Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1380–1455), Abraham and Isaac, Gates of Paradise, Detail, 1425-52, east portal of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Gilt bronze; 31-1/2 x 31-1/2, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, Image courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore.
Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1380–1455), David and Goliath relief, Gates of Paradise, 1425–52, east portal of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Gilt bronze; 31-1/2 x 31-1/2, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence, Image courtesy Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Photograph Antonio Quattrone, Florence.
Lorenzo Ghiberti (Italian, 1378-1380–1455), Abraham and Isaac, Gates of Paradise, Detail, 1425–52, east portal of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence, Gilt bronze; 31-1/2 x 31-1/2, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street
Vélez Blanco Patio
Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise
October 30, 2007-January 13, 2008
Adored by generations of artists — including Michelangelo, reputed to have given them the name Gates of Paradise — the gilded bronze doors of the east portal of the Baptistry in Florence are among the seminal monuments of the Italian Renaissance. The massive 17-feet-high doors were created by the eminent Florentine goldsmith, sculptor, and designer Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), who decorated them with ten evocative and magically atmospheric scenes from the Old Testament, each carried out in relief ranging from high to low. After more than 25 years of conservation, seven elements of this masterpiece — including three of the narrative reliefs for which they are famous — are in the United States for the first and only time since their creation more than 500 years ago. After the conclusion of their four-city United States tour, the works return to Florence, to be reassembled in their original bronze framework and placed in a specially designed, hermetically sealed case in Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, never to travel again.
The exhibition is made possible in part by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.
It 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.
Ghiberti placed ten brilliantly visualized scenes from the Old Testament amid surrounding frames that include 24 heads and 24 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 his 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. To design and make the massive doors took Ghiberti and his workshop 27 years (1425-52); to conserve the doors and bring them back to their original splendor has taken an equivalent amount of time.
To illustrate the artist's technique, his astonishing development over the quarter-century spent in executing this masterpiece, and the processes that have been used by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to restore the work, the exhibition features three narrative panels and four additional elements from the surrounding frame.
The narrative panels selected for the 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 older). 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 on a pedestal, 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 a panel measuring about 31-1/2 inches square.
In addition, two standing prophets and two idealized heads in high relief from the doors' frame will be displayed. After 500 years of exposure to the elements, including damage from the devastating flood of 1966, the pairings will illustrate the condition of the doors before and after cleaning. The metal had blackened over the centuries, and restoration has revealed the original fire-gilt surfaces in all their glory.
Trained as a goldsmith, Ghiberti was in his early 20s when he entered the 1401 competition to design the bronze doors for the northern portal. He won the commission over Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), and labored on the project for more than 20 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 a large workshop, and among the artists who worked with him were Donatello (a sculptor in his own right, and another major innovator in Renaissance art) and the painter Paolo Uccello. The second set of doors demonstrated his genius so amply that they were nstalled on the east portal, the place of honor, because it faces the Cathedral.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, available in the Museum's book shops, that examines the most recent related findings in art history as well as conservation.