Sixty Tons of Bronze: The Gates of Paradise
Updated: Jun 18, 2022
Who was a real “Renaissance man” and the most successful Florentine artist prior to Michelangelo? Many may not have heard of Lorenzo Ghiberti. He is best known for the gilded bronze doors called the Gates of Paradise for the Florence Baptistery, but he was also an author, consummate businessman, master goldsmith and metal worker. His bronze doors transformed Renaissance art and influenced generations of artists.
Florence Baptistery, Cathedral and Bell Tower.
The Baptistery History. The Florence Baptistery is part of a complex consisting of the Duomo, Baptistery and Bell Tower. The three buildings are right in the middle of historic Florence. Consecrated in 1059, the Baptistery exterior is made of green marble from Prato and white Carrara marble. Romanesque in architectural style, the Baptistery and surrounding buildings were vital Florentine civic and religious buildings, central to daily life.
Florence Baptistery interior mosaics.
The interior of the Baptistery dates from the 1200 -1300s and the impressive mosaics covering the octagonal dome resemble the Byzantine mosaics found in Venice. Similarities to Venetian mosaics, are not unfounded as Venetian artists worked on the vault. Christ sitting in Judgement dominates the ceiling mosaic as figures to his right enter heaven and those to his left are condemned. The bands surrounding Christ are scenes from the Old and New Testament and lives of Christ and St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence.
The Doors and the Guilds. The Baptistery has three sets of exterior bronze doors: North, South and East. The East doors, closest to the Duomo, are usually called the Gates of Paradise due to their proximity to the church. All three sets of bronze doors were commissioned and paid for by a guild called the Arte di Calimala, representing the cloth merchants. Just a few yards away the Duomo and Bell Tower’s art was sponsored by the wool merchants guild, the Arte della Lana. Each guild desired the best, most expensive, and prestigious art to adorn their buildings. Plus, there was some competition between the guilds to commission the best and brightest artists to work on their projects.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, North Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence. The North doors have 28 scenes from the New Testament.
Sculpture was the most expensive art form at the time and most Italian churches had little to no exterior sculpture. The bronze doors made a statement about the wealth and importance of the guild in addition to the cultural importance for the Florentines. Within a little more than a century these three sets of doors would be complete.
The Competition. The first set of doors was commissioned in 1322 and completed by Andrea Pisano. Lorenzo Ghiberti completed another set of bronze doors in 1403-24 and in 1425 Ghiberti received the commission for the third and final set of doors, which when completed were so admired they were moved to the prestigious position on the east side.
There was a competition for the second Baptistery doors in 1401, won by Ghiberti. Seven Tuscan artists submitted a trial panel to the commission based on the subject of the sacrifice of Isaac, the Old Testament story when God ordered Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac when at the last moment an angel intervenes to stop the killing. Ghiberti, a little-known painter trained as a goldsmith in his early twenties, went up against established artists including Filippo Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi lost the competition but earned his fame as the architect of Florence’s dome. Brunelleschi and Ghiberti’s careers were entwined for decades in the Cathedral complex.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, North Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence. Panel with St. Mark the Evangelist. He is often shown writing his Gospel with his emblem, the winged lion.
Although there was an intense contest for the commission, fifteenth century Florentines did not administer the competition as a winner takes all. The commission, comprised of 34 judges from Florence and the surrounding countryside, expected artistic collaboration while taking the best elements from other submissions for the best possible outcome. Ideas from artists who did not win a competition were often utilized in the finished product. A communal spirit prevailed. Ghiberti sought input from many artists for his Gates of Paradise. As an artistic community, the Florentines were close and cooperative with lots of give and take, sharing and critiquing.
Why Ghiberti’s Sculpture was Special. The first, second, and final third set of doors is an evolution in sculpture. The figures in the third set of doors project from the background as if they are round. The figures on the other doors are flattish and encumbered by a Gothic frame. By eliminating the Gothic frame and flat background the Biblical figures have more freedom of expression and narrative function. We now have mountains, trees, flora, fauna, and multiple figures in one scene.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, North Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence. Panel detail, Dispute with the Doctors. There are 28 panels in the North Doors. The doors are approximately 15 feet tall.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, East Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence. Instead of 28 panels, the East doors have ten. Ghiberti worked on the East doors 1425-52. Named the Gates of Paradise, some guidebooks report Michelangelo coined that term in admiration of Ghiberti’s work. Fake news. East baptistery doors were often referred to as the Gates of Paradise, long before Michelangelo. Michelangelo did call Ghiberti’s doors a divine work – divinum opus. The ten panels are scenes from the Old Testament. From upper right: Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel; Noah; Abraham; Jacob and Esau; Joseph; Moses; Joshua; David; Solomon and Sheba.
Ghiberti’s figures are proportioned, and depicted with flowing grace and realism. He is most innovative and influential in his compositions containing multiple narrative sequences. He is able to effectively represent the passage of time and events within the confines of the panel frame, in essence to tell a story in a 31-inch square. His ability to unify the composition and distinguish scenes using landscape, architecture and scale had great impact on future fresco cycles, as well as domestic art.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, East Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence. Panel with Adam and Eve; Cain and Abel.
