Art Review Archives:
The "Gates of Paradise":
The Art Institute of Chicago
See them while you can; linger before these golden panels, intimately presented at eye height, while you may. The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece provides a look at the art and restoration of this milestone in Renaissance art: the east doors of the Baptistery in Florence, Italy known as the Gates of Paradise for their artistic innovation and splendor. Three panels of this set of ten fifteenth-century masterworks are now on tour outside of Florence, Italy for the first and only time, in recognition of the completion of a twenty-five-year-long conservation project which has lifted layers of grime and corrosion and restored the golden doors to their former glory. The Art Institute of Chicago is one of only a few select venues for the historic Florentine panels, which will not tour again once they return to their native city. This is a rare opportunity to see, up close and personally, the magnificent innovations and exquisite figuration of sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti's masterwork.
On exhibit are three actual panels from the Gates of Paradise, four supporting figures from the borders of the famous doors, and -- special to this stop on the exhibit's tour -- an accompanying seven paintings drawn from the Art Institute's own collections, by Ghiberti's contemporaries and showing correspondences between his work in gilded relief and how it influenced easel artists of the time. Formed of bronze, cast and then gilded, the Gates of Paradise were commissioned in 1425. Ghiberti and his workshop labored for twenty-seven years on the project, ten for the bronze casting of the panels and their supporting borders, a further fourteen to refine the reliefs and figures with hammering, stamping and chasing, and finally, the gilding with liquid gold which gives them their rich, softly reflective surface. The final doors, which weigh several tons, were installed in 1452 on the east side of the building known as the Baptistery in Florence, a free-standing octagonal structure dating to the seventh century and located in the Piazza del Duomo; it faces the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, known as the Duomo, with its famous dome by Renaissance architect Brunelleschi.
The Gates of Paradise were, in fact, Ghiberti's second commission for the Baptistery. He had also done bronze panels for the north doors of the building, winning a design contest in 1401 against a number of well-known contemporaries, Brunelleschi included. The contest launched Ghiberti's fame as a sculptor (and reportedly caused a disappointed Brunelleschi to renounce art and turn his genius fully to architecture). In all, there are three sets of ornamented doors on the Baptistery: the original doors, now on the south side, executed by Andrea Pisano between 1330-36 and illustrating scenes from the Life of St. John the Baptist; Ghiberti's north doors, made between 1403-24, showing scenes from the Life of Christ; and Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, 1425-52, on the choice eastern side which faces the Duomo. In designing the northern doors in 1401 Ghiberti continued the Gothic format employed in the Pisano doors of a quatrefoil frame containing one or two gilded figures. Two decades later in 1425, when called upon to do twenty similar panels for the new bronze doors, Ghiberti proposed a radical departure: he would do ten panels in the same space, giving him twice the room in which to compose each relief. His esteem was such that his patrons agreed. Ghiberti composed his newest commission with ten stories from the Old Testament, including Cain and Abel, Noah, Moses, and -- on exhibit here -- the Adam and Eve Panel, the Jacob and Esau Panel, and the David Panel, showing David's defeat of Goliath. When in place, these are the top, middle, and bottom panels of the left-hand door respectively.
Just how radical a departure Ghiberti's panels are, even from his own earlier panels of twenty years prior, are best seen in a brief comparison between the artwork of the three sets of doors. Pisano's panels of the fourteenth century definitively represent the Gothic Style. Fourteen panels were featured on each door of Pisano's work (the south doors), showing twenty scenes of the Life of St. John the Baptist and completing the tally with eight Virtues along the bottom two rows. An image of one of Pisano's panels, included in photo-facsimile in the timeline just outside the exhibition gallery, is an excellent example of the adequate yet blocky figures, variable scale, and disregard for illusion of the Gothic artist, for whom the realism of the scene was not as important as simply conveying the message of the Biblical tale itself. Each scene of Pisano's doors was framed within a gothic quatrefoil, bounding and containing the images, tabulating them into individual moments for the viewer.
