AS THE TOURIST season approaches, yearnings turn irresistibly toward southern Europe, where the Italian Renaissance looms large. Rome, Florence, Siena, Padua, Venice all entice a traveler’s imagination. Is there a quattrocento work of art more seductive than Lorenzo Ghiberti’s renowned bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery, the “Gates of Paradise,” in the phrase of Michelangelo? Revisiting them last fall, I encountered a Canadian couple, newly married, who stood gazing in awe. So beautiful, but (they wondered aloud) what does it all mean? Ineluctably, I replied and led them, panel by gilded panel, through Ghiberti’s delicate renderings of the 10 Biblical stories. To do so, I relied on an extraordinary recent book by art historian Amy R. Bloch that explores these sculptures psychologically as has never been done before in the history of art.
Before the Black Death ravaged Europe in the second half of the trecento, widespread illiteracy on the Italian peninsula had turned visual art into religious instruction. Artists were tasked with rendering Scripture for an unlettered populace by depicting stories core to Christian doctrine. They strove for clarity, simplicity, and, above all, linearity of composition in order to mimic narrative time as recorded in Latin texts from left to right. In 1305, Giotto’s glorious fresco cycle on the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua thus served, importantly, to teach. By the time of Lorenzo Ghiberti (c. 1378–1455), however, the educative charge had receded. Literacy for males in Florence had risen to an astonishing rate of 70 to 80 percent. Artists, liberated — to some extent — from their instructional charge, began to interpret religious commissions with greater license and imagination. Among them, primus inter pares, was the sculptor and goldsmith Ghiberti — a supremely talented, well-read, canny, charming, sophisticated humanist. Ghiberti eschewed linearity in the 10 panels for his chef d’oeuvre, the Baptistery doors in Florence, later dubbed by Michelangelo “Gates of Paradise.” His complex poly-scenic compositions demand that viewers, in order to read them, know in advance the Biblical narratives they portray.
Ghiberti’s massive, 17-feet-tall, gilt bronze doors, three tons in weight, have undergone decades of cleaning and restoration, starting in 1990, and they are now on display in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, just across from the cathedral. The eastern wall of the Baptistery, which was their initial location facing the Duomo, sports a facsimile. Rough weather, city filth, sequestration during war, and attempts at theft have all plagued the Gates since their completion in 1452. Most recently, in 1966, catastrophic flooding of the Arno buried the city of Florence in mud and wrenched five panels from their frames while severely damaging a sixth. Conservators’ painstaking efforts have revealed at last their aureate luminosity, their shining effulgence, obscured until now by centuries of sable grime and encrustation.
Amy R. Bloch’s valuable Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise complements this conservatorial work with another sort of revelation. This book does for Ghiberti’s intellectual project what the conservators have done for the Gates’ materiality: it discloses a different kind of splendor, not the splendor of surface but of depth. Bloch unveils Ghiberti’s remarkably “modern” psychological acumen and probes the ideational content that shines forth from every panel. Not even the late preeminent scholar Richard Krautheimer writes with such perspicacity on the meanings latent in these 31-inch squares, modeled first in wax, then cast in bronze, and finally chased and gilded.
Highest on the left stands the Adam and Eve panel, key to the entire monument. Bloch unpacks its meaning. Remarkably, Ghiberti neither focuses on punishment for transgression nor understands the tale as tragic, which is the course of interpretation by countless other artists: think of Masaccio’s iconic fresco high on left side of the Brancacci Chapel, where Adam hides his eyes in shame and Eve emits a feral howl, or of Michelangelo’s wrenching dyad on the Sistine ceiling, the disobedient pair anguished and menaced by sword.
Delving into the known contents of Ghiberti’s library, poring over his composition in detail, and taking note of Florentine humanist discourses on human artistic creativity that derive it from the divine, Bloch persuasively reveals that Ghiberti reads the story of Adam and Eve (their creation, transgression, and banishment) as the fons et origo of his own artistic calling. For Ghiberti, this story becomes by implication a site of the calling of all artistic making; his panel reads as a glorious paean to the act of Creation itself.
