The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece
July 28–October 14, 2007
After more than 25 years, the conservation of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise is nearing completion. The exhibition The "Gates of Paradise": Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece provides an unprecedented opportunity to see three of the bronze doors’ famous narrative reliefs of Old Testament subjects, as well as four additional sections from the doorframes, before they are permanently installed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. It also reveals important new findings made during their restoration, including insights into the fabrication process and the evolution of Ghiberti’s imagery and techniques.
Created in the mid-15th century and installed in the eastern portal of the Baptistery, the Gates of Paradise have been praised by generations of artists and art historians for their compelling portrayal of scenes from the Old Testament. Over time, the seventeen-foot-tall, three-ton bronze doors became an icon of Renaissance art and a touchstone of civic and religious life in Florence. This exhibition showcases three panels from the left door of the Gates of Paradise, which depict the stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. The exhibition also includes figures and heads of prophets from the doorframe, and it explores the evolving nature of art in Florence and Siena during Ghiberti’s career with works from the Art Institute’s permanent collection.
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THE GATES OF PARADISE PANELS—CONTENT AND STYLE
In 1425 Lorenzo Ghiberti was commissioned to design a second pair of bronze doors for Florence’s Baptistery. He labored on the task for 27 years, fashioning a masterpiece that Michelangelo called “truly worthy to be the Gates of Paradise” for its remarkable beauty and grandeur. The panels offer viewers a coherent vision of Ghiberti’s artistic genius and his innovative use of perspective. Originally the Gates of Paradise were to have 28 figural panels, as in the earlier sets of Baptistery doors, but this plan was scaled down to 10 panels, a decision probably influenced by Ghiberti’s aesthetic judgment.
The Adam and Eve Panel documents Ghiberti’s earliest work on the doors and features a splendid depiction of nude figures in a landscape set off by angelic hosts. Ghiberti combined four major episodes from the story of Adam and Eve into this harmonious panel. The creation of Adam, illustrated in the foreground on the far left, shows Adam in a state of semiconsciousness, rising in response to God’s life-giving touch. In the center, as angels look on, God forms Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. The temptation of Adam and Eve by the serpent is shown in the background on the left, while the right side of the panel depicts the couple’s expulsion from Eden. Subtle shifts in the scale of the figures reinforce discrete episodes in the story of the Creation. Ghiberti modulated the scale and degree of projection of the angels to visually separate the four scenes.
In the Jacob and Esau Panel, Ghiberti employed a new system of linear perspective to construct the narrative. He arranged the episodes of the story around a vanishing point framed by the central arch of a Renaissance loggia. This panel, with its nearly three-dimensional foreground figures, masterful use of scientific perspective, and impressive architecture, shows that the artist was at the vanguard of Florentine illusionism and storytelling. In the panel, Jacob obtains the birthright of his elder brother, Esau, and the blessing of their father, Isaac, thus becoming the founder of the Israelites. Rebekah is shown giving birth to the twins beneath the arcade on the far left. On the rooftop in the upper right, Ghiberti depicted her receiving the prophecy of her sons’ future conflict.
Framed inside the central arch, Esau sells his rights as firstborn to Jacob, who offers his hungry brother a bowl of soup in exchange. In the front center of the panel, Isaac sends Esau hunting, and, in the right foreground, Jacob kneels before the blind Isaac, who, feeling a hairy goatskin on Jacob’s back, believes him to be Esau and mistakenly gives him the blessing due to the eldest son.
In the David Panel, Ghiberti illustrated the young David’s victory over the giant Goliath. David is shown in the foreground cutting off the giant’s head after knocking him down with a stone. Above this episode, King Saul—clearly labeled and elevated over the fighting Israelites and Philistines—leads his troops in a rout of the enemy. A cleft in the mountains beyond reveals David and his followers carrying Goliath’s head in triumph toward Jerusalem.
Ghiberti established a new approach to the human figure and perspective in his second set of Baptistery doors, greatly influencing his artistic contemporaries. Bartolommeo di Giovanni’s Scenes from the Life of Saint John the Baptist from the Art Institute’s permanent collection shows the lingering impact of Ghiberti’s narrative style, as seen in the Jacob and Esau Panel. Ghiberti’s influence is apparent in the open view of an interior space and the discrete groupings of figures distributed across the composition, each telling a different part of the story.
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MAKING THE GATES OF PARADISE
During the Renaissance, bronze was far more costly than marble, and it posed significant technical difficulties in an age before industrial casting. Ghiberti created the Gates of Paradise using a technique known as lost-wax casting. After making drawings and sketch models in clay or wax, he prepared full-scale, detailed wax representations of every component of the reliefs. (Some scientists and scholars believe that he modeled his reliefs directly in wax; others propose that he made an initial model in another material and then made an indirect wax cast.) When Ghiberti and his assistants finished a model, they added wax rods in branching patterns to its back. The entire relief was then covered in a fire-resistant material like clay and heated until the wax melted out, leaving a hollow mold. The spaces that had been occupied by the rods served as sprues (channels) through which bronze reached the surface of the relief. The sprues were cut away from the reliefs after casting, but their remains are still visible on the back of each panel.
Ghiberti’s work was only half finished when he took the bronzes out of their molds. He still needed to complete the time-consuming and tedious work of chasing—that is, hammering, carving, incising, and polishing the reliefs. Utilizing his training as a goldsmith, he directed his numerous assistants in cleaning and enhancing details on the surface of the metal.
Ghiberti used a bronze alloy that was somewhat more difficult to cast than other bronzes of the period but was also very receptive to gilding. He mixed gold dust with mercury and painted the mixture across the front surface of each relief. Some of his brushstrokes are still visible, but, for the most part, he succeeded in creating a smooth, luminous surface that suggests air and atmosphere. To make the gold adhere to the bronze, Ghiberti heated each relief to burn off the mercury, leaving only the gold in place. This was a toxic and dangerous process that is no longer used.
FIGURES AND HEADS OF PROPHETS
The narrative panels of the Gates of Paradise are framed by a series of 20 prophets in niches alternating with 24 projecting heads. The standing figures, such as Restored Figure of a Prophet in Niche represent Old Testament prophets, heroines, and sibyls, generally credited with foretelling the birth of Christ. The heads also depict prophets, as in Restored Prophet’s Head but include portraits of Ghiberti and his son Vittorio, who continued the family workshop after his father’s death, as well. The elements of the doorframe amplify the main themes of the narrative panels and serve as another example of Ghiberti’s artistic inventiveness. The exhibition shows two heads and two prophets taken from the doorframe. One set has been cleaned; the other has not. The contrast between each set demonstrates far better than words the impact of conservation in restoring the clarity and detail of Ghiberti’s masterpiece.
Before conservation, the gilt surfaces of the Gates of Paradise were covered with disfiguring and damaging incrustations, as seen in the untreated panels on display in the exhibition. Cracks and scratches in the gold also allowed pollutants to seep between the gilding and the bronze. The resulting accumulation of humidity and salts behind the gilding triggered a reaction that caused it to bubble, jeopardizing the integrity of the entire surface.
Conservation work began with six relief panels forced off the doors when the Arno River flooded Florence on November 4, 1966. These panels were dipped into a solution of Rochelle salts and distilled water, which dissolved all the surface incrustations. Conservation was subsequently extended to the remaining reliefs, although it took five years to ease them out of their ornamental framework. The whole frame was eventually removed from the Baptistery in 1990, when a modern copy of the Gates of Paradise was installed. Since then, laser technology has allowed scientists and conservators to develop a revolutionary new cleaning technique for the remaining panels, a process illustrated in a video accompanying the exhibition.
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