I recently made what can best be described as a personal pilgrimage to Florence, Italy, where I wanted to gaze once again on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s recently restored golden Baptistery doors, known as the Gates of Paradise, and remember how they changed my life.
When I returned home, I was greeted by the news that parts of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts might be sold to pay the bankrupt city’s creditors. Government-ordered estimates of the potential value of a collection containing works by, among others, Fra Angelico and Rembrandt, are due from Christie’s auction house in a few weeks.
The ugly subtext here is that certain people — say, poor African-Americans in an impoverished city or someone like me, whose parents never took her to an art museum — are too unworthy to derive any benefit from “elite” culture. I suppose I should be grateful that Italy, so often reported to be on the verge of economic collapse, apparently never considered selling the Gates of Paradise to a Disney theme park before I got to see them.
In 1968, I was a 23-year-old Washington newspaper reporter who had never taken a serious look at a painting or sculpture when I first stood in front of the doors in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence. I was there for one reason — to begin acquiring what I considered a patina of standard cultural references. I was embarrassed when a colleague would mention Leonardo da Vinci and the only image I could summon up was a mustache on a bad reproduction of the Mona Lisa.
Before that day in Florence, I had viewed love of “great art” as a cultivated pretension. That changed — though I could not have explained what was happening to me at the time — the instant I caught my first glimpse of the doors.
It was not easy to see beyond the damage sustained by Ghiberti’s masterpiece in the epic flood of Nov. 4, 1966 — an event still remembered by Florentines who heard the doors, unlocked by the surging waters, banging ominously throughout the night. But Ghiberti’s rendering of deep perspective, motion and emotion, marking the transition from a ritualized Gothic aesthetic to the Renaissance, somehow penetrated my ignorance even as it outshone the murky encrustation left by the flood.
I was able to see, through the filth on a panel depicting the story of Abraham, a muscular Isaac quivering as his father’s hand was stayed by an angel. Although I knew nothing about art, I did know the Bible. For me, the image of the imminent sacrifice embodied a loathsome submission ordered and arbitrarily canceled by a higher power. That a reverent onlooker might just as readily discern divine mercy only underscored the genius of a goldsmith-sculptor who could bring forth human feeling from metal in a fashion new to his contemporaries.
From that day forward, I understood that art could teach me about life in ways that I had never imagined.
Throughout the Middle Ages, baptistery doors were often called gates of paradise for the literal reason that without baptism, there was no salvation. It was Michelangelo who, in the 16th century, observed with a touch of irony that Ghiberti’s gates of paradise were the first to be “truly worthy” in an artistic sense of the religious honorific.
The 10 panels depicting Old Testament scenes represented 27 years of work for the artist before their installation, in 1452, in the place of honor facing the cathedral with its famous dome by Filippo Brunelleschi. In his autobiographical “Commentaries” (another first in art history) Ghiberti wrote that he fashioned the doors with “the greatest diligence and the greatest love.” He even had the chutzpah to carve his own balding head amid the most sacred stories of Western religion.
In Ghiberti’s depiction of the creation, Adam is pulled to life by God in the lower left corner but the panel’s centerpiece is Eve, who arises from the rib of a sleeping Adam at the Creator’s touch. She enters the world with a self-conscious, almost independent poise not associated with women in previous Christian art.
The first time I saw the doors, the creation scene was missing because, along with four other panels, it had been wrenched from its mounting by the floodwaters. Fortunately, the detached panels were caught between the door and a guard rail, installed only a few years earlier to discourage touching. (Ghiberti’s self-portrait was a special magnet for tourists’ fingertips.)
The storm-damaged panels were cleaned and restored under the supervision of Florence’s distinguished restoration institute, the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, and returned to the Baptistery for most of the next two decades. In 1990, however, the originals were replaced with replicas to prevent further environmental damage.
Thanks to the support of donors from around the world, the Gates of Paradise have since been thoroughly cleaned through a combination of high-tech laser procedures as well as old-fashioned hand craftsmanship, and are now displayed in an airtight case in the nearby Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. They will be joined in 2015 by Ghiberti’s first set of doors, as well as by older panels crafted for the Baptistery in the 1330s by Andrea Pisano. The restoration of those panels, like the Gates of Paradise, has been largely financed by donations to the Guild of the Dome, an organization engaged in the unending task of seeking support from private philanthropists at a time when government support for Italy’s artistic heritage has greatly diminished.
While it will never be possible to see the doors again as people saw them 550 years ago, I can attest to the enduring power of the Gates of Paradise — however they are displayed.
In 2007, the Duomo museum allowed three restored panels to travel for the first and last time. I attended the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with the man I loved, who had Alzheimer’s disease. As he gazed upon the creation scene, the dullness vanished from his eyes and was replaced by an attentiveness approaching adoration. He remembered having seen the panels in Florence many years earlier and said, “It’s miraculous to recognize this.”
I will always recall those words, pulled from a mind struggling against darkness, as the ultimate tribute to the power of art.
In Florence, Ghiberti’s doors now await some other young woman whose parents had no interest in art, or some other stricken person who can still summon up memories of glorious human achievement from a failing brain. And in the Detroit Institute of Arts, the old masters are also waiting, for poor and rich alike.
Anyone can enter the gates of paradise, wherever they may be — as long as the public and its governments are willing to pay to keep them open.
Susan Jacoby is the author of The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought.