Copper in the Arts

December 2007

Metropolitan Museum Offers Rare Viewing of Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, Magnificent Renaissance Masterpiece

The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents a rare viewing of Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, adored by generations of artists, including Michelangelo, who is reputed to have given them the name, through January 13. 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.

Ghiberti's Gates Adam and Eve Relief from Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, 1425 to 1452, from the east portal of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, Florence

Photograph by Antonio Quattrone

These magnificent gilded bronze doors of the east portal of the Baptistery 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, highly charged, and magically atmospheric scenes from the Old Testament, each superbly carried out in relief ranging from high to low.

Trained primarily as a goldsmith, Ghiberti was in his early 20s 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, 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 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 on the east portal, the place of honor, because it faces the Cathedral.

Ghiberti's ten brilliantly visualized scenes from the Old Testament 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. The narrative panels selected for the exhibition tell the stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath.

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.

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 the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, never to travel again.

Resources:

Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York, New York, (212) 535-7710

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