Wednesday, October 23, 2013



In 1401 the cloth trade guild of Florence, the Arte di Calimala, held a competition
to decide what artist would be given the commission for the bronze panels on the two sets of doors of the Florentine Baptistery still in need of decoration : the North and East doors. Several artists competed for the prize, but only two entries have survived, the panels
produced by the finalists, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Both panels
are now displayed together on one of the walls of the Bargello Museum in
Florence, so it is possible to stand in front of them and pretend to be one of the judges
in the competition. The artists were asked to illustrate the same story: the Sacrifice of Isaac
from the Old Testament, Genesis Chapter 22, verses 1-18.
         Here is the text from the King James version of the Bible in English:
"And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham and said unto him, Abraham: and he said, Behold, here I am. And he said, Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of. And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and clave the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up, and went unto the place of which God had told him.  Then on the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes, and saw the place afar off.  And Abraham said unto his young men, Abide ye here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.
     And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and a knife; and they went both of them together.  And Isaac spake unto Abraham his father, and said, My father, and he said, Here am I my son. And he said, Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering? And Abraham said, My son, God will provide himself a lamb for the burnt offering; so they went both of them together. And they came to the place which God had told him of: and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
      And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.
     And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah-jireh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen. And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba."

Both panels were made of gilded bronze. Both had to contain the story within the quatrefoil form. Both panels have the same elements of the story (highlighted above in green):  Abraham, the donkey, the two male companions, the altar with wood and fire,  Isaac, the intervening angel, and the ram.

Each artist chooses his own arrangement of the elements, though, and in the process also emphasizes different things about the story. 
Brunelleschi divides his composition horizontally over the back of the donkey, 

a line continued on either side by the shoulders of the the left companion and the back of the right one.
He places the extraneous elements, the two companions and the donkey, below that line, and the central
protagonists in the story above that line. All three figures below the line distract from the main scene, however. The companion to the left, as has often been observed, is a copy of the ancient statue of the boy removing a thorn from his foot, Lo Spinario:


The donkey munches the grass on the ground while the other companion looks awkwardly up at the main scene while fiddling with the strap on his boot.
 The scene of the Sacrifice itself is wrought with tension. 

Abraham is actually touching the child's throat with his knife, Isaac's mouth is open in a scream while his body twists awkwardly away with his hands tied behind his back. The angel's hand grabs Abraham to stop him from killing his own son, and Abraham has wild eyes reflecting the madness inherent in the act.
All of Brunelleschi's drama concentrates on the emotions of the horror of a father placing his own son on an altar as burnt offering. That central section of his panel is powerful and the viewer responds to the terror Isaac feels as his father grabs his face with one hand while attempting to plunge a knife with the other. Brunelleschi knows he has chosen the most horrifying moment to put on display. He alleviates the intensity and pain of the scene in two ways: 1) with the bas-relief on the altar showing the moment afterwards, when God blesses Abraham for his willingness to obey God even to the point of destroying his own child:
Isaac in this scene lifts up his hands to comfort his father sitting on the altar as God's angel comes in from the left with a branch of peace, and 2) with the comic relief of the ram who scratches a flea with his foot as he waits for his own turn at sacrifice:
The power of Brunelleschi's emotional drama makes a riveting scene, if one discounts the extraneous elements. But Brunelleschi is not the one who wins this competition. How does Ghiberti organize the story?

Ghiberti divides the story in half vertically and diagonally. On the left of the slanted line of the mountain, he places the two companions with a donkey. They appear to look at each other, witness figures for the main scene:

They make a coherent group together with the donkey, rather than being separated as in Brunelleschi's panel.

The ram appears at the top of the mountain, at the same level as the angel on the right, who points to the ram as the substitute sacrifice.
Instead of the exact instant when the angel grabs Abraham's arm, Ghiberti chooses another time in the drama; he depicts the moment just before the knife nears the son's throat, the moment before the angel touches Abraham. The tension before the apex allows the artist to display the beautiful nude torso of Isaac in full array; Ghiberti's skill in rendering perfect anatomical abdominal and pectoral muscles is also on display. 

