It was not until two years after Ghiberti had won the contest that the contract was signed on 23 November 1403 by Lorenzo Ghiberti and his stepfather Bartolo di Michele. According to the contract, each year three panels had to be delivered for a payment of two hundred florins. On Easter of 1424, the door on the east side opposite the cathedral was placed. The doors of Andrea Pisano moved to the southern side. In 1452, the first doors of Ghiberti were moved to the northern side: they had to make room for the most splendid of the three doors, the so-called ‘Paradise door’, another design by Ghiberti. The total costs for the second doors were an astounding 22000 florins. For more images of the first door (north side) of Ghiberti, see Wikipedia)

Baptistery North side
Baptistery North side Florence

Ghiberti took fourteen years longer than Pisano to complete his doors. Doors with the same dimensions and the exact number of panels, both with the gothic quatrefoil. This shows that Ghiberti was working more slowly, but very precisely. For instance, the contract from 1403 listed that Calimala expected Lorenzo to ‘carve the figures, trees and other reliefs with his own hands.’19

While the commission for the contest involved a theme from the Old Testament, the Sacrifice of Isaac, it was later decided to instead opt for the story of Jesus. Twenty panels are devoted to New Testament scenes and eight to the evangelists and the church fathers. Lorenzo Ghiberti chose for a different design than Pisano. The reading direction was not from top to bottom as with the first doors, but from bottom to the top. The story begins at eye level (click here for an overview of the panels with the scenes) and it continues from the left to the other door leaf on the right. The sequence of the first door, a work by Andrea Pisano, looks akin to reading a book, with each door leaf being a page. For many images of the door of Pisano, see Wikipedia.

The story of Christ emphasises epiphanies (revelations). It reveals the true nature of Christ for the believer. Scenes like: ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, ‘Christ between the scholars’, Entry into Jerusalem’ and finally ‘the Glorification’. Six panels show the way of sorrow. In the Resurrection and Pentecost, it becomes clear that Christ not only triumphs, but also lives on in the church.

By 1407, only four panels have been completed, a farcry from the three a year set out in the contract. And so a new contract was drawn up. The majority of the reliefs were made between 1407 and 1415. Only afterwards was the frame of the door leaves cast and everything received a polish and gilt layer.

Lorenzo Ghiberti replica original
Big format first door Baptistery Ghiberti north side
Lorenzo Ghiberti first bronze door Baptisteryi north side

For twenty years, the doors were worked on inside Lorenzo’s gallery. Artists like Paolo Uccello, Michelozzo, but also a young Donatello have worked in Ghiberti’s workshop.20

Despite the long period and the many workers, we can still make out a uniform style. Seemingly, Lorenzo was in firm control of his workshop. That is not to say that Ghiberti’s work did not evolve. Generally, as the work progressed, the compositions became larger and the movement became more complex.

Essentially, the second door does not deviate much from the work of Andrea Pisano and has clear hallmarks of medieval style. One difference is that Ghiberti is strongly influenced by the then international court style from Paris, later often called the international (gothic) style. This shows at the elegantly bent figures like in the quatrefoil in which Mary receives the blessed message from the angel that she is carrying a child. The decorative way in which the folds of Mary’s and the angel’s cloaks are portrayed is not very realistic, but is definitely graceful.

‘The Adoration of the Magi’ scene is one of the first reliefs and was in any case made before 1410.21 This panel, too, shows folds in the drapes that are typical for the international style. Typical for late Gothicism, which you can also see with Pisano, is how a group of figures is being represented: people are placed vertically and increasingly higher in the picture plane. The front two figures look left to the old king kneeling for the child Christ. This quickly draws attention to the king. The lines of vision of Joseph on the background and Mary with her child amplify the effect.

Lorenzo Ghiberti first door Baptistery Adoration of the Magi
Big format
Lorenzo Ghiberti' Adoration of the Magi' Baptistery

The architecture in which Ghiberti places his figures is more complex and convincing than his predecessor Andrea Pisano. For instance, the space in which Mary is sitting is placed at a 45 degree angle. Andrea sometimes placed his architecture slightly curved relative to the picture plane, but did not at all create as much depth as Ghiberti. The Beheading of John the Baptist, for example, is not placed very convincingly in the architecture by Pisano, something Ghiberti does a lot better with his Mary depiction. This panel of Ghiberti also shows Joseph being behind the column, with his left hand holding the front of the pillar. While Pisano and Ghiberti may both be children of Gothicism, it is clear that in terms of realism Ghiberti is far ahead of his predecessor Andrea. Ghiberti did omit one column on the front. While this makes less sense in an architectonic way, but it does benefit the view of Mary and a beautiful composition.

