Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise – Adam and Eve
In an earlier post, I looked at the famed competition for the Florence baptistery doors which led to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s commission of a set of bronze doors now situated at the North entrance of the baptistery. The North doors were created over a 21 year period spanning from 1403-1424. The fine work produced by Ghiberti would lead to a further commission for an additional set of doors intended for the Eastern entrance. Between 1425-1452 (27 years) Lorenzo Ghiberti created what is arguably one of the greatest artistic achievements of all time, The bronze doors situated at the eastern entrance of the San Giovanni Baptistery in Florence – Michelangelo would later refer to the doors as the “Gates of Paradise“.
In this series of posts I will be taking a closer look at each of the panels which make up the Gates of Paradise
Start At The Very Beginning
It is only logical to start at the beginning and focus on the first panel of Ghiberti’s masterpiece and in this case we are going back to the very beginning of mankind to examine the lives of Adam and Eve. The Gates of paradise features 10 panels depicting scenes from the old testament in the order which they feature in the bible. The panels which I will cover in this series of posts clearly demonstrate Ghiberti’s narrative abilities as well as his mastery of bronze.
As you can see from the image to the right, the Adam and Eve panel is situated at the top left corner of the gates of paradise. The theme of the panel is undoubtedly Adam and Eve but has been split up into to 4 distinct sections in order to provide narratives from their lives – these four sections will be covered in greater detail in this post. Ghiberti has used this method in each of his panels to make each one a story board which can be viewed and followed by the viewer. The placing of the panel is an extremely important aspect of the doors, the panels which are situated at the top of the doors have been foreshortened as to be viewed from below, equally the panels towards the bottom of the doors have been designed as if to be viewed from above – perspective is an extremely important element of Ghiberti’s artwork and would become an even more important in the development of renaissance art.
The Biblical Reference
As with all artwork, it is important to understand the context of the piece and any material which has been used as a reference point. The reference point for each panel in the Gates of Paradise is the old testament from the bible. The story of Adam and Eve begins in Genesis 2 and concludes with a detailed summary of Adam’s bloodline in Genesis 5. Although Ghiberti’s panel singles out 4 specific points within the story of Adam and Eve and I will provide these extracts within this post, it is well worth reading all of it to establish greater context – I would not class myself as overly religious but I often find myself reading the bible in order to understand a painting better.
The 4 sections which Ghiberti chose to depict are as follows and I will cover each section in more detail – The numbers correspond to the numbers I have added to the image of the panel, feel free to use the link at the top of this page to see a larger version of the panel:
- The Creation of Adam (Genesis 2:7)
- The Creation of Eve (Genesis 2:21 – 2:23)
- The Temptation (Genesis 3:4 – 3:7)
- The Expulsion (Genesis 3:23 – Genesis 3:24
The Creation of Adam
And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Genesis 2:7)
The creation of Adam is a common subject within art. Michelangelo’s depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel is one of the most famous frescos in the world and it is argued that Ghiberti’s panel provided a source of inspiration for the masterpiece – it is clear to see similarities between the 2 pieces. This is the moment when mankind is created on earth in the image of God so naturally there is an affinity between this subject and the humanists of the renaissance. Ghiberti’s depiction of the creation sees Adam literally being pulled from the ground by God – this is a very literal translation from the biblical account and again demonstrates Ghiberti’s ability to bring text to visual reality. The surrounding scenery and rock formations have been created with great skill and resemble earlier work carried out by Ghiberti in his competition quatrefoil. One of the most striking aspects of Ghiberti’s figures, and this is something evident in his earliest work is the classical depiction of man – well proportioned and idealistic they are well suited to the humanist approach of 15th century Italy. The posture of God appears a little hunched and proportionally, maybe even a little smaller than Adam – maybe not something Ghiberti could have over emphasised but I am sure the humanists of Florence would have enjoyed that thought. The detail of the textiles and hair is extremely intricate and makes you forget that the artist has actually cast this in bronze. As well as the central figures of Adam and God, there are 4 angels hovering above the mini scene, they appear to be discussing something but there is nothing in the biblical text which sheds any light on the matter.
The Creation of Eve
And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man (Genesis 2:21 – Genesis 2:23)
In the centre of Ghiberti’s panel, we have the creation of Eve – A very well known account whereby God takes a rib from a sleeping Adam to make woman. As I look at the panel in full, my eyes are immediately drawn to the centre and the creation of Eve. The angels above surrounding the scene are also helping to train the eyes down and inwards towards God and the figure of Eve. If we look at Eve closely, it begins to dwell that she may not be alive at this precise moment – we are witnessing God raise her from Adam but maybe in body alone for now. We can see that Eve’s feet are not in view suggesting that she is still in the process of being raised from Adam. There is also the position of Eve’s body. Eve appears weightless and as if the laws of gravity are not yet applicable to her physical form. She is literally being raised from Adam – another demonstration of Ghiberti’s ability to visualise narrative and “stick to the script”. The angels above are quite interesting, while the positioning is well used to focus the viewer on the scene below, there may also be some hidden intent – perhaps I am reading too much in to but at least 2 of the angels (especially the one far right) are looking suitably un-impressed with what is transpiring below
The composition of this scene is extremely well balanced and again, the way the narrative has been visualised is masterful – many subsequent paintings or frescoes appear to take reference from Ghiberti’s creation including works by Michelangelo (Sistine chapel, 1510) and Carlo Francesco Nuvolone.
For me, the creation of Eve is certainly well placed at the centre of this panel. It is the standout scene and my favourite “story within a story”. The posture of God commands your attention and what he is doing appears truly divine
The Temptation of Eve
Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
As we move on to the next scene within the panel, we encounter possibly the most well known section of Adam and Eve’s account. It is the part when Eve disobeys God by eating the fruit from the forbidden tree following a conversation with a serpent. In Ghiberti’s creation Eve appears to be talking to the serpent whose long body is clearly entangled around the trunk of the tree. Eve does not appear to be eating anything, nor is there any evidence of the forbidden fruit. To that end we can only assume that this scene is depicting the conversation whereby the serpent informs Eve that if she does eat from the tree then she shall not die but instead be as gods knowing good from evil.
I would have to say that this scene has got to be the most underwhelming of the 4 narratives and it is the trees which are the standout aspects opposed to the figures themselves who have been cast in low relief. If I was to attribute this to some kind of metaphorical interpretation then I would suggest that Ghiberti may not have wanted to focus on the exact moments before mankind was condemned to hardship and mortality
Expulsion from the Garden
And the Lord God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever: Therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.
As we move on to the final scene within Ghiberti’s panel we can see Adam and Eve are being sent from the garden of Eden. Having been admonished for their previous sins, the now clothed Adam and Eve are being driven from the garden by the angel above. There is a great flow and sense of movement surrounding this scene which begins in the top centre. God is surrounded by angels and appears to be emerging out of heaven, depicted in a kind of circular portal. God is instructing his angel, who is leaning out of an archway to evict Adam and Eve. The angel is positioned in such a way which creates a great sense of movement and urgency, so much so that Eve is looking positively fearful.
In this post we have taken a detailed look at the first panel within Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise. The Adam and Eve panel sets a remarkably high standard and precedence for the rest of this sculptural masterpiece. The remaining panels are of equal detail and skill and I will examine them in due course.
Many thanks for taking the time to read this post!