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.
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.
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
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.
2. By Yair Haklai via Wikimedia Commons
5. By Kandi via Wikimedia Commons