Genesis 15:1 The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
The Story of Abraham, detail of the “Gates of Paradise,” 1425-52, Gilt Bronze, Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1378-1455
In 1401, the wool merchant’s guild of Florence announced a competition that would lead to a commission for a set of bronze doors for the Baptistery of San Giovanni (Saint John). Lorenzo Ghiberti won the competition and was given the commission. Upon completion, he was given a commission to design a second set of doors for the Baptistery. The doors and a few other pieces of sculpture would become his life’s work. “The Story of Abraham” is one of ten panels from the second set of doors which now is referred to as the “Gates of Paradise.” According to Giorgio Vasari, Michelangelo was looking at the doors when a companion asked his opinion. Michelangelo said allegedly the doors were so beautiful they were worthy to serve as the gates of paradise.
Ghiberti’s training as a goldsmith and metalworker was invaluable as he solved the technical problems of casting the bronze doors. Other sculptors were eager to learn from him. Also, he read widely, was a humanist, and was open to the changes during a time of cultural and artistic rebirth. Just as early Renaissance painters sought to create an illusion of depth, Ghiberti studied perspective and applied it to his relief sculpture. Rather than his reliefs being figures attached to a flat background, he sculpted the entire surface to create an illusion of pictorial depth. With regard to the “Gates of Paradise” he said “I sought to imitate nature as closely as possible.”
In the panel called “The Story of Abraham,” Ghiberti combined two accounts from the Book of Genesis. At the lower left is the story found in Genesis 18:2-10; a time when three men (Ghiberti interpreted them as heavenly beings with wings) came to Abraham. Sarah is at the doorway of their tent while Abraham is kneeling before the men with a pan of water with which they may wash their feet. The men tell him his wife, Sarah, will have a son. Ghiberti’s narrative composition continues with images from Genesis 22:3-13; the sacrifice of Isaac. At the lower center is a donkey and to its right are Abraham’s two servants who wait while he and Isaac go to a higher level of the mountain. Above them, Isaac is kneeling on an altar and Abraham has raised his knife. An angel has arrived just in time to hold back the knife and stop him from killing his son. Behind the feet of Abraham is a ram caught in a thicket; it will be sacrificed in place of Isaac.
Because the rite of baptism was regarded to be a door to heaven, a baptistery was symbolically a “gateway to paradise.” Michelangelo’s alleged description of Ghiberti’s doors, if true, could have meant simply that the doors were worthy of the Baptistery of San Giovanni, not paradise itself.
Early scholars were interested in the many parallels found in the story of Abraham and the passion of Christ. Both stories deal with father, son, and sacrifice.
Hovak Najarian © 2013