The Gates of Paradise have arrived in New York, and anyone interested in experiencing one of the great masterpieces of the Early Italian Renaissance cannot afford to miss this current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The works represent a crowning achievement of Western civilization in their beauty, excellence of execution and meaningful subjects. And while deeply influenced in style by the Renaissance notion of Greek ideal beauty and form, the themes of the ten original panels are firmly rooted in the Jewish Bible. The subject of the panels here, “The Creation of Adam and Eve,” “David Beheading Goliath” and especially “Isaac and Esau,” present a complex and nuanced rendering of the narratives that, upon closer reading, yield an especially interesting understanding of the text; picking out a uniquely feminine narrative within the nominally male account.
Lorenzo Ghiberti created these massive bronze doors between 1425 and 1452, finishing them when he was 75. This project began almost immediately after he had successfully finished a first set of 28 bronze doors on themes from the Christian Bible. That project had taken him 23 years. The next set of doors on the Hebrew Bible described in great detail the following subjects: Creation, Cain and Able, Noah’s Drunkenness, Abraham and Isaac, Isaac and Esau, Joseph – Viceroy of Egypt and his brothers, Moses at Sinai, Joshua crossing the Jordan, David and Goliath and finally King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. These ten narrative panels, each 31 inches square, were sculpted in wax, cast in bronze, laboriously chased, filed and finished in all their myriad detail and finally, fire-gilded with gold. Set into the portal of the Baptistery opposite the Duomo in Florence, the massive 17-foot high doors weigh more than 30 tons each and were allegedly dubbed by Michelangelo as “The Gates of Paradise.”
Isaac and Esau by Lorenzo Ghiberti, gilt bronze, 1425-1452 (31 ½ ” X 31 ½ “) – Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Antonio Quattrone, photographer
Ghiberti’s doors were so successful that the guild that commissioned them immediately had them placed in the position of greatest honor directly facing the Duomo, the principle church of Florence, and moving Ghiberti’s earlier work to the north side of the Baptistery. Their exquisite craftsmanship, subtle evocation of grace and beauty in the figures, use of perspective to depict three dimensional space and narrative power guaranteed their influence on generations of artists and greatly shaped the unfolding pictorial agenda of the Renaissance.
And there they sat in Florence for over 500 years, beloved, admired, then finally ignored as a thick crust of grime obscured their beauty and golden glow. Finally in the late 1940’s, they were restored but within 20 years tragedy struck in the 1966 flood of the Arno River, damaging the doors, and instituting another bout of restoration. In 1990 they were removed from their original site and have since been undergoing intensive restoration for atmospheric pollution and centuries of neglect. The restoration work is almost complete and these three panels are on a limited, four-city tour at the conclusion of which they will return to Florence, be reassembled with the rest of the panels and door structure, never to leave Florence again.
Isaac commands Esau (detail) by Lorenzo Ghiberti – Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Antonio Quattrone, photographer.
The three panels now in New York are breathtakingly beautiful. The Creation depicts God (depicted as a kindly old man) awakening Adam as he brings him to life in a gentle gesture of blessing. In the center of the panel, Eve is seen gracefully arising from the side of the sleeping Adam while on the right, the shocked but graceful Primal Couple are expelled from the garden by a stern angel.
Each scene is attended by intensely curious angels, deeply concerned about the newly minted human beings. Throughout the panels Ghiberti employs a technique known as continuous narrative in which multiple scenes are conflated to be seen simultaneously within the same frame, thereby compressing time and space to evoke the unfolding Biblical story.
The David and Goliath panel is similarly direct in depicting David decapitating the fallen giant Goliath in the foreground. In the middle ground the assembled troops look on in wonder as some continue the battle on the right. The hapless King Saul attempts to lead the charge but, of course, the battle has already been won by the fearless David. In the background, the head of Goliath is paraded into the city of Jerusalem, here depicted as a typical, Italian fortified town, possibly Florence.
The Stolen Blessing (detail) by Lorenzo Ghiberti – Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Antonio Quattrone, photographer.
Every detail is attended to; every costume and human emotion lovingly specified so as to move the viewer through the narrative in a convincing and emotional way. Interestingly, the panel depicting Isaac and Esau, though the most striking in its use of perspective and high relief sculpture, is radically different in a number of ways.
The narrative begins on the upper right with Rebecca imploring God about the twins struggling within her. Rebecca is seen again in the left middle ground on the birthing bed, dramatically framed in the arches of the palace rendered in perfect perspective. Next the scene shifts to the middle center where Esau frantically approaches Jacob, willing to sell his birthright for a bowl of porridge.
