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Brunelleschi & Ghiberti, the Sacrifice of Isaac

Brunelleschi & Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, competition panels for the second set of bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery, 1401-2. Created by Beth Harris, Steven Zucker, and Smarthistory.

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Video transcript

(jazz piano music) - [Steven] We're in the Bargello in Florence, looking at the so-called competition panels, one by the sculptor Ghiberti and one by Brunelleschi. These were made for the single most important building in Florence, the Baptistry. - [Beth The Calimala, the guild that included luxury cloth importers, were responsible for the decoration of the baptistry. - [Steven] We think that seven artists were involved in this competition, but ultimately it came down to two, Brunelleschi and Ghiberti. - [Beth] And what's fun is that Ghiberti reported in his commentaries that he won the competition, but Brunelleschi reported that it was a tie and that he backed out because he didn't wanna work with another artist. - [Steven] So each competitor was tasked with creating one quatrefoil, that is, one of these sculptural scenes, that was enclosed within a four-lobed shape. And this was to be only one of a series that would depict major scenes from the Bible. - [Beth] 70 years earlier, a set of doors for the baptistry was created by Andrea Pisano. So the Florentines are continuing this tradition of decorating the doors for the baptistry. The subject of both of these panels is the same, it's the sacrifice of Isaac. It's the story from the Old Testament. - [Steven] Abraham and his wife had their only child late in life. It had been a miracle birth. God speaks to Abraham and tells him he must sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. And in an act of supreme faith, Abraham takes Isaac out, and as we can see in both of these panels, is ready to slit the child's throat. - [Beth] Happily, God has an angel intervene, and a ram is sacrificed instead. The stories of the Old Testament were often read as prefiguring, as foreshadowing the events of the life of Christ. So the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son was understood as prefiguring God's willingness to sacrifice his son Christ to save mankind. - [Steven] Let's look first at Brunelleschi. Brunelleschi, who would go on to a brilliant career as an architect, as an engineer, and will after this, put sculpture away. For me, it's a more aggressive scene than the Ghiberti. It feels more dangerous. It feels more emotionally powerful. - [Beth] We'll look at how Abraham lifts up the throat of Isaac and has the knife poised in his neck. This is a terrifying moment. - [Steven] And it seems almost at odds with the subsidiary scenes that are below. We see it in the lower left corner, a young man who seems to be looking at his foot. This is a direct quote from a very famous ancient sculpture. And it's an expression of the young Brunelleschi's interest in classical art. - [Beth] And our eye moves from that figure, and then we stop again and look at yet another figure who's also looking down. - [Steven] Look at the way that the angel actually grabs Abraham's arm. He's physically stopping the act of sacrifice and compare that to Ghiberti, whose angel is more reserved, who does not bring down his arm to physically restrain Abraham. - [Beth] What I find interesting is that Brunelleschi's angel swoops in from the left, parallel to the background plane of the sculpture. Ghiberti, on the other hand, makes that angel seem to emerge from the bronze in the background, giving us a sense of depth that I think he carries through in the rest of the sculpture in a successful way. - [Steven] The figure of Isaac is beautiful and is almost freestanding. His torso curves ever so slightly, creating an unexpected kind of elegance even in a scene of violence. - [Beth] And with Brunelleschi, we don't have that sense of classical beauty, but rather a figure that is violently contorted. - [Steven] And we see that in Abraham as well. Brunelleschi's Abraham is a diagonal that is pushing forward with incredible determination, whereas Ghiberti's Abraham is a lovely curve with his right hip jutting out echoing the curve of his son. - [Beth] And look at how Ghiberti uses that rocky landscape to unify the composition, beginning at the upper left, where we see the ram, moving down to the lower right. It helps to create a believable landscape for these figures to occupy, where the background feels spare in the Brunelleschi. - [Steven] You can see what a conundrum the judges faced. If you were looking for something that was perhaps more dramatic, you might look to the Brunelleschi. If you're looking for something where beauty is able to co-exist with the narrative, you may want to look at the Ghiberti. - [Beth] And a more unified composition, one where our eye moves more easily from figure to figure and from the landscape to the figures. Now, the other important thing is that Ghiberti's panel is essentially cast as one piece. - [Steven] With only a couple of small exceptions, but it wasn't in need of extensive soldering. The other major issue that speaks to Ghiberti's is practical, Ghiberti used less bronze. He was a more skilled metalworker. He trained with goldsmiths and so had Brunelleschi won, it would have simply cost much more money to produce the doors, and so the jury chose Ghiberti and we're lucky that they did, because he produced one of the most important sculptural programs in early Renaissance Florence. (piano music resumes)