â€œI made this work with the greatest diligence and the greatest love.â€ â€“ Lorenzo Ghiberti (1381-1455)
Three panels of Lorenzo Ghibertiâ€™s Renaissance masterpiece The Gates of Paradise, recently displayed at The Art Institute of Chicago, were the originals that people had not seen in centuries. Ghiberti created 10 panels for the eastern door of the Baptistery in Florence between 1425 and 1452. Over the centuries dirt and grime accumulated on the doors and people could not even see the gold on their surfaces. Restoration work started in the 1940s and will be completed in 2008.
It is said that the great Florentine artist Michelangelo stated that the doors were so beautiful that they could have been â€œthe gates of Paradise,â€ and they have been known by this name ever since. The 10 panels, made of bronze and gilded, depict scenes from The Old Testament in detailed narrative scenes with sculpted figures in low and high relief.Â Biblical stories in chronological order (with 5 on each wing) include Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Essau, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon and Sheba. The three panels at The Art Institute are Adam and Eve, David, and Jacob and Essau.
What was so exciting and unique about The Gates of Paradise at the time of its creation? The period was the early Renaissance (rebirth of classical antiquity), which was characterized by the appearance of true classical work of Rome. Instead of flat, two-dimensional figures and backgrounds that previously existed, there was an imitation of old Roman sculpture, use of low and high relief in the same scene to show depth, use of perspective to create realistic space on a flat surface, and placement in space with foreground, middle ground, and background. The new style included several scenes compressed in one panel in trying to make the story understandable to the public and shifts in the scale of the figures to reinforce certain episodes in the stories. With The Gates of Paradise, art became accessible in a real visual sense and allowed individuals to actually put themselves into an extension of a world that existed in front of them. The scenes were chosen carefully to represent redemption on each panel, and they were admired and celebrated for hundreds of years.
In the Adam and Eve panel, groups of angels in various sizes oversee four scenes. At the very top of the panel, we see God and the angels flying over the earth. In the foreground on the left, they hover over God who is giving Adam life. All of the figures here are nearly sculpted in the round. In the middle, the angels surround God and Eve as she is given life and Adam stretches on the ground below her. In the left background, we see Adam and Eve with the snake, all in low relief, with high-relief trees overhead, as though hiding a secret activity. On the far right, we see an angel halfway through a doorway overhead, above the banished Adam and Eve in high relief. All at once, in dynamic narrative form, we see the story of Adam and Eve, their creation and their downfall and banishment unfold before our eyes, in beautifully detailed dramatic forms.
Even more dramatic is the David and Goliath panel. In the foreground, we see the young David leaning onto his sword on the neck of the twisted body of Goliath who lies face down on the ground. Soldiers on the left in high relief observe this activity. In the middle ground, we see the Israelite army with their horses routing their enemy the Philistines. In the background, there are two high mountains and between the mountains, we see David carrying the head of Goliath on his way to Jerusalem, illustrated in low relief as buildings in the background.
In addition to the panels, the show included Tuscan paintings and sculpture in the lifetime of Lorenzo Ghiberti, and displays and a video on Ghibertiâ€™s casting technique and the restoration process.
The Gates of Paradise show started at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in April, stopped off in Chicago in July through October, and will be at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York at the end of October.
Amy A. Rudberg is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher. She recently created ArtStyle Blog, A Voice for Artists in ChicagoÂ (http://www.chicagoarts-lifestyle.com/).
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