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Recasting Genesis in Bronze: Ghiberti's Visual Exegesis in The Gates of Paradise

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image of