Ghiberti does not give highest relief, which is the surest way to accord prominence in his medium of sculpture, to the serpent’s temptation of Eve. He accords secondary significance to that tense moment, relegating it to the middle left ground and modeling it in low relief. Top billing instead belongs to the sequential Creation of man and woman: these receive full treatment. Artfully, Ghiberti fuses the two Creation stories in Genesis: 1:27, in which God creates the human being in his image, and 2:7, where the human being (adam) is fashioned from the soil (adamah). He twins Adam with his Creator, their faces closely resembling one another so that man reflects the Creator who pulls him from the earth. Likewise, depressions carved out of the ground below show that God is, like Ghiberti, a sculptor. Making from clay what had not existed before, he is artifex and pictor. He prefigures Renaissance man as homo faber (man-the-maker), nepote (grandchild) — as per Dante — of God. Above the dynamic scene, angels hover, watching intently. Adam slowly awakens and begins to move under his own power, which Ghiberti brilliantly suggests with an illusion of movement that depends on viewers’ changing positions relative to the doors, and, as we move and look, we can sense that the first human being is, in this moment, imbued with his own power, likewise, to create.
Ghiberti reserves pride of place for the Creation of Eve. While Adam sleeps, God summons his helpmeet with the same signal he used for her spouse. Angels separate her arms from her flanks in gestures familiar to all artists who work with clay. High above, the crowned figure of God the Father judges the pair with rod in hand. Banished from Eden, human beings are forced to labor, but Ghiberti, rather than interpreting this penalty as an entirely negative consequence of transgression and as devastating loss, intimates that it will — in time — give rise to art! A rudimentary little fence, moreover, which he models under Adam’s arms, shows that creative human energies have begun to emerge even before the Fall.
As they leave the Garden, the pair’s demeanor dramatically differs from other famous renderings. Not cowering or grimacing, Eve and Adam turn back and up toward the heavens for guidance. In Bloch’s sensitive understanding of Ghiberti, human creators are born for all time in this crucial moment of Expulsion. In the first and key panel of the Gates of Paradise, Ghiberti creates a direct visual lineage not only for himself but for all artists — artists who require curiosity but also restraint, artists who dare to resist and brave the unknown, artists who, he gently implies, have the supreme gift of divine benevolence.
The Cain and Abel panel stands across from Adam and Eve at the top of the Gates. Here, archetypal fratricide holds center stage. Ghiberti, however, with rare psychological acumen, prepares for it by probing his characters’ inner lives. His poly-scenic panel begins with Cain and Abel as small children appearing with their parents, Adam and Eve. Condemned to work, Adam holds a spade, Eve a spindle. Ghiberti imagines how, from earliest childhood, Cain resents his younger brother, whom he sculpts adjacent to their mother. Foreshadowing future violence, young Cain grasps the handle of his father’s heavy spade and gazes menacingly at Abel, who huddles close to Eve.
Slightly lower on the panel, Abel appears again, an older boy tending his sheep in a field. His head turns away from the animals in the direction of the earlier scene of fraternal threat, and he seems to be remembering it. Thus Ghiberti, by adroitly manipulating the variables of bodily position and placement in space achieves the extraordinary feat of evoking his character’s inner state of mind. Furthermore, as Bloch points out, Ghiberti has shown the children fighting already: in another venue, Cain grabs Abel’s hair and smashes his face with his fist. Such imagery reaches back in imaginary time and, quasi-psychoanalytically avant la lettre, Ghiberti persuades us of deep childhood roots for the Biblical first murder.
Bloch points out how, in highest relief, Cain plows with his ox, whose right front hoof has slipped out of the furrow. “Furrow” in Latin is “lira,” root of “delirare,” from which comes our English “delirious.” Stepping out of the furrow means being crazed: Cain plows the land distractedly. Thus, graphically, Ghiberti reveals the preoccupied state of his protagonist’s mind. As to the acceptance of Abel’s offering and God’s rejection of Cain’s, Bloch connects the traditional interpretation (that Abel, unlike Cain, brought the best he had) to Ghiberti’s own experience competing for artistic commissions in the cutthroat arena of mid-quattrocento Florence, where one had always to present one’s absolute best. His Cain looks down at the grains he has offered on the altar and suddenly realizes the stakes. Cain’s turbulent emotions drive these chapters of Scripture, and Ghiberti, sensing that, depicts him most richly.
