25 September 2011

ArtSmart Roundtable: The Florence Baptistery—Through the ‘Gates Of Paradise’

The eastern facade of Saint John's Baptistery in Florence showing Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise." All photography unless noted is the property of EuroTravelogue™.  Please do not use without permission. 

Welcome to ArtSmart Roundtable—a new monthly series that I am participating in with a group of travel bloggers who are passionate about exploring fascinating destinations and discovering the art therein. Combining art and travel is our mission as we set to chronicle our adventures and discoveries to share with you. On the last Monday of each month, we publish a new topic and discuss its significance to art and location. This month’s topic is Religious Architecture, hence my choice of the Florence Baptistery for its multidimensional symbolism of this world and the next.

Located just steps away from the Duomo is one of Florence's greatest treasures often overlooked by all who visit. Renowned for its “Gates of Paradise” that grace the eastern doorway, the Baptistery of Saint John or il Battistero di San Giovanni is perhaps the oldest building standing in Florence today. If that’s not reason enough to visit, perhaps its religious resplendence will convince you. From its lavishly decorated ceiling of golden mosaics to its three celebrated doors gracing the exterior to its eight-sided design, the Florence Baptistery’s religious significance transcends its temporal beauty and is truly a spiritual journey for the mind and soul.

We’ll begin with an exploration of the doors, starting with Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” that adorn the eastern façade facing the front of the Duomo. Unfortunately, most come to admire their effulgent beauty and then move on without understanding that their very name, Gates of Paradise, connotes so much more than the 10 panels before them; but we’ll get into that later.

Close-up shot of Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise." Crowds cover the bottom two panels.

Completed in 1452, the panels are the result of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s triumph over Brunelleschi in a contest for the commission. The panels depict scenes from the Old Testament and each is a tribute to Ghiberti’s mastery of relief. He introduced the technique where successive scenes appear simultaneously within the same panel with applied perspective, which at the time, was a relatively new concept introduced by none other than Brunelleschi. Look closely in the "Jacob and Esau" panel, you’ll find Ghiberti sculpted his self-portrait—a balding man at age 60, and signed it as well.

Historians believe it was Michelangelo who coined the phrase “Gates of Paradise” because of their magnificent glory and although quite stunning to behold in person, these panels are remarkable replicas because of the damage suffered by the original set due to the effects of erosion, vandalism and floods. Don’t despair because you can still see the originals inside the Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore museum, just east of the Duomo.

Moving to the south side or the Baptistery’s main entrance, we find the second set completed by Andrea Pisano in 1329 and consisting of 28 quatrefoil panels. Twenty of them depict the life of Saint John the Baptist and the remaining eight dedicated to the eight virtues of hope, faith, charity, humility, fortitude, temperance, justice and prudence.

Florence Baptistery panel 'Sacrifice of Isaac' was submitted by Ghiberti during the contest for the commission to decorate the doors. This particular panel is now in the Bargello Museum in Florence. THIS PHOTO ONLY: WIKIMEDIA - Richard Fabi.

On the northern side, Ghiberti is seen again on the third set but this time, he was only 21 years old when he won the commission against the likes of Brunelleschi, Donatello and others. Ironically, it took him 21 years to complete the 28 panels and in 1401 made their debut. Twenty depict scenes of the New Testament while the lower eight show four evangelists and the Fathers of the Church: Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Gregory and Saint Augustine.

As for the Florence Baptistery’s location, the site is steeped in a fascinating history dating back to the 1st century when it was believed that a pagan temple to Mars, the god of war, stood upon this ground and that Constantine is responsible for its conversion to a Christian building in the 4th century. However, the eight-sided edifice we see today probably dates back to 897 with the exterior embellishments added between 1059, when the building was consecrated, and 1128. Its exterior, albeit quite weathered, boasts a Romanesque design that eventually went on to influence the design of Romanesque churches throughout Tuscany. Look closely at the granite pilasters which are believed to be from a Roman Forum in Florence that once stood in the area known today as the Piazza della Repubblica. Long gone is the Roman cemetery that surrounded the building and filled with sarcophagi used by the prominent Florentine families.

Dazzling mosaic-covered ceiling bathes the Florence Baptistery in a brilliant golden light. THIS PHOTO ONLY: WIKIMEDIA - Trou. 

