Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Florence 2012 Journal: Analysis of the Baptistery Doors

Analysis of the Baptistery doors.

At the turn of the 15th Century, a competition arose to find the man who would complete the trio of doors at the Battistero di San Giovanni. Out of this came Lorenzo Ghiberti, who finished the north doors by 1424 and the east by 1449. The south doors had been completed by Ghiberti’s predecessor Andrea Pisano, whose work was completed in 1336.
The bottom two rows of reliefs on the north door (1424) are of the Bishop of Hippo, Jerome, Gregory the Great and Ambrose; followed by John, Matthew, Luke and Mark. These are, in the words of George Robinson, the first ‘promulgators and first interpreters of Christ’s teaching’.[1] Therefore, the consolidation of their place on the door lays in the fact that without them, we may not know (or understand for that matter) the teachings of the life of Christ that are so essential to the Christian faith. The remaining 20 quatrefoils go on to portray these teachings with scenes from the annunciation to the Pentecost.  

Similarly, Pisano’s door (1336) has 28 quatrefoils of which 8 do not portray the subject matter (in this case, the life of St. John the Baptist). The bottom two rows are virtues personified: Hope, Faith, Charity, Humility, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice and Prudence. The first three are theological virtues while the last four are cardinal virtues. It has been argued that the Humility relief was an addition ‘to lend greater harmony to the composition’ as 7 virtues were not enough to complete two rows.[2] This is unlikely because the people who lived during the Renaissance viewed art and architecture as ‘functional objects’ for ‘sacred or secular purposes’.[3] Thus, aesthetics came second to functionality. What’s more, if you were to consider the status of the project and the fact that bronze was extremely expensive at the time (often had to melt old works of art in order to obtain it), it is unlikely Pisano would have been negligent to the underlying meaning of his work. The more likely observation is that the panel pays homage to the humility of the Franciscan and Dominican orders that were came to prominence in light of the construction of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella.

Ghiberti’s final door (1449) is different in that it has only 10 panels that are also larger. They are all scenes from the Old Testament. The most significant aspect is the radical change in style in terms of not only Pisano’s work, but also of his own. It has been acknowledged that Ghiberti’s first door was subtly changing within the parameters of what style had been ‘acceptable’ up until the 1400’s (for example, Pisano’s ‘birth of the Baptist’ was conventional in that there was no care for perspective). However, the real emergence of naturalism can be seen in Ghiberti’s last door and is arguably comparable to Renaissance paintings in that it shows ‘the same innovations in naturalism and perspective’.[4] Depictions of saints and biblical scenes were no longer confined to the simplicity found in Byzantine art.

Early Renaissance art therefore began to explore the human form, nature and perspective as the taboo lifted on drawing a saint in any way other than holy and not of this world. To conclude, Ghiberti’s own accession to naturalism through his Baptistery doors epitomises the slow emergence of the renaissance in both architecture and art.     

[1] K. Clark, D. Finn, G. Robinson, the Florence Baptistery Doors (The Viking Press, 1980), 107.
[2] A. Giusti, the Baptistery of San Giovanni in Florence (Mandragora, 2000), 30.
[3] G. Johnson, Renaissance Art: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006), 3.
[4] R. Viladesau, The Triumph of the Cross: The Passion of Christ in Theology and the Arts from the Renaissance to the Counter-Reformation (Oxford University Press, 2008), 62.

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