Then the narrative moves to the center foreground where the aged Isaac, standing, commands his son Esau, accompanied by two hunting dogs, to go hunt some of that fine game that he loves to eat so much. The story continues in the right middle ground where Rebecca instructs Jacob to fetch two kids from the flock to trick Isaac into thinking that he is actually Esau. Along the right front edge we see Jacob receiving his brother’s blessing kneeling in front of the seated Isaac as the watchful Rebecca oversees the deception. Finally, on the other side, the narrative concludes with a group of four women standing prominently in the left foreground.
Rebecca and Esau’s Wives (detail) by Lorenzo Ghiberti – Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence. Antonio Quattrone, photographer.
A number of problems now become apparent. First of all, why does the narrative seem to wander about the surface with little apparent rhyme or reason? Secondly, the old man instructing the younger man in the center, identified as Isaac commanding Esau, seems to run counter to the main thrust of the narrative as most would understand it, i.e. a story of how the Abrahamic legacy is passed on from Isaac to Jacob, irrespective of Esau’s place as first born. In Ghiberti’s treatment, Esau is the primary subject. Finally, what is the meaning of these four women – gracefully dramatic figures depicted in the highest relief.
The issue of the wandering narrative is endemic to the continuous narrative methodology, according to James Draper, curator at the Metropolitan and the one responsible for this exhibition. Furthermore, Ghiberti’s concerns were frequently decorative so the placement of the various episodes did not have to conform to a strict narrative logic.
The surprising emphasis on Esau is another matter since it would seem to betray some type of ideological bias against Jacob. Ghiberti’s autobiography may, in fact, indicate this as he describes the panel: “Esau and Jacob are born, the former is sent out hunting and their mother, led by Jacob, brings him the kid, whose skin she lays over his shoulders” Of course the Biblical text says something quite different, placing the burden of the conspiracy on Rebecca and not Jacob. Indeed, this particular narrative has always vexed our commentators.
The Baptistery, Florence, Italy, showing the east doors, The Gates of Paradise.
The spectacle of our forefather Jacob along with his mother conspiring to wrest the sacred blessing from its legal owner, has generated endless explanations of the inherently evil nature of Esau. And yet the 15th century Florentine Catholic Ghiberti depicts Esau as a charming, graceful youth, sculpted in high relief, eager to do his aged father’s will. One could conjecture that Ghiberti is acutely aware of Esau’s pain and the injustice done because, at least according to Jewish commentators, Esau is representative of Edom, almost always identified with Rome. While I have no documentary evidence to support this theory, it does explain the unusual emphasis on “the brother not chosen” – Esau.
Finally, what about those women? They are a visual tone poem of drapery and soft gestures, producing the most beautiful group of figures in all the ten panels. Three are bareheaded and seem to be distinct from the woman on the left who carries some kind of covered basket on her head. She is also set apart in her costume that bears a fair resemblance to the four other depictions of Rebecca. In fact some commentators (Goldscheider) see her as Rebecca with her maidens. (Of course there are no maidens to be found in the text.) Another expert (Krautheimer) identifies them as visiting women who are, in fact, in a certain proximity to Rebecca giving birth. However, this does not explain their enormous visual significance.
Nonetheless, once the woman on the left with the bundle on her head is identified as Rebecca, the narrative Ghiberti is trying to convey immediately falls into place. If she is Rebecca then the others must be Esau’s three wives that the Torah mentions no less than four times (Gen. 26:34; Gen. 27:46; Gen. 28:9; Gen. 36:1-3). Remember, this panel is predominately about the travails of Esau and therefore it would be perfectly logical to represent his wives. In fact, reassessing the narrative, Ghiberti now shows that his primary interest is in the role Rebecca plays in subverting Esau’s rightful blessing. This explains why her image circulates through the panel, uniting the disparate episodes. She has become the adversary. Of all the characters depicted, she predominates with five appearances. (Jacob appears three times, Esau three times and Isaac two times). And since she has sinned in Ghiberti’s eyes, defrauding the innocent Esau of what was rightfully his, she deserves a punishment that the Torah itself provides, being burdened with three odious daughter-in-laws – pagans who make her life miserable.
With this interpretation in hand we can now fully appreciate Ghiberti’s genius. Through his inclination to see the story of the bartered birthright and stolen blessing as a tragic tale of Esau, he has focused our attention on the Torah’s emphasis on Esau’s wives and the effect they have on Rebecca. Whether we see this as simply the consequences of her son’s inconsiderate behavior or punishment for her hostility against one of her sons, his beautiful depictions have explored an under-appreciated passage in our Torah. It is especially remarkable to find this type of Biblical reassessment in the heart of one of the greatest works of art in Western civilization.
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at email@example.com.