Masterpieces of the Renaissance: ‘The Gates of Paradise’

The doors are undeniably perfect

~ Giorgio Vasari, Renaissance painter, architect, writer, and historian

In 1452, Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378 – 1455) unveiled a masterpiece that had been a quarter-century in the making: ten bronze panels depicting intricate scenes from the Old Testament. The two monumental gilded bronze doors (each more than 15 feet tall) were designed for the Baptistery in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence. Centuries of admirers have come to regard Ghiberti’s “The Gates of Paradise” or “Golden Doors” as one of the great masterpieces of Western art.

One of the two doors that Ghiberti constructed (the north door) depicts scenes from the time of Christ, while the other door (the east door) shows scenes from the Old Testament, from Genesis to the Book of Kings. A third door (the south door) was constructed 120 years before by Andrea Pisano. This door records scenes of John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament prophets. In the three doors of the Baptistery, viewers are presented with a perfectly coherent story of the Bible.

Pictured below are scenes from of the magnificent south door, showing the following Old Testament stories:

Adam and Eve.
The Murder of Abel and God Banishing Cain.
The Sacrifice of Issac (an image of the sacrifice of the Christ),
Noah and the Great Flood.
Jacob and Esau.
Joseph, betrayed and sold by his brothers, whom later he forgave (another figure of Christ’s sacrifice). Moses receiving the Tablets of the Law.
Joshua and the Collapse of the Walls of Jericho and
David Slaying Goliath, both prototypes of salvation through divine intervention.

The final panel shows the Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, often read as a figure of the symbolic marriage of Christ and his Church.

Adam and Eve
The Murder of Abel and God Banishing Cain
The Sacrifice of Issac
Noah and the Great Flood
Jacob and Esau
Joseph Betrayed and Sold by His Brothers
Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law
Joshua and the Collapse of the Walls of Jericho
David Slaying Goliath
Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba

Probably no one understood the historical importance of the “Golden Doors” better than Giorgio Vasari [1] who more than a hundred years later commented on the outstanding artistic achievement of Ghilberti’s work. Vasari passed his magisterial judgment with these words:

Every single detail of Lorenzo’s doors demonstrates what the skill and genius of an accomplished sculptor can effect when he is casting figures in the round, in half relief, low relief or very low relief. In the imaginative composition, the striking poses of his male and female figures, in the variety of the architectural perspectives, and the consistently graceful bearing of both sexes, Lorenzo demonstrated his perfect grasp of decorum, expressing gravity in the old and lightness and grace in the young. The doors are undeniably perfect in every way and must rank as the finest masterpieces ever created either in ancient or modern times.[2]


[1] According to Vasari it was Michelangelo that named these doors, since he saw both golden doors and said: “these are so beautiful that they should be the Gates of Paradise”.

[2] In 1966, the Gates of Paradise were damaged by a flood: the impact of the water was extremely violent that it caused the doors to open and caused 6 bronze panels (two from the top, two central, and two from the bottom)to fall off. In 1990 during the last restoration, the Gates of Paradise were replaced with a copy that is what you see today in the Baptistery.  

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