Architecture / Italy / Travel

Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise: CliffsNotes For The Old Testament

Florence Baptistry

Florence, the epicenter for the Italian Renaissance, is absolutely chock-a-block with masterpieces. Paintings and sculptures dominate the list, but sculptor and goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti used a slightly different medium … doors.

The Gates of Paradise

His Gates of Paradise, the fantastic bronze doors on the east side of the Baptistry (directly facing the Duomo), are probably the most famous doors in the world (except maybe the Pearly Gates). In ten panels, Ghiberti created cleverly concise versions of stories from the Old Testament. The doors are a work of pure genius, but the characteristic that appeals most to me is his use of relief and perspective to create the illusion of depth.

Story of Joseph

One of my favorite panels depicts “The Story of Joseph.” Notice the main characters in the foreground in high relief, and the secondary players in much lower relief in the background. And the entire scene is an incredible study in perspective, making the panel appear considerably deeper than it actually is.

“Perspective, the visual system that attempts
to represent 3 dimensional space on a flat surface,
has been challenging artists for thousands of years.”
–Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago

Domenico Veniziano, The Annunciation

“The Annunciation” by Domenico Veniziano, 1442

Every artist learns the concept of perspective in their first art class. So today, it’s easy to take its use for granted. But when Ghiberti designed his doors, it was a very new idea. In fact, it wasn’t until 1415 that a Florentine architect and engineer named Filippo Brunelleschi developed a mathematical theory of perspective through a series of optical experiments.

I also like Ghiberti’s signature on the work, which is a cute little self-portrait head (the balding chap on the left). I guess that after 25 years of work on one set of doors, a bit of personal horn-blowing is hard to resist.

The Gates of Paradise were installed in 1452, and were instantly recognized as a masterpiece. They’re one of the finest sculptures of the early Renaissance, and they clearly demonstrate that Ghiberti had the technique of perspective down cold.

Happy Trails,
James

Lorenzo Ghiberti

Photo Credits:
2. By Yair Haklai via Wikimedia Commons
5.  By Kandi via Wikimedia Commons

23 thoughts on “Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise: CliffsNotes For The Old Testament

    • Thanks Lisa. It’s rewarding to know that a professional artist found this post interesting. Which brings to mind a question about perspective. As an artist, when you start making sketches for your piece, do you still use the “prospective lines and polygons” or after your many years of experience do things just come naturally? ~James

      • ha! sometimes yes and sometimes no.. that spatial exactness (oxymoron?) is usually in place, but a quick confirmation with a transparent ruler eliminates the doubt.

        long ago i was married to a farmer; my husband told me that he’d match my eye against a surveyor any day. i could spot a low spot in a field or a high spot – i think it’s seeing the nuances of shading… another time i hurriedly pulled half a dozen potted crape myrtles to spots along the drive and then five or so azaleas to half circle each tree, and then i dashed inside and resumed my day. he told me later, ‘we measured everything after you left, and you were off about half an inch on one azalea…’

        it’s like a fine-tuned instrument is at work at all times inside my head/eye.

        z

      • I’m not surprised Lisa, and this is a perfect comment for this post. It also confirms what I suspected. In the case of a talented, professional artist such as you, it all comes naturally. In my case, as a scientist (and definite non-artist), I’m always looking for a formula. ~James

  1. Fantastic doors, James.
    Thanks for sharing. Never saw those doors when I was in Florence but it was nice to see (& read) them in your post.

    Gosh, your travels remind me so much of my own back in the 70s. I think I need to put ‘World Tour with Terri & James as tour guides’ on my bucket list. You’ve got a knack for sharing info, but not making it too long or too detailed. Thanks again.

    • Thanks so much for the nice comment Vicki. I find that knowing a bit about the history of a place makes the experience so much more enjoyable. Also, (as most bloggers) I enjoy telling others about things I find interesting. But personally, I don’t like being overloaded with details, so in my own writing, I try to keep things interesting, concise, and fun to read. It’s nice to know that sometimes I achieve this. Thanks again. ~James

  2. I visited Florence exactly 30 years ago (on a Contiki bus tour, like zillions of other young Antipodeans). I remember seeing the amazing Baptistry doors when we took a fabulous walking tour in Florence. Lovely to see your Florence series, it reminds me of that trip.

    • Thanks for the comment Keiry, and for dropping by the blog. All serious travelers and art lovers as well, owe it to themselves to see Florence. I took an art history course at university, and I heard “Renaissance” until I was sick of the word. I just never did get it. But only a few days in Florence, and having the chance to see what the word really means brought it all home. There’s no place like Florence. ~James

    • On our first trip to Florence, for a number of reasons, we weren’t in the right frame of mind to fully appreciate it. But this time around, we took a more thoughtful approach, slowed things down, and we had a wonderful visit. ~James

    • Luckily we were there for a week Curt, so we got to go back several times (always hoping for a crowd-free shot)! I hope you and Peggy will share your photos sometime. ~James

    • Thanks. Because of the crowds, it’s really difficult to get good photos around the Duomo and Bapistry. When we were there, if the tour groups descended, it was time to move on. Of course, that’s the case in most tourist hot spots. ~James

  3. Great shots! Your photos came out way better than mine. I felt like I was right there in front of those doors again. We will have to go back some day. Maybe when we are granted dual citizenship – a bonus for marrying an Italian! 🙂 Mike

    • Thanks Mike. Definitely go back if you get a chance. As we said, for a number of reasons, we really couldn’t fully appreciate Florence on our first trip. Some of it was an improvement in our state of mind, but much of it also had to do with improvements in the “user friendly” aspects of the city (pedestrian zones, noise restrictions) ~James

    • Thanks Carmen, for dropping by the blog, and for the comment. There’s so much fantastic art and architecture in Florence, it’s difficult to take it all in. Some preparation and a bit of reading about the Renaissance before arrival helps. ~James

  4. Pingback: Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise: Florence Art History 101 | Vino Con Vista Italy Travel Guides and Events

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