Andrea Pisano ‘Beheading of John te Baptist’
Lorenzo Ghiberti 'Beheading of John the Baptist' bronze door Baptistery

In ‘the arrest of Jesus’, we see a noticeable improvement in the realistic portrayal of a group of people. There is no vertical stacking of figures like Ghiberti did for his ‘Adoration of the Magi’, but instead we see a realistic setting with all figures having their feet at equal levels. In addition, the three rows of people behind each other are more convincing because their faces are at equal heights. This is reminiscent of the Renaissance and particularly the Tribute Money by Masaccio.

Lorenzo Ghiberti ‘Arrest of Christ’
Lorenzo Ghiberti 'The arrest of Christ' Baptistery first door Ghiberti

There is another famous drawing by Ghiberti where he studies the man whipping Christ for one of his panels.

Ghiberti ‘The flagellation of Christ’       Drawing  Ghiberti  
Panel after the restoration in the museum Opera dell’Duomo
Lorenzo Ghiberti 'The flagellation of Christ' bronze doors Baptistery

Ghiberti signed his work above the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi with:  OPVS LAURENTII FLORENTINI or  ‘A work by Lorenzo the Florentine.’ In addition, the artist depicted himself with a turban in between the two aforementioned scenes. He was one of 48 heads of prophets.

Aside from floral decorations, the back of the door received a lion’s head on each panel.

In 1452, the work of Ghiberti moved to the north side of the Baptistry. It was to make room for doors by the same artist ‘for its beauty’, but in a novel style: the Renaissance.22

Ghiberti ‘Gates of Paradise’ in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo
Ghiberti 'Gates of Paradise' in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo

photo: Piękno Sztuki

After the ‘Gates of Paradise’ (second door of Ghiberti) was restored (as can be seen in Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo), the first door of Ghiberti is also being restored since 2013. The restoration revealed remarkable differences, particularly with regards to the gilt figures that are now easily identifiable, like at the panel: ‘the Temptation of Christ’ It is expected that all 28 panels will be completed in the fall of 2015. The first door, like the second of Ghiberti, will be located in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.

Northern door Baptistry first door of Ghiberti:

1. Video of the restauration (18.33 minutes)
2. Video:  Making the replica (12.57 minutes)

Ghiberti ‘The Temptation of Christ’ before the restoration
Ghiberti 'the Temptation of Christ' Baptistery


Ghiberti Baptistery ‘The temptation of Christ’ after restoration
Lorenzo Ghiberti Baptistery 'The temptation of Christ' after restoration


The third set of doors: the Gates of Paradise (east side)

On January 2, 1425, Ghiberti is commissioned to craft the third set of doors for the Baptistry. In his ‘I Commentarii’, the artist writes:

‘I was given the liberty to craft the door in such a way that in my judgment would produce the most perfect result and the most ornate and richest door.’23   Lorenzo continues explaining that:  ‘The stories, with a lot of figures, came from the Old Testament. Having looked at each part, I did my utmost to portray nature at its most realistic, with all perspectives I could muster to achieve excellent compositions holding a wealth of figures. In some scenes, I placed hundreds of figures, and in others I placed less, and in others I placed more. I carried out the work with the greatest love and passion. There were ten scenes all [recessed] in frames, because the eye measures and interprets the scenes at a distance as if they were actually round. The scenes are in the lowest relief and the figures in the flat planes are seen lying down, those who are close appear large, those who are far away appear small, like in reality. I have performed the entire work according to these principles.’

Lorenzo Ghiberti in his ‘I Commentarii’.24

For more images of the panels and frames, see Wikipedia.

 Ghiberti door eastern  side Baptistery
Baptistery eastern side Florence

Ghiberti bases his description on a number of interesting criteria, revealing that he has discarded the old style of his first door, Gothicism. ‘Portray nature at its most realistic’, ‘excellent compositions holding a wealth of figures’ and finally the use of perspective ‘just like in reality, are hallmarks of the new style: Renaissance. The ‘imitatore della nature’ is ‘imitatione del vero’ (imitation of the true) becomes the highest ideal for any Renaissance artist and is also the main criterion by which art is assessed. There is one remark: mother nature had to be portrayed in its most perfect form. Later we will see that for his first life-sized bronze statue, John the Baptist, for the Or San Michele, Ghiberti still worked according to the international style as with his first door. His second statue, Matthew, also for the Orsan Michele, is in every way a Renaissance work. Ghiberti Gates of Paradise (east side).

Video Khan Academy: Gates of Paradise  (8.31 minutes)

This time it did not have the typical twenty-eight panels with the gothic quatrefoil, but only ten and placed in a rectangular frame. A man called Leonardo Bruni, writing in a letter dated June 1424, recommended to have 28 reliefs like in the other doors, but Ghiberti opted for ten rectangular panels.25  With such a limited amount, there was no choice but to depict multiple scenes in one panel. The back of the door leaves still reveal the original intent of having 28 panels and that the final decision was not taken until later on.