Ghiberti's early work on the 1401 doors (the north doors) echoed Pisano's format, again with fourteen panels per door, here with twenty featuring the Life of Christ and eight showing Evangelists and Fathers of the Church. Like Pisano, Ghiberti too employed the gothic quatrefoil as a frame for each individual panel; but already, he is seen chafing at this restraint. The gothic quatrefoil firmly sets the image apart as something illustrative, an artificial shape whose framing begins more and more to cramp and compete with the increasing naturalism of Ghiberti's figures. As the panels progressed, Ghiberti began to pack more into this tiny space -- more action, more realistic scale and figuration, more emotion. That he would wish to break free from this artificial constraint was inevitable. By opening up his format into the generous 31-1/2 x 31-1/2 in. panel size of the Gates of Paradise, rather than the tight 20-1/2 x 17-3/4 in. quatrefoil format used for the north and south doors, the framing device necessary to separate the small Gothic scenes was no longer necessary. Ghiberti was to achieve it with elements integral to the image itself.
Thus we come to the Gates of Paradise, and the Jacob and Esau Panel, one of the three on exhibit, is a superb illustration of Ghiberti's achievement. For Renaissance artists such as Ghiberti, it was no longer enough to simply represent figures from the Biblical story in typical poses and with representative attributes that would identify them to the illiterate onlooker. The splendor of the piece became wrapped up in the elegance and lavishness of real figures, depicted as if in real space. Giotto (1266?-1337), also a Florentine, had heralded the reinvention of illusionistic space on a flat surface. Brunelleschi (that same Brunelleschi who engineered the marvelous dome of the Duomo, and who lost the design competition to Ghiberti in 1401) had subsequently reintroduced the mathematical principles by which artists could reproduce actual perspective in their work. In the Jacob and Esau Panel, Ghiberti employed these devices in the depiction of a lofty arched hall, so real it seems to recede deep into the picture plane. The illusion is so complete one can all but step up into it. A foreground grouping of female figures in high relief firmly anchors the composition, their solidity enhancing and balancing the ethereal depths out of which Ghiberti builds up his receding vistas.
At the same time Ghiberti employs these architectural and perspectival elements as framing for differing groups of figures, a device which allows him to tell multiple aspects of the same story with startling clarity. In the Jacob and Esau Panel he illustrates no less than six parts of the tale in a single panel, including the birth itself, with Rebekah confined in the midground, and the attending women in the lower left foreground; Esau selling his birthright for a mess of pottage in the central midground; Isaac sending Esau out to hunt in the center foreground; Rebekah conspiring with Jacob in the right midground, with Esau heading out to the hunt; and Jacob, disguised as his firstborn brother, receiving Isaac's blessing in Esau's stead. By using horizontal composition (left to right), and the new perspective to create depth (foreground to deep background), Ghiberti organizes this complex telling into an image in which each story fragment is clearly distinguished from the next, while maintaining a perfect illusion of realism and despite the simultaneous presence of all elements within a single scene. Michelangelo upon seeing the doors is reported to have exclaimed that they were the 'Gates of Paradise', a name which has remained with them to this day. Whether apocryphal or not, the comment was justified. Nothing this ambitious had been attempted before.
Despite the Classical restraint of the poses, which subordinates emotional fervor to beauty and grace, there are innumerable details of tenderness that lend humanity to these panels. In the Adam and Eve Panel, the gentleness with which God awakens His creation Adam is manifest in the delicacy with which His hand grasps that of the newly-created man. The same gesture is evident as He calls forth Eve from Adam's side. With subtle clues of posture and grasp, Ghiberti conveys the idea of a figure of infinite power acting gently toward his beloved creations. That same God bears a wounded rather than wrathful aspect as he bears down on Adam and Eve to cast them forth from Paradise after the Fall; the glance Eve casts back at him is brimming with entreaty. Such little details of look and gesture are found throughout, even though many of them would be less than visible once the panels were in place on the seventeen-foot-high doors.