In a double image, Cain strikes his brother again and again, and God banishes him. Departing, Cain takes a staff that closely resembles the shepherd’s staff of Abel, a feature, Bloch remarks, that may signal Ghiberti’s intent to portray him not only as murderer but also as thief. The Gates of Paradise unfurls a chilling study of deep-rooted, ineluctable sibling rivalry. A modern case history could serve no better.
After winning a life-changing contest against Brunelleschi in 1401, which entailed the portrayal in relief of the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22), Ghiberti returns to this theme on the Gates. He chooses a different moment in the story. Clearing space all around the triad of father, son, and angel, he allows our eyes to zoom in without distraction. He illustrates not the terrifying instant before Abraham must kill Isaac (as in his previous work), but rather the split second after striking motion has been stayed. Head down, shoulder tense, Isaac awaits the blow that will not come. A hovering angel arrests the curving sword, which, if we look carefully, has its blade turned way from, not toward, the boy. With stunning economy of means and scale, Ghiberti condenses ambiguity and shock.
In highest relief right foregrounded, surprisingly, we find the two lads whom Abraham has brought along and left behind at the foot of Mt. Moriah. Why are these minor figures accorded prominence? They may serve psychologically as avatars for beholders, that is, for those who have puzzled and agonized over this story, who, left behind, must necessarily wait and wonder what is actually occurring high on the mountaintop and what its outcome will be. If so, Ghiberti highlights the impenetrability of this cruel near-sacrifice, despite centuries of learned exegesis.
Most complex of all the panels on the Gates, narratively speaking, is that of Jacob and Esau, which stands in the middle of the left-hand door, just above eye level. No one without detailed knowledge of the story could decipher it. Again, following the method pursued by Bloch, one might wonder if Ghiberti’s library held the Poetics of Aristotle translated into Latin. Spatially, Ghiberti’s organization of this panel mirrors plot formation as Aristotle delineates it. Three necessary scenes, sculpted in relatively low relief, are placed in middle ground beneath the arches of a palatial structure into which Ghiberti locates the story: Rebecca lying-in, about to give birth to her contentious twins; Esau the hunter returning famished, begging Jacob for food and about to relinquish his birthright, his bow tossed on the ground; and Rebecca plotting with Jacob, who holds a goat by its legs. Aristotle would have dubbed this a “propter hoc” sequence. For highest relief, Ghiberti saves the very two moments Aristotle identifies as key to tragedy: the moment of reversal (peripeteia) and the moment of recognition. Foreground right, the blind aged Isaac blesses his kneeling son Jacob while feeling with his left hand for the hairy neck of Esau. Rebecca, her gaze turned toward the past birthing scene as though she is recalling it, stands by. To gaze from below is to experience the dramatically high relief in which Ghiberti has modeled this searing point of no return.
Even more devastating is the moment of recognition. Slightly off-center foreground, Esau returns to receive his blessing. His twin hunting dogs allegorically recap the tale: the hairy one’s head droops, while the smooth one looks out at the world. Isaac realizes he has blessed the wrong son, and Esau hesitates, pivoting, moving neither forward nor backward. Within his and our field of vision, Ghiberti places the earlier swindle, as if that moment of rashness were being recalled now by Esau in his final loss.
Consummate master of surface and depth, Ghiberti orders his compositions to privilege psychic significance. He probes the narrative arcs of our culture’s foundational texts. With Bloch as our guide, the Gates of Paradise become gates to inner experience, portals to the mind.
Ellen Handler Spitz is Honors Professor of Visual Arts at the University of Maryland (UMBC) and has held fellowships at the Getty Center, the Clark Art Institute, the Camargo Institute, the Radcliffe (Bunting) Institute at Harvard, the Stanford University Center for Advanced Study, and the Erikson Institute.