Adored by generations of artists—including Michelangelo, who is reputed to have given them the name "Gates of Paradise"—the magnificent gilded bronze doors of the east portal of the Baptistery in Florence are among the seminal monuments of the Italian Renaissance. This exhibition provides the American public with an unprecedented opportunity to see three of the doors' famous narrative reliefs, with their masterful retelling of Old Testament subjects, as well as four figural sections from their opulent surrounding frames, before they are permanently installed in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
The massive doors—seventeen feet high—were created by the eminent Florentine goldsmith, sculptor, and designer Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1380–1455). Ghiberti placed ten brilliantly visualized scenes from the Old Testament amid surrounding frames that include twenty-four heads and twenty-four statuettes of Biblical heroes, heroines, prophets, and sibyls, all enclosed within a lush frieze of the flora and fauna of Tuscany. All offer proof of Ghiberti's unique ability to combine compositional strength with the utmost delicacy, creating rich pictorial effects and perspectives that were unprecedented. He employed various grades of relief in combination—some figures are shown nearly in the round, while others barely rise above the surface—a subtly intricate modeling technique that he practiced magisterially. The whole was enhanced through the use of fire gilding. It took twenty-seven years (1425–52) for Ghiberti's workshop to design and make the massive doors; the recent conservation effort to bring them back to their original splendor has taken an equivalent amount of time.
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.
The exhibition is made possible by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Richardson.
Additional support is provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.
The exhibition was organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, in collaboration with the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence.
It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities and by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.