Venture inside through the Baptistery’s southern doors, and you’ll enter a rather barren hall however, look to the heavens and you’ll see a dazzling golden brilliance cast from the mosaic-covered ceiling. Completed by Venetians during the Byzantine era in the early 13th century, the mosaics owe their golden luster to the gold leaf painted on the backside. The focal point is Christ in the “Last Judgment” flanked by His Angels of Judgment. Souls of the saved appear at Christ's right hand and those of the damned, at His left. Other sections depict the Choirs of Angels (Thrones, Dominations and Powers), stories of Genesis, stories of Joseph, stories of St. John the Baptist and finally, stories of Mary and Christ. For an amazing virtual tour of the Florence Baptistery interior, check out ItalyGuides.it

Interior of the Florence Baptistery.  THIS PHOTO ONLY: WIKIMEDIA - Graham Colm. 

The most profound discovery on my first visit to the Florence Baptistery was the revelation I had in that the Gates of Paradise were not only the title of Ghiberti’s renowned panels, but a metaphor for the Baptistery itself—a place where we embark on a spiritual existence from the moment we are baptized until the moment of eternal life everlasting. Usually constructed as eight-sided buildings, baptisteries, as we know, are a place to be christened but did you know that its eight sides represent the "eight days of man"? The first seven days as told in Genesis in the Bible are those days in which God created heaven and earth. However, it is on the eighth day when Christians are baptized and enter into paradise or eternity with God, and that all pass through these Gates of Paradise to the promise of eternal glory, love and light everlasting. How very fitting that we find Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise adorning the Gates of Paradise.

I hope you too decide to visit the Florence Baptistery on your next visit for far too often, it’s overlooked in the frenetic pace of most tourists’ itineraries. Whether you’re religious or not, you’ll be moved in some way when you behold their magnificence!

Ciao from the Florence Baptistery.

September ArtSmart Roundtable Features:

14 comments:

  1. I knew you wouldn't let me down not writing an article this weekend. This article makes you think about religion even if your not religious, you really know how to but into words. Your articles are so enlightening and make a person feel good after reading them. You really know how to put the words into your article that holds your attention to the end and look for more to come. TERRIFIC WRITER AND YOU PICK THE BEAUTIFUL PICTURES FOR ALL YOUR ARTICLES. GREAT JOB. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK.
    When I clicked on Charlemagne's Palatine chapel
    it said not found and page doesn't exist or has been moved. Thought you would like to know.

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  2. Hi again Anonymous and thank you for your kind words and praise...Oh my God, you really touched me deeply and for that, I am truly grateful!!

    As far as the link, I really shouldn't have published this until tomorrow morning when I will have all the other links embedded and working properly. My site doesn't allow me to access the URL before I published so I had to publish and send my link to my colleagues below whose articles will appear by tomorrow NOON ET. So please come back and check out one more time for some more enlightenment!!

    Thank you again for being so kind to me. I'll never forget it! Now, only if you would leave your name ;)

    Thx again.

    Jeff

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  3. Awesome post! I liked how you took the symbolism of the doors and carried it through to the interior. I got a chance to see copies of the doors at the High Museum in Atlanta a few years ago, but hopefully I'll visit Florence to see the real deal.

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  4. Thank you so much Erin...this little journey really moved me when I discovered the significance of the "Gates of Paradise." I saw that you tweeted my article and I thank you!! Unfortunately, my account has been suspended for God knows how long so I couldn't thank you for the RT. But Thank you!

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  5. Very thorough well written post. When traveling, I'm often guilty when I see something like this of glossing over it and not looking into the deeper meaning of it, which is often fascinating as this one is.

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  6. Laurel, I know what you mean. ON my first visit to Florence, I too, glossed this over and upon my return visit, was blown away by its symbolism. I remember running back to my hotel and writing about my entire experience at the time!! It moved me greatly!!

    Thanks,

    Jeff

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  7. what an informative piece and to think it sits in the same square as their incomparable duomo

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  8. Hi Mark, Thank you my new friend. I really enjoy your blog and your writing and look forward to your next posts. You really immerse your readers into the experience with your descriptive and eloquent prose!

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  9. Thank you for sharing a beautiful post again. Brings back so many memories. Those panel were in my history final and text book when I was in college. It's just so cool to see it in person. The staircase to top of duomo were so tiring, but was breath-taking when you get up there. Must do.

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  10. Sarah, I couldn't agree with you more...about the panels and the breathtaking view from the top of the Duomo!!! Amazing. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your EuroAdventures!

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  11. Nice post but the photograph of "Abraham Sacrificing Isaac" is mislabeled. This was never part of a door. It was Ghiberti's contest panel and is now in the Bargello.

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    1. Hi there Anonymous and thank you for pointing that out! I updated the photo above too! I love when my readers contribute to the success of my posts! Thank you once again!

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  12. now i know why theres always a crowd in front of that door.hahyaha.the baptistry though at that time was covered with scaffoldings

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    1. Hi Melvin, Well my friend, you just need to go back sans the scaffolding and step thru the Gates of Paradise! Thank you for stopping by.

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Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!