Lorenzo Ghiberti’s magnificent “Gates of Paradise,” a pair of gilded bronze doors created for the east entrance of the Baptistery in Florence, Italy, have long been considered a defining monument of Renaissance Art. Thanks to a recent promised gift to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, visitors to the museum can now have a Renaissance experience without leaving Kansas City.
Composed of 10 panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament, the “Gates of Paradise” presents wonderful opportunities for viewers to learn more about art in the Renaissance era, as well as many technical aspects of bronze casting. Ghiberti began working on the doors in 1425 and took 27 years to complete them, unveiling them in 1452. The original works remained in place at the Baptistery until they were moved for safekeeping during World War II.
Molds of the doors were made in the late 1940s before they were returned to the Baptistery. The 1940s molds were used to make two new authorized bronze casts in 1990, prior to moving the original Renaissance-era casts to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the museum of the Florence Cathedral) to preserve them. One of the 1990 casts was placed into the original location at the Baptistery. From 2013 to 2016, the other 1990 cast traveled widely in a globe-trotting exhibition. When it returned to Florence it was held in storage.
Nelson-Atkins Trustee Paul DeBruce and his wife Laura Woodsmall-DeBruce were traveling in Florence and learned that the cast in storage was available for purchase. They recognized an opportunity that might never come again to acquire the doors for Kansas City audiences and purchased the cast sight unseen.
The epic effort to install the 4 1/2-ton doors at the Nelson-Atkins involved removing a large ground-level window in the Bloch building, working carefully around an area called the “kill zone,” and anchoring the massive doors to a reinforced elevator shaft in the Bloch building. A time-lapse video of the installation can be viewed at https://nelson-atkins.org/gates/kc-connections.html
Panels from the Gates of Paradise have been shown in Western art history classes for decades. Scenes such as Jacob and Esau and Joseph with his brothers illustrate how Renaissance artists like Ghiberti learned to represent the illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface. Ghiberti’s doors are also acclaimed as a tour-de-force of sculpture, featuring areas that range from very low relief to sections with figures that appear to be nearly fully three-dimensional.
Today’s viewers might well wonder how the Nelson’s cast relates to modern concepts like “original” and “authentic.” Ghiberti’s studio at the time would have employed a number of assistants to complete such a large commission. In his day, the role of the lead artist might include not only designing the overall composition and working hands-on with sketches and clay models, but also supervising the work of other artists and fabricators at the bronze foundry. In addition, church officials would have been involved in approving final designs and adjusting them as needed.
Furthermore, as Dr. Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, senior curator of European Arts at the Nelson, notes in the press release, “The contemporary cast of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise fits within a long trajectory and tradition of copying great works of art from the past, extending to Antiquity . . . William Rockhill Nelson (one of the founders of the Nelson-Atkins) participated in this trend from the early 20th century and acquired a small collection of sculpture casts, which he displayed in a gallery on the second floor of the Kansas City Public Library.”