Daily Dose of Europe: Ghiberti’s Bronze Doors

Some say that the cultural explosion called “the Renaissance” began precisely in the year 1401, with two bronze panels. They look simple, but they were the catalyst of an artistic revolution.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

Florence held a city-wide competition to find the best artist to create a set of bronze doors for the beloved Baptistery. That octagonal building in front of Florence’s main church was dear to the hearts of Florentines. It was the city’s oldest structure, nearly 1,000 years old, where venerable citizens from Dante to Machiavelli to the Medici were baptized.

All the great Florentine artists entered the contest. There was the promising young sculptor Donatello, the goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti, and the all-around Renaissance man, Filippo Brunelleschi. They were asked to submit their take on the Bible story of the Sacrifice of Isaac. This was the crucial moment when Abraham, obeying God’s orders, was about to kill his only son as a sacrifice.
The two finalists were Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. It was a tough call. Before reading on, look at each entry panel as if a critic. Decide which one you’d favor.

Brunelleschi (right), put the boy Isaac at center stage, creating a balanced composition. Ghiberti (left) focused on Abraham. Abraham’s face is intense. He pulls the knife back, ready to strike. But just then, the angel swoops in — coming straight out of the panel, right at you, like a 3-D movie — to save the boy in the nick of time. Now that’s drama.

The winner was — drum roll, please — Ghiberti.

That simple contest started a historic chain of events. Ghiberti made the Baptistery doors, which proved so successful that he was asked to make another set for another entrance. These were the famous Gates of Paradise that revolutionized the way Renaissance people saw the world around them.
Ghiberti added a whole new dimension to art — depth. In his Jacob and Esau panel, Ghiberti set the scene under a series of arches. The arches appear to recede into the distance, as do the floor tiles and banisters, creating a 3-D background for a realistic scene. The figures in the foreground stand and move like real people, telling the Bible story with human details. Ghiberti made the viewer part of this casual crowd of holy people. Amazingly, his spacious, three-dimensional scene is made from bronze only a few inches deep.

Ghiberti’s work in perspective would inspire the next generation of painters, who learned to create three-dimensional scenes on a two-dimensional surface.

Meanwhile, Brunelleschi — after losing the Baptistery gig — went to Rome. He studied the Pantheon, and returned to build the awe-inspiring dome crowning the cathedral (or Duomo) of Florence. And Donatello went to work for Ghiberti, learning the skills that would soon revolutionize sculpture. All three of these artists inspired Michelangelo, who built on their work and spread the Florentine Renaissance all across Europe.

And it all began with two bronze panels.

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find clips related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Ghiberti.