The Porta del Paradiso, in Italian, was created by Florentine goldsmith and sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti between 1425 and 1452 and installed in the eastern portal of the Baptistery.
The Gates have been praised by generations of artists and art historians for their compelling portrayal of scenes from the Old Testament.
Over time, the seventeen-foot-tall, three-ton bronze doors became an icon of Renaissance, one of the most famous works of art in the world.
The workmanship of panels demonstrates that the Florentine artists had mastered linear perspective and the classical idiom by the early 15th century.
According to The Lives of the Artist by Giorgio Vasari, the door—once known just as the East Door—was named the Gates of Paradise by Michelangelo Buonarroti because of its striking beauty.
This wonderful door plays an important role in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno.
The Story of the Door
The first two doors of the Florence Baptistry were made by Andrea Pisano in the fourteenth century. These doors consist of twenty-eight quatrefoil panels, with the twenty top panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. The eight lower panels depict the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice, and prudence.
For the third door—the north one—the city of Florence announced in 1401 a famous competition, in which both Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi participated.
Lorenzo Ghiberti won the competition.
The North bronze doors comprise twenty-eight panels, with twenty panels depicting the life of Christ from the New Testament. The eight lower panels show the four evangelists and the Church Fathers Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory, and Saint Augustine.
Once Ghiberti completed the North door, he was given—unusually, with no competition—the task of also creating the East gate, which turned out to be the most beautiful.
The scenes that decorated the door had to depict the Old Testament, but Ghiberti had full freedom of interpretation.
Initially, the scheme was expected to be very similar to the other ports, with twenty-eight panels. The idea of creating something new happened during the course of work.
Ghiberti decided to reduce the number of panels to ten and also increase the size, choosing the new square shape.
Each wing of the Gates of Paradise contains five large rectangular reliefs of scenes from the Old Testament, from Creation to Solomon, between figurated borders containing statuettes in niches and medallions with busts.
The scenes from the Old Testament are as follows: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David, and Solomon and Sheba.
They are known for their vivid illusion of deep space in relief, which resulted from the construction of perspective based on a mathematical theory of the representation of three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional plane.
The doors are not only beautiful, but also a technical marvel.
Many of the sources for the scenes were written in ancient Greek, but knowledge of Greek at that time was not so common. Greek scholar Ambrogio Traversari was probably entrusted with the translation.
Through the Gate of Heaven, some episodes of the Bible were again told to the public for the first time after many centuries.
Construction lasted twenty-seven years. Only in 1452 did Ghiberti, now seventy years old, install the last bronze panels.
Over the years, a bevy of assistants and pupils helped Ghiberti, including some already well-known artists, such as Luca della Robbia, Donatello, Michelozzo, Benozzo Gozzoli, Bernardo Cennini, and Ghiberti’s sons, Vittore and Tommaso.
The door remained in place for centuries, well preserved, thanks to Ghiberti’s high quality of work.
The door was dismantled in 1943 because of the bombings of World War II and hidden in a gallery and went back to the Baptistry in 1948.
After the 1966 flood some panels were taken to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to be repaired.
In 1990 the entire door was dismantled for total restoration and replaced with a copy.
Building the Gates of Paradise
During the Renaissance, bronze was far more costly than marble and posed significant technical difficulties in an age before industrial casting.
Ghiberti created the Gates of Paradise using a technique known as lost-wax casting.
After making drawings and sketch models in clay or wax, he prepared full-scale, detailed wax representations of every component of the reliefs. (Some scientists and scholars believe that he modeled his reliefs directly in wax; others propose that he designed an initial model in another material and then made an indirect wax cast.)
When Ghiberti and his assistants finished a model, they added wax rods in branching patterns to its back. The entire relief was then covered in a fire-resistant material like clay and heated until the wax melted out, leaving a hollow mold. The spaces that had been occupied by the rods served as sprues (channels) through which bronze reached the surface of the relief. The sprues were cut away from the reliefs after casting, but their remains are still visible on the back of each panel.