Seven paintings by Ghiberti's contemporaries accompany the Gates of Paradise panels. These are drawn from the Art Institute's own collections and serve to illustrate the evolution of figural handling and perspective in Italian painting of the time, as well as the direct impact Ghiberti had on influencing the artists around him. The Dormition of the Virgin (tempera on panel: 1401/05) by Starnina (Gherardo di Jacopo) (Italian, active 1387-1413), the earliest work on display, is an example of the painting traditions in place just before the surge of new interest in science and realism that marked the Renaissance as a break with the Medieval era. Drapery begins to show the contours of the body beneath, but all is still flattened, as if it were a painted cutout. The four paintings that follow show artists beginning to explore three-dimensional sculptural modeling, part of the new interest in realistic depiction of illusionistic space that infuses Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise. A later work, Scenes from the Life of St. John the Baptist (tempera on panel: 1490/95) by Bartolommeo di Giovanni (Italian, c. 1465-1501) shows Ghiberti's influence reflected in painting, the artist employing Ghiberti's use of architectural elements to house the action in framing that permits of multiple tales within the same image.
In the adjoining room, four sculptural elements from the doors' border are included both as additional examples of Ghiberti's work, and as dramatic illustrations of the results of the twenty-five-year conservation effort performed by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence. One pair untouched, one pair restored, these elegant figures show the remarkable changes wrought by the careful, millimeter by millimeter cleaning of the restorative efforts. The untouched figures are dull and leaden with tarnish, rills of elegant drapery and masterful handling of face and figure masked by corrosion and distemper. The conserved pieces glow across every surface with gold's full, heavy shine. The added clarity of their pristine, restored state is apparent. Now cleaned, the pieces must be kept (as they are here) in an oxygen-free nitrogen atmosphere to prevent further damage. At the same time, the figures and panels reflect an important feature of true conservation. The David Panel is one of the lower panels, located close to the ground on the left hand side of the doors. Its gilding has been worn through to the bronze by 500 years of innumerable gentle touches by pious visitors, and that wear is clearly seen in the conserved panel. The efforts of the Opificio delle Pietre Dure were not intended to re-create or re-gild the panels, to make them look as they did on the day they were new. Rather, their focus was on the removal of accumulated grime and corrosion and the repair of small damage. The distinction is important. Conservation restores and prevents further damage; if left unchecked, the panels would have degraded under continued forces of corrosion. At the same time, it seeks to leave intact those elements which have been the result of natural wear or usage over time, which are considered integral to the history of the piece.
Accompanying the exhibition, a video presentation shows the process of conservation and the painstaking attention to detail it involves. Further accompaniments include a description of the lost wax casting method by which the panels were made, a life-size wax replica of the type of model Ghiberti would have used to mold his initial bronze casts, and two computers featuring interactive searches on images of all ten panels and other features of the bronze doors themselves.
The Baptistery was representative of a new era in artistic adornment, that of civic pride and civic puissance, represented in the fineness and lavishness of its architecture and the art which graced it. Art flourishes where there are wealthy patrons to foot the bill for a project such as Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise, the ambitious realization of ten monumental panels exhibiting an entirely new form of imagery, the making of which also required twenty-seven years' worth of resources, salaries -- raw bronze and gold and the men to work them. The Ghiberti doors represent not only the flowering of one of the most fertile periods in the history of Western art -- the Renaissance -- but as well, the pinnacle of what may be achieved by an artist with such license to enact his full creative genius. As exhibition curator Bruce Boucher noted, every such door done after that time was done with Ghiberti's doors in mind.
Complementing that endeavor, the restoration of Ghiberti's great masterpiece is in itself truly a labor of love, worthy of the master's approval. Patience, perseverance, and beauty, labored upon twice over: during its creation, and now, during its own 'renaissance'. Three panels and four decorative supporting elements from the Gates of Paradise, and seven paintings contemporary with Ghiberti's work, are on exhibit in this modest yet worthwhile exhibition. The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece provides an intimate look at the art and restoration of Lorenzo Ghiberti's doors for the Florence Baptistery. These beautiful, historically important works are on exhibit at the Art Institute through October 14, 2007.
The exhibition is accompanied by a full-color catalog (softcover; $22.00), available at the Art Institute of Chicago. The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece was previously on view at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta, from April 28 - July 15, 2007. It will travel next to the Seattle Art Museum from October 30, 2007 - January 13, 2008 and to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York from January 26 - April 6, 2008. The exhibition is 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.
--Katherine R. Lieber
Editorial Note: The exhibition catalogue The "Gates of Paradise": Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece (Yale University Press: August 2007) and other books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through ArtScope.net's Amazon.com link or by clicking on the link above.