ArtOdysseys: 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 ArtOdysseys—my new monthly series that unites my love of travel with my passion for art—connecting with masterpieces around the world. Combining art and travel is my mission wherever I travel and I plan to chronicle my experiences and discoveries to share with you. Each month will bring a new topic and this month’s 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.