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Sacred Stories of Three Faiths: The Iconography of Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise

Text by Michael Lampen, Archivist, Grace Cathedral

To read the article about the restoration of the original doors in Florence, Italy that recently appeared in the San Francisco Chronicleclick here.

The Ghiberti Doors are considered by many authorities to be the first and greatest masterpiece of Italian Renaissance bronze-work. The opus of Florentine sculptor and bronze craftsman Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), their creation occupied much of the last quarter century of his life. The doors were the third and last set made for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral (the Duomo), the first being Pisano's doors devoted to St. John the Baptist (1345), and the second Ghiberti's New Testament doors (1434). The theme of the new doors was the Old Testament, and Leonardo Bruni, Florentine artist and humanist, chose the program, a summation of the greatest and most familiar stories of the Hebrew Torah, which is the Christian Old Testament. Several of the stories feature virtuous younger sons who receive divine favor over their older brothers; Abel and Cain, Jacob and Esau, (Isaac and Ishmael), Joseph and his brothers. Another theme is the salvation of humanity (Adam, Noah, Moses) despite human lapses. Many stories can also be read as precursors of New Testament themes.

Work began on the doors about 1429, with half the panels near completion by 1439 and all the panels finished by 1447.  At first, twenty-eight small single-scene panels were planned, as in the earlier doors, but Ghiberti's daring final design has only ten panels, with twenty-four statuettes and twenty-four heads in the surrounding frames.  The panels depict grouped scenes in the medieval tradition of continuous representation, and the rocky landscapes also reveal Gothic influence. Avant-garde Early Renaissance features include the many almost-free-standing naturalistic figures, graded relief, and Leon Battista Alberti's newly-formulated linear perspective, used in three panels.  The work is suffused with a classical aesthetic, and the elegant, naturalistic figures mark a new and sophisticated humanistic approach to the timeless stories of scripture. Many of the figures were derived from Roman sarcophagi and friezes.  The upper panels are spacious and have dramatic power, while the lower panels, closer to eye level, are crowded and more static.  The latter panels dazzle the eye with rich detail, but lack much of the narrative drama of the upper panels.

In the door frames flanking the panels are statuettes and portrait heads separated by floral decoration.  They represent Old Testament prophets and heroes whose prophecies or deeds parallel or comment on, scenes in the adjacent panels. Only ten of the statuettes and four of the heads are clearly identified. The statuettes are outstanding in their naturalism and realism, each one worthy to stand on its own.  The heads, almost busts, alternate with the statuettes, in circular frames or tondi. Most younger heads are toward the top, while heads bearing turbans suggest oriental references.  A few heads are clearly related to adjacent panels, and it is likely that most are so intended, with the probable exception of the Ghiberti family portraits. Decorative "Arabic" lettering on collars is not translatable.  The floral decoration is also notable, and retains the beauty and attention to detail found everywhere else on the doors.

Completed and installed in 1452, the doors were immediately recognized as a masterpiece, a pivotal work of the early Renaissance, and the pride of Florence.  Each panel, statuette, head and foliage bouquet shimmers under a layer of gold, giving the doors a glowing aura of the sacred.  Even the young Michelangelo admired the doors, and considered them worthy to be the "Gates of Paradise."  The influence of the doors extended to the works of Donatello, Uccello, Lucca Della Robbia, Bernardo Rossellino, Verocchio, Botticelli, Michelangelo, the Pre-Raphaelites, Rodin and others. 

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