About the Works on View
The narrative panels selected for this exhibition tell the stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. Each panel contains repetitions of the same characters. For example, the Creation panel depicts the creation of the first man and the first woman, Eve's temptation by the serpent, Adam's temptation by Eve, and the expulsion of both from the Garden of Eden, all integrated into a naturalistic landscape full of appealing detail. A multitude of angels and celestial beings observes from above. The Jacob and Esau panel—a prodigious display of Ghiberti's systematic mastery of perspective—tells the story of the twin sons of Isaac and the deception through which Jacob (the younger son) wins the birthright and the blessing that had been intended for Esau. The figures are set within a series of arches that lead the eye compellingly through architectural space. Linear perspective was a key pursuit of the Early Renaissance, and Ghiberti was a leading pioneer. The David panel shows a battle taking place in a valley at the foot of steep mountains. Saul stands in his chariot, urging his troops forward to rout the Philistines, while the boy David—Saul's protégé, rival, and eventual successor as king—beheads Goliath in the foreground. The troops are a resplendent panoply of ancient armor. In the distance, David celebrates his triumph by parading the head uphill toward Jerusalem. Each of these complex narratives is contained on panels measuring about 31 1/2 inches square.
Two standing prophets and two idealized heads in high relief from the doors' frame are also on view. After five hundred years of exposure to the elements, including damage from the devastating flood of 1966, the pairings illustrate the condition of the doors before and after cleaning. Restoration has revealed the original, glorious surface of the metal, which had blackened over the centuries.
About the Artist
Trained primarily as a goldsmith, Lorenzo Ghiberti was in his early twenties when he entered the 1401 competition to design the bronze doors for the Baptistery's northern portal. He won the commission over his closest competitor, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), and labored on the project for more than twenty years. In 1425, shortly after completing the north doors, Ghiberti received another commission—by invitation, this time—to design a new set of doors for another portal. These vast projects necessitated the formation of a large workshop, and among the artists who worked with him were such luminaries as Donatello (a sculptor in his own right, and another major innovator in Renaissance art) and the painter Paolo Uccello. When Ghiberti's second set of doors was completed, they demonstrated his genius so amply that it was immediately decided to install them in the place of honor on the east portal, facing the Cathedral.