery doors (that open to the baptistery itself) near perfect copies of the originals by Ghiberti.
- Due to weathering and threats of war and other potential hazards, The Original Doors were moved to the nearby Opera del Duomo Museum (Duomo Museum). This is a MUST-SEE museum in Florence that houses not only Ghiberti’s doors, but also the original competion samples (Sacrifice of Isaac) by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi
- The museum also showcases famous works by Donatello and others.
- You can purchase museum tickets here.
What about The Replicas?
When it was decided to move the original doors inside a museum, three exact bronze casts were made of the North (Old Testmament) Gates of Paradise Doors. One set is on The Baptistery and looks almost exactly like the original (I wouldn’t have noticed the difference, except that I had studied the art and architecture before my visit). The other two doors are located in the US!
- The Nelson Atkins Museum Kansas City (MO/KS) has a fantastic collection, including a copy of The Gates of Paradise. You can learn about the original doors and there copy here.
- Grace Cathedral (Episcopal Church) has the third copy right in San Francisco, CA…learn more here.
While Ghiberti is most known for his Baptistery Doors he also completed other projects in Florence including the statue of St. Stephen at Orsanmichele Church.
RECAP: Ghiberti was a painter and sculptor from Florence area whose work with linear perspective and naturalism helped start The Renaissance and influenced other major artists and sculptors including Michelangelo.
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About: Art Expeditions Guide is Adele Lassiter, an art history buff with a passion for sharing art, culture and travel.
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