Ghiberti’s work was only half finished when he took the bronzes out of their molds. He still needed to complete the work of engraving (that is, hammering, carving, incising, and polishing the reliefs). Utilizing his training as a goldsmith, he directed his numerous assistants in cleaning and enhancing details on the surface of the metal.
Ghiberti used a bronze alloy that was very receptive to gilding. He mixed gold dust with mercury and painted the mixture across the front surface of each relief. Some of his brushstrokes are still visible, but, for the most part, he succeeded in creating a smooth, luminous surface that suggests air and atmosphere.
To make the gold adhere to the bronze, Ghiberti heated each relief to burn off the mercury, leaving only the gold in place.
This was a dangerous process that is no longer followed.
Gates of Paradise Panels and Frames
Gates of Paradise panels are framed by two long strips on the sides depicting biblical characters and prophets. In the decoration are also included twenty-four protruding heads, dedicated to prophets and sibyls.
Ghiberti represented himself in one of the heads as his self-portrait. Try to look for it!
In the jambs and architrave are garlands of plants and animals in gilded bronze.
Each square panel brings together more biblical stories represented simultaneously.
The spatial vision is unitary, with many architectural details built with virtuosity in perspective. Famous is the representation of the round building in the scene of Joseph.
Ghiberti updated his style according to Renaissance innovations of those years. His style was especially influenced by Donatello.
The general theme is that of salvation based on Latin and Greek patristic tradition.
After the first three panels, focusing on the theme of sin, Ghiberti began to highlight more clearly the role of God’s saving and the foreshadowing of Christ’s coming.
Later panels are easier to understand. One example is the Isaac panel, where the figures are merged with the surrounding landscape so that the eye is led toward the main scene represented in the top right.
The complex meanings are transposed into a simple, yet cultured style, with characters that move with ease in the background and a great number of quotations are present, ranging from classical to Gothic.
In the foreground are figures in high relief, which gradually become less protruding exploiting the full illusionistic potential of the stiacciato technique.
The prospective technique blends the episodes, but it is never applied rigorously and focuses on the narrative clarity.
A late Gothic style is present, however, both in the attention to minute detail and in the definition of the figures with wavy and elegant lines, as well as in the variety of plants and animals depicted.
The language is captivating, soft, and updated to be in line with modern expression bot not according to a revolutionary canon.
This mediation between tradition and modern guaranteed Ghiberti a wide and immediate fortune.
Since its installation in 1452, the doors have withstood a variety of catastrophes: a torrential flood, vandalism, overzealous polishing, and caustic air pollution.
When the doors were for the first time removed for restoration from the facade of the 11th-century octagonal Baptistery in 1990, they looked dull and grimy.
But the worst damage was occurring almost invisibly.
Diagnostic studies revealed that fluctuations in humidity were causing unstable oxides on the bronze beneath the gilding to dissolve and recrystallize, creating minute craters and blisters on the gold surface.
Significant conservation work began with six relief panels forced off the doors when the Arno River flooded Florence on November 4, 1966. These panels were dipped into a solution of Rochelle salts and distilled water, which dissolved all the surface incrustations.
Conservation was subsequently extended to the remaining reliefs, although it took five years to ease them out of their ornamental framework.
The whole frame was eventually removed from the Baptistery in 1990, when a modern copy of the Gates of Paradise was installed.
Since then, laser technology has allowed scientists and conservators to develop a revolutionary new cleaning technique for the remaining panels. The conservators adapted laser techniques that they had used successfully to clean stone statues. The drawback of lasers is their tendency to heat surfaces, which would harm the gilding. But scientists in Florence developed one that could beam a more intense ray for a shorter time, and in 2000, the conservators began using it on the doors’ gilded sculptures. For ungilded portions, they employed an array of tools that resemble a dentist’s arsenal: a small scalpel for thick encrustations, a drill for precise excisions, and a little rotating brush for polishing
On september 8, 2012, after 26 years, the restored doors were displayed in the city’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
Finally, all the sculptures were reattached to the door frames and encased in a plate-glass box, into which inert nitrogen were pumped to prevent future oxidation.
All works of conservation were possible thanks to the work of the public institute of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure of Florence.
This post was originally published in July 3, 2013, and has been updated and enriched on January 15, 2017.