Lorenzo Ghiberti ‘Gates of Paradise Baptistery’ (replica) big  format
Lorenzo Ghiberti Gates of Paradise Baptistery (replica)

The story of the doors is organised traditionally. It begins at the top left and flows across both door leaves to then end up at the lower right. The first reliefs are about Genesis and the following two about Exodus. The final two are about the live of David and Salomon. Click here for an overview of the reliefs and here for Wikipedia. The general theme of the Gates of Paradise as Michelangelo dubbed these doors, is about the promise of salvation and the prefiguration of Christ’s crucifixion. The salvation is announced, among others, in the reliefs with Noah’s Ark or the Blessing of Jacob. The top side shows two figures lying down, Adam and Eve. The bottom shows Noah and his wife Puarphera. The frames next to the panels show twenty sculptures of prophets in the recesses. In addition, there are twenty-four heads including of Lorenzo himself and his son Vittore.

Lorenzo (left) and Vittore Ghiberti (right) replica
Lorenzo (left)     Vittore Ghiberti (right) originals
Lorenzo (left) and Vittore Ghiberti (right) replica Baptistery


The Creation

Eva detail of the Creation
at the forefront and in the central plane
Ghiberti Baptistry Gates of Paradise 'The creation Eve' detail
Ghiberti ‘Creation of  Adam and expulsion of Paradise’  replica large size
Ghiberti 'Creation of  Adam and expulsion of Paradise'  detail replica

The creation was likely made first. Three scenes from Genesis are depicted at the front, namely the creation of Adam, Eve and Adam and Expulsion from Paradise. At the background, in a low relief, the temptation of Eve and the fall of Adam and Eve is shown. At the centre, at the background, God comes flying in with his angels. The various episodes of the story are forged into one by working with high and shallow relief.

 Before and after the restoration
Ghiberti zelfportret Baptisterium Paradijs poort

The figures on the forefront are made in high relief and appear nearly three-dimensional. The background scenes are akin to a drawing cast in bronze, otherwise known as shallow relief, the so-called rilievo schiacciato like we will encounter with Donatello. Atmospheric effects were achieved by not using the same amount of gold-plating everywhere. Donatello would later refine this by only gold-plating the parts he wished to emphasise.

Adam   God
Ghiberti Baptistery Creation of Adam detail   Ghiberti Baptistery God Creation of Adam detail

The relief of the story of Esau and Jacob was clearly made at a later date. In this work, too, Ghiberti sticks to what he wrote in his ‘I Commentarii’, which we mentioned above. ‘those are close appear large, those who are far away appear small, just like in reality’.  He achieves this not only by using large and small figures in the background (far away), but also by contrasting high and shallow relief. For example, the group of women at the lower left of the picture plane are largely detached from the background, it appears almost three-dimensional: high relief. Rebecca, lying in her childbed, on the other hand, is cast in shallow relief. Jacob’s wife appears three times more in the same panel: praying on the roof, to the right where she sends her son hunting and the far-right at the bottom of the picture plane she watches how her son, Jacob, receives Isaac’s blessing.

Story of Esau and Jacob replica before the restoration original     Large size
Lorenzo Ghiberti 'Story of Esau and Jacob' replica Gates of Paradise Baptistery

The figures are very convincingly placed inside an architectonic setting that feels classical or ‘modern’. Ghiberti did something similar in his first set of doors, but here it is much more realistic than in his ‘Adoration of the Magi‘.

 Three episodes from the story of Esau and Jacob
Ghiberti Paradijspoort verhaal van Esau en Jacob voorgrond detail   Ghiberti Paradijspoort verhaal van Esau en Jacob middenplan detail
Ghiberti ‘Story of  Esau and Jacob’ detail replica
Ghiberti 'Story of  Esau and Jacob' detail replica Baptistery

The ten panels were made between 1435 and 1445. The work was so encompassing that quite a few assistants were involved, including Michelozzo, Gozzoli, Luca della Robbia, Donatello and two of Ghiberti’s sons: Tommaso and Vittore. Vittore presumably played an increasingly important role. There is a reason why he was depicted alongside his father on the doors.26  

Final work on the frame occurred between 1449 and 1452. Lorenzo Ghiberti was seventy years old by then. Vittore, who co-signed the document about these works, likely played a larger role in the final phase of the work.27 The frames around the three doors were made by Ghiberti and his son Vittore. The frame has all sorts of floral motives shaped like trophies, like flowers, fruit, poppies and in between them small animals like birds and squirrels. According to the author Krautheimer, this allegedly symbolises the rich gift of the Lord to humanity, ‘which is constantly preyed on and consumed by Evil, in casu the small animals seeking refuge in the trophies of flowers and fruit’28

Arrangements original doors in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo and the entire wall
Arrangements original three doors Baptistery in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo

Next page