On January 2, 1425, Ghiberti is commissioned to craft the third set of doors for the Baptistry. In his ‘I Commentarii’, the artist writes:
“Finally, I was entrusted with the other, that is, the third door of Saint John, and I was given free rein to execute it as I saw fit […] So I began this work in panels, each measuring one and one-third ell; they depicted highly elaborate images, the stories of the Old Testament. In doing so, I made every effort to observe all the measurements and imitate nature as closely as possible, with all the outlines I could produce, arranged in an excellent manner and featuring numerous figures. In some stories, I included about a hundred figures [replica], in others, fewer, and in some, more. I carried out the work with the utmost diligence and love. In total, there were ten stories, and every structure therein appeared to the eye in such a lifelike manner that when one stands at the proper distance, it appears spherical. They are executed in very shallow half-relief work [replica], and the figures seen on the close-up plans appear larger, and those in the distance smaller, just as it corresponds to reality. And with these principles, I completed the entire work.” Cited and translated from: Lorenzo Ghiberti in his ‘I Commentarii’ pp. 79-80; pdf: 97 -98 (Gutenberg; language: German)
Ghiberti bases his description on a number of interesting criteria, revealing that he has discarded the old style of his first door, Gothicism. ‘imitate nature as closely as possible’ and finally the use of perspective (‘appeared to the eye in such a lifelike manner’) just like in reality, are hallmarks of the new style: Renaissance. The ‘imitatore della nature’ is ‘imitatione del vero’ (imitation of the true) becomes the highest ideal for any Renaissance artist and is also the main criterion by which art is assessed. There is one remark: mother nature had to be portrayed in its most perfect form. Later we will see that for his first life-sized bronze statue, John the Baptist, for the Or San Michele, Ghiberti still worked according to the international style as with his first door. His second statue, Matthew, also for the Orsan Michele, is in every way a Renaissance work. Ghiberti Gates of Paradise (east side).
This time it did not have the typical twenty-eight panels with the gothic quatrefoil, but only ten and placed in a rectangular frame. A man called Leonardo Bruni, writing in a letter dated June 1424, recommended to have 28 reliefs like in the other doors, but Ghiberti opted for ten rectangular panels. With such a limited amount, there was no choice but to depict multiple scenes in one panel. The back of the door leaves still reveal the original intent of having 28 panels and that the final decision was not taken until later on.
The story of the doors is organised traditionally. It begins at the top left and flows across both door leaves to then end up at the lower right. The first reliefs are about Genesis and the following two about Exodus. The final two are about the live of David and Salomon. Click here for an overview of the reliefs and here for Wikipedia. The general theme of the Gates of Paradise as Michelangelo dubbed these doors, is about the promise of salvation and the prefiguration of Christ’s crucifixion. The salvation is announced, among others, in the reliefs with Noah’s Ark or the Blessing of Jacob. The top side shows two figures lying down, Adam and Eve. The bottom shows Noah and his wife Puarphera. The frames next to the panels show twenty sculptures of prophets in the recesses. In addition, there are twenty-four heads including of Lorenzo himself and his son Vittore.
The creation was likely made first. Three scenes from Genesis are depicted at the front, namely the creation of Adam, Eve and Adam and Expulsion from Paradise. At the background, in a low relief, the temptation of Eve and the fall of Adam and Eve is shown. At the centre, at the background, God comes flying in with his angels. The various episodes of the story are forged into one by working with high and shallow relief. The figures on the forefront are made in high relief and appear nearly three-dimensional. The background scenes are akin to a drawing cast in bronze, otherwise known as shallow relief, the so-called rilievo schiacciato like we will encounter with Donatello. Atmospheric effects were achieved by not using the same amount of gold-plating everywhere. Donatello (‘Feast of Herod’ 1427) would later refine this by only gold-plating the parts he wished to emphasise.
Expulsion from paradise Adam and Eve
“There are ten stories in total. The first one: the creation of man and woman, and how they disobey the Creator of all things. In the same story, you can also see how they are expelled from paradise due to their wrongdoing. Therefore, in this field, there are four stories or actions.” Cited and translated from: Lorenzo Ghiberti in his ‘I Commentarii’ p. 80; pdf: 98 (Gutenberg; language: German)
The relief of the story of Esau and Jacob was clearly made at a later date. In this work, too, Ghiberti sticks to what he wrote in his ‘I Commentarii’, which we mentioned above ‘‘figures seen on the close-up plans appear larger, and those in the distance smaller, just as it corresponds to reality.’’ He achieves this not only by using large and small figures in the background (far away), but also by contrasting high and shallow relief. For example, the group of women at the lower left of the picture plane are largely detached from the background, it appears almost three-dimensional: high relief. Rebecca, lying in her childbed, on the other hand, is cast in shallow relief. Jacob’s wife appears three times more in the same panel: praying on the roof, to the right where she sends her son hunting and the far-right at the bottom of the picture plane she watches how her son, Jacob, receives Isaac’s blessing.
“In the tenth [panel], as the Queen of Sheba, accompanied by a large retinue, comes to visit Solomon; she is richly adorned, and a multitude of people stands around.” Cited and translated from: Lorenzo Ghiberti in his ‘I Commentarii’ p. 83; pdf: 103 (Gutenberg; language: German)
The figures are very convincingly placed inside an architectonic setting that feels classical or ‘modern’. Ghiberti did something similar in his first set of doors, but here it is much more realistic than in his ‘Adoration of the Magi‘.
The ten panels were made between 1435 and 1445. The work was so encompassing that quite a few assistants were involved, including Michelozzo, Gozzoli, Luca della Robbia, Donatello and two of Ghiberti’s sons: Tommaso and Vittore. Vittore presumably played an increasingly important role. There is a reason why he was depicted alongside his father on the doors.
Final work on the frame occurred between 1449 and 1452. Lorenzo Ghiberti was seventy years old by then. Vittore, who co-signed the document about these works, likely played a larger role in the final phase of the work.
The frames around the three doors were made by Ghiberti and his son Vittore. The frame has all sort of floral motives shaped like trophies, like flowers, fruit, poppies and in between them small animals like birds and squirrels. According to the author Krautheimer, this allegedly symbolises the rich gift of the Lord to humanity, ‘which is constantly preyed on and consumed by Evil, in casu the small animals seeking refuge in the trophies of flowers and fruit’