Rather than emphasizing the emotional pinnacle of the story, as Brunelleschi does, Ghiberti shows more restraint in his version, holding Abraham back with arm still cocked, allowing the viewer to believe that Abraham is not really capable of killing his own child.
Even the altar does not need to make up for the tension among the players and has only foliate decoration on it to suggest that the story took place in ancient times. Isaac's robe is lying in front of the altar, as Ghiberti intimates it has just fallen off the child as his father has tied his hands. The movement of the angel flying in a foreshortened body above the heads of the two male figures, as well as the upward flip of the end of the robe that Abraham is wearing, as well as the turn of the head of Isaac, all contribute to the feeling that we are watching a video rather than a still sculpture. Ghiberti wants the viewer to imagine the end action, the father lowering his arm with the knife, the angel fetching the ram to substitute for the child, the child stepping down from the altar to retrieve his own clothing.

 Ghiberti's version, though, does not have the emotional drama that the viewer notices in Brunelleschi's panel.

What Ghiberti's panel has that Brunelleschi's panel does not, is beauty. The beauty of Isaac's idealized body is placed on the beautiful altar. The angel flies in gracefully, Abraham's arm is beautifully aligned with the shoulders of his son.
Their hair is beautifully coiffed and curled.
          The other noticeable element that cinched Ghiberti's win is the cloth. The drapery Abraham wears flows gracefully in regular curves of cloth around his body and then his arm sends out a stylish flow of cloth out behind his body into the air. The cloaks donned by the two companions are what the viewer notices before even the donkey. The ram is even showing off his wool.  If you are the guild that makes its wealth from the major cloth trade in Europe, especially from wool, the display of cloth alone would be a reason for giving the prize of the competition to Ghiberti. 
  And certainly the guild worried about the cost of producing two sets of doors in bronze relief; as other scholars have pointed out, Ghiberti's panels were cheaper to make because he used the back of the bronze to carve out the high relief figures rather than attaching separate figures to the flat background.
Here are the backs of Ghiberti's panel on the left and Brunelleschi's on the right. You can see the indentation in Ghiberti's panel for the body of Abraham; the air of the indentation meant that the weight of the panel was less and the amount of bronze needed to fill in the scene was less, reducing the cost.
        While Ghiberti's casting technique may have impressed the judges from the Calimala, the weight and monetary considerations were not what made his panel win. The competition panels are a wonderful comparison of two kinds of art: Renaissance and Gothic.

Gothic art tends to be interested in the emotional value of Biblical stories because those are what appeal to an illiterate congregation. The story of Abraham sacrificing his own son is an awkward, horrifying ordeal for the central characters and that is how Brunelleschi portrayed it: the body of the son is twisted and ugly, the face of the father is struck by fear and loathing, the figures of the companions and donkey are placed in wrenching ways to support the intense wrestling of Abraham's soul in reaching the limit of obedience to God's covenant. For Brunelleschi the religious story was part of the medieval mind-set where every human action was produced in relation to faith and church.
Renaissance art tends to be interested in the public display of beauty, no matter what the subject. The desire of Renaissance artists to rival the ancients in showing knowledge of anatomy and in idealizing human figures is part of their awareness that the individual is more important than the religious group.
When you add those ideas to a realization that Ghiberti understood his panel would eventually be public art and that he knew the merchants who were his patrons were interested in the sellability of products, it is clear that his choices are not those of a Gothic artist but are new, and are part of a new reliance on ancient art rather than on Gothic art in order to make a new statement about what matters:  individual humanity and beautiful form.
It's not that Ghiberti doesn't tell the story; he tells it clearly and with some force, but his true intent is not to illustrate the story so much as to make sure he has a job for the rest of his life. According to his own account in Commentarii, he consulted with the guild members to make sure he made a panel that would please them. He realized from that interchange that he needed to present their wares in the best light, hence the emphasis on the drapery. He knew that, as businessmen, they would want to be up-to-date with the latest technology and would want their craft to be seen to best advantage on the best billboard in town: the building where every child was baptized in the most public of piazzas.
He wrapped the central character in cloth that flowed in the wind; he displayed youthful nudity in the figure of the son. He decorated his altar with beautiful foliage and draped the boy's cloth in lovely folds beneath it. His audience is not the church or the faithful of the church, although he does not ignore that audience. His audience is the new merchant class of Florence, the people with money to buy nice things. He gives them beauty on a plate without much tension because he knows that beauty is nourishment. His panel nourishes the viewer now as it did the judging panel then. Ghiberti's beautiful old man stepping out on his left foot, his perfectly toned young son, his beautifully adorned young witness figures win the competition in full fashion. After all, Abraham doesn't kill his child, in the end; he just wants God to bless him. 


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