The Baptistry in Florence, more officially called the Baptistery of St. John, stands in the plaza directly in front of the Florence Duomo and is much older. Workers began building it around the year 1050, and until the late 1800s every Catholic in Florence was baptized here. For Florentines in the Renaissance it had been around so long and was such an important structure that many believed it to be a converted temple originally built by ancient Romans. It’s a special building because it holds so much history and was the site of a major commission in the early Renaissance. The result of this commission forever changed the art world.

The years in between 1329 and 1400 were rough. A little thing called the Black Death swept across Europe. The bubonic plague is estimated to have killed 30-60% of Europe’s population, as many as 75 million people. Florence went from 120,000 inhabitants in 1338 to 50,000 in 1351. It left Europe in political and economic chaos and took a century to recover from. By 1400, the city was finally ready for a new commission, and the call went out for entries. The doors on the south end of the baptistery had been completed by Andrea Pisano in 1329 (before the plague), and are still seen today. The powers that be wanted to install a new set of impressive gilded bronze doors on the north end of the baptistery. Artists had to submit a bronze panel of “Abraham Sacrificing Isaac” to win the cities biggest prize. 2 artists submitted panels that clearly stood out among all the rest. Both sculptors were in their early 20s at the time: Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi.

Here’s Brunelleschi’s panel, and here’s an explaination  of it:

“Brunelleschi’s work is by far the more dramatic and disturbing, all angles and movement and raw emotion., like nothing that had ever been created before. His Abraham is a tall, powerful figure, grasping a frail Isaac along the jawline with his left hand, the father’s thumb under the boy’s chin to better expose the neck, or perhaps to cut off the flow of oxygen so that his son won’t feel the fatal blow. In his right hand, Abraham holds the knife, driving the blade forward with such forceful commitment that the angel sweeping down from the sky must grab his wrist to stop the sacrifice. The story literally bursts out from the panel, breaking the boundaries of the Gothic quatrefoil within which it is supposed to be contained, just as Brunelleschi burst through the boundaries of the Gothic art with his creation.”  -(Robert Paul Walker from his book “The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance”)

Here’s Ghiberti’s panel:

“Ghiberti’s panel is more elegant and more beautiful. His Isaac is a perfectly modeled classical nude while his Abraham is a smaller, more graceful man, his left arm wrapped around the boy’s shoulders while his right hand holds the knife hovering in the air, as if he has not yet made the decision to strike. The angel floats above them, open palm over Abraham’s well-coifed, curly hair, no need to grab the father’s arm but able instead to stop him with a word. The whole scene plays out against an exquisitely cascading mountainside, all neatly contained within its quatrefoil boundary. Whereas Brunelleschi’s piece demonstrates an artist aching to forge a new and more powerful image of reality, Ghiberti’s demonstrates masterful perfection of the art,a s remarkable in its own way for the time and place and age of the artist as is the work of his rival.” -Paul Robert Walker

Both artists had turned in extraordinary panels, and the committee couldn’t decide which was best. The story is that they called both artists together and asked if they might be willing to work in tandem on the doors. Brunelleschi was the one to refuse, saying that he would gladly concede the project to Ghiberti rather than work with anything less than full creative control. The project went to Lorenzo Ghiberti. It was a huge victory for him and a humiliating defeat for Brunelleschi, who was left with nothing after so much work and anticipation. It was the aftermath of this competition that got the creative snowball rolling in Florence. Ghiberti would spend decades completing not just the north doors (seen here to the left), but a second set of east baptistry doors, a work so impressive that Michelangelo studied them and dubbed them, “the gates of paradise”. It was Brunelleschi however, who would make the bigger leap forward, inventing a system for perspective and revolutionizing painting while completing one of the most daunting and difficult architectural projects in the world: the building of the giant red dome on top of the Duomo across from the baptistry.  I will have more on these two amazing artists in later posts. For now, here’s a great side by side comparison study on the “Sacrifice of Isaac” panels. Enjoy.

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