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Brunelleschi & Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, competition panels for the second set of bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery, 1401-2 Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
We're in the Bargello, in Florence, and we're looking at the so called "competition panels". Art historian often see these as the beginning of the Renaissance. In 1401 the Cloth Guild of Florence decided to commission a second set of doors for the Baptistry of Florence. There are three doorways in the Baptistry: the first set of doors had been made by Andrea Pisano in the 14th century and the Cloth Guild wanted to create a second set of door. These were enormous bronze doors and this was a huge civic undertaking and extremely expensive. The Baptistry is historically the most important building in Florence and in a effort to find the best sculptor the Cloth Guild held a competition. The only two that survive of the seven entries are by Brunelleschi and Ghiberti. The Cloth Guild, when they held this competition, were very specific about what they wanted. They allocated a certain amount of bronze, they told the sculptors, they imparted to sculpt the Old Testament subject of the Sacrifice of Isaac, they dictated the number of figures and what should be included. The only other thing that I remember is that the Cloth Guild actually dictated was that all the panels had to bee contained within a quatrefoil, that is this Gothic shape. To really fun to look at both of these panels and think about why the Guild chose the one ... and which one was better and for what reasons. In this story God commands Abraham to kill his only son Isaac, to sacrifice Isaac. They have to remember that Abraham went for a very long time in his life with no children and so his son meant everything to him. His son was a miracle. Now God is commanding him to murder his son and Abraham is taking God's words very seriously. This is a moment of crisis, a moment of faith. Will he allow everything in his life to be subserving to God's will? So, Abraham takes Isaac to the mountain where God has told him to go and takes a knife to Isaac's throat, and is about to kill his son, when an Angel appears and stops him. God provides a ram instead for Abraham to sacrifice so Isaac is spared and Abraham is spared this terrible fate of having to slay his only son. I'm particularly fond of the way the Angel flies in in both panels to save the day. In the Ghiberti it's far less dramatic. We have an Angel... but in Brunelleschi's version the Angel is grasping Abraham's hand and literally stops him in the very moment when the knife meets Isaac's throat. It's also a kind of intensity with Isaac's head pushed back by Abraham and there is also a kind of violence that seems to be in process. In the Ghiberti's, it's interesting, the Angel is separated, there isn't the same continuity of form. I think there's more complexity in Ghiberti's, emotionally: Abraham looks reluctant, this isn't something he wants to do pulled the knife back, is looking at Isaac but there is a sense of unwillingness, it's like a second of pausing because of this terrible thing that he has been commanded to do. It's interesting that the Ghiberti up shows us a form nude and presents that nude us in the most direct way, whereas the Brunelleschi is upon one knee has a ...cloth and is twisted and sturded ... that we see in the Ghiberti the direct perform into greek and roman scultpure and it is really very beautifully done. This also an interesting quarrel ...in both panels... the physical relationship of the father and the son. In the Ghiberti you have the gentle arching, whereas in the Brunelleschi you have a diagonal which is more energized and more violent, as well. To me, the Brunelleschi is a little scarier. It is scary! Well, apparently the Guild agreed. There's no written record of why they chose what they get. That's right, but...automatically was the Ghiberti that got he commission all those sum accounts say that they both won, but Ghiberti actually was chosen to carry out the commission. In the Ghiberti you have that rocky mountain that unifies he scene. It seems ...flood down almost like water from the a.... There's a sense in the Brunelleschi more of separate parts being... in fact Brunelleschi cast many of the ... separately and then put them together, and the Ghiberti's is casted only from two pieces of bronze. There may ben one other element that helped to sway at the decision and that is the Ghiberti used less bronze than Brunelleschi. And remember bronze is extremely expensive, and when you multiply this to all of the panels of the door that would have been significant in any case in the end Ghiberti gets the commission, produces the doors and they are such a triumph that he is automatically commissioned to produce a third set of doors. And Brunelleschi will take this opportunity to move beyond sculpture, go for Rome and study ancient Roman architecture and ancient romans sculpture He of course came back to Florence, triumphing ultimately with major comissions like the Dome.