Doors of Paradise

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The front doors of Grace Cathedral, facing downtown San Francisco, are called the Doors of Paradise. They are replicas of famous doors in the Baptistry of Florence Cathedral, Italy, the work of master founder and artist Lorenzo Ghiberti. They are his masterwork (1425-1452) and are considered the high point of technical and artistic bronze work in the early Italian Renaissance. The young Michelangelo is said to have dubbed them “Porta del Paradiso,” the Doors of Paradise. Not only the technical mastery of the work, but the infusion of sculptural form and narrative flow with humanist ideals and cutting-edge science (linear perspective), all enveloped in a golden atmosphere, make these doors a true masterpiece.

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The story of the cathedral replicas is bound up with the originals. For centuries the originals stood in Florence, the golden panels slowly disappearing under layers of grime. In World War II they were under the supervision of Bruno Bearzi, master founder and superintendent of the city’s art works. At first the doors were sandbagged, then taken down and hidden in a railway tunnel. Bearzi discovered the original gilding exposed by rubbing ropes. At last they were moved to the Palazzo Pitti. Partisan railroad destruction prevented their possible export to the growing collection of Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering. After the war, Bearzi cleaned the doors and made gelatin molds of the panels, from which he later cast and finished replicas. He offered the replicas for sale and one of the cathedral completion architects, Lawrence Kruse, heard of their availability. Donors enabled Grace Cathedral to purchase the replicas for the cathedral completion in 1964. The doors are opened for special services and occasions. Each door is over 16 feet (4.8m) tall and weighs over a ton. In Florence, the originals, meticulously restored, are now in the Cathedral Museum with replicas (1990) in place at the Baptistry.

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The ten main panels depict the familiar Old Testament stories. Adam & Eve and Cain & Abel are the top panels, and the exquisite creation of Eve scene dominates the first panel. Abraham and Noah are at the next level. The Noah panel shows a pyramid-shaped ark from which birds, people and animals exit, the animals looking decidedly sea-sick. At left on the next level down is the Jacob & Esau panel, famous for the beauty of its spacious linear-perspective setting.  The Joseph panel at right is more crowded and complex. The next level shows Moses on Mt. Sinai and Joshua entering the Promised Land. The final panels are David & Goliath at left below the battle scene, and an almost operatic meeting of Solomon & Sheba, at right. Border figures relate thematically to the main panels. The smaller busts or “tondi” include Ghiberti himself at left center, next to his son and assistant Vittorio. At the base of the doors are Vittorio’s wife and their son Bonaccorso.  Frogs and crickets hide in the frame foliage.

 

For further information contact the cathedral archivist, Michael Lampen, at michaell@gracecathedral.org .

Contact Information

Email: michaell@gracecathedral.org

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