In the Adam and Eve panel God brings Adam to life on the lower left, in the center is the creation of Eve, and on the right the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the panel to the immediate right is the story of Cain and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve. Cain tills the soil on the lower left while Abel tends his flock above on the mountain. A cluster of trees separates the scene of their sacrifices to God in the upper right, while directly below Cain savagely beats his brother. We end “reading” the scene at the lower right, with Cain suffering his punishment through a life of wandering. Ghiberti deftly conveys the sequences of the story while bringing our eye up and around clockwise. Viewers are ready for the next panel of Noah.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, East Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Panels with scenes of Noah; Abraham; Jacob and Esau; Jospeh.
This “divine work” is equal in importance to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, Masaccio’s frescoes, and Raphael’s work in the Vatican in their artistic originality and technical achievement.
How Did He Do It? Bronze sculpture is no small undertaking. It is a arduous project requiring many artisans, time, and significant amounts of money. Bronze sculpture cost about ten times more than marble sculpture. When Ghiberti won the competition, he had no assistants or shop assembled. His skillful communication, technical expertise, drive for perfection, relationships with other artists and diplomacy – as well as shrewdness – with patrons made him a great project manager, businessman and artist.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, East Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Detail from the panel Moses receiving the tablets.
The Arte di Calimala spared nothing for the doors. 17,000 pounds of bronze was initially purchased from Flanders (present day Belgium) with a subsequent order of 14,000 pounds. Ghiberti’s ten panels are single cast pieces, not figures attached to a flat sheet as in Brunelleschi’s competition panel. Moreover, the huge frames for the doors are single cast. Each door weighs 30 tons.
Ghiberti assembled a who’s who of artisans to work in his shop. Many went on to establish their own successful careers as painters, sculptors or architects, such as Benozzo Gozzoli, Masolino, Donatello, Paolo Uccello, and Michelozzo to name a few. His shop became a humanist learning center with an impressive art collection of antiquities. Ghiberti had social relationships with and patronage from the elite humanists and Florentine intelligentsia.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, East Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Self-portrait. In addition to his accomplishments as a master metalworker, Lorenzo wrote a history of ancient and Italian medieval art. His sons Vittorio and Tommaso worked in his shop. As Lorenzo aged, Vittorio managed the shop and assistants.
Ghiberti used traditional casting techniques by first building a model to produce a mold then pouring molten metal into the mold. The mold consisted of a clay core coated with a layer of wax covered with a layer of clay or plaster. The wax was heated and melted out leaving a space between the core and outer mold for the bronze alloy which was heated to 1800 F when poured into the mold. The result was a rough bronze which required a labor-intensive process called chasing – hammering, carving, and polishing – to achieve the finished sculpture. Then additional texture and details were hammered in using a variety of tools. The final crowning process was gold gilding by a mercury amalgam method which required the bronze to be heated before applying the gold.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, East Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Tourists who admire the doors on the exterior of the Baptistery and snap photos/selfies of the East doors after 1990 are taking pictures of copies. The entire original doors have not been in place since 1966. One must visit the exquisite Museo dell’Opera (Duomo works museum) just behind the Duomo to see the newly restored originals. This photo gives a sense of the size of the doors, which are about 15 feet tall.
Five Hundred Years Later. The doors were installed in 1452 and were subject to human and environmental damage for nearly 500 years. Gold and bronze together are chemically unstable and leave the doors susceptible to damage. Humidity and oxides blister the gold and years of atmospheric pollution left thick incrustations on the doors.
Additional damage resulted from people; hundreds of years of touching the doors and some trying to climb the doors and breaking off pieces. Botched attempts to restore the gilding by applying acid only made matters worse in the long run. And a dark varnish was applied in the 1700s. Why would anyone do such a thing? Because what is valued and popular changes over time. In the eighteenth century shiny surfaces were out of favor and a dark even patina was preferred. Anyone viewing the doors prior to their cleaning found a dark brownish/black relief. It didn’t impress.
Lorenzo Ghiberti, East Doors for the Baptistery, Florence. Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. The newly opened museum has spacious quarters with excellent lighting.
Initial cleaning and restoration of the doors began in 1980 and concluded in 2008 – almost as many years as Ghiberti took to make both sets of doors. With the gilding obscured it was difficult to see the deep undercutting, details and make out the figures completely. Cleaning was done with a special laser developed for metals. The end result is stunning. Because the doors must be protected from air they are now exhibited in a sealed display filled with inert nitrogen which is replaced every six months.
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. The wall of artists who worked on the Cathedral complex are inscribed as you enter the museum.
Ahl, Diane Cole. “Captured by the Sight of Such Wonders: Renaissance Painters and the Gates of Paradise.” The Historian’s Eye: Essays on Italian Art in Honor of Andrew Ladis. Hayden B. J. Maginnis and Shelley E. Zuraw, Eds. Georgia Museum of Art, 2006.
Hatfield, Rab, Barbara Deimling, Jonathan K. Nelson, and Gary M. Radke. Italian Art, Society, and Politics: A Festschrift in Honor of Rab Hatfield Presented by His Students on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday. Syracuse University in Florence, 2007.
Lorenzo Ghiberti nel Suo Tempo: Atti Del Convegno Internazionale Di Studi, Firenze. Vols 1 & 2. Olschki, 1980.
Gary M. Radke, ed. The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece. Yale University Press, 2007.
Verdon, Timothy and Daniel M. Zoll, eds. Sculpture in the Age of Donatello. Museum of Biblical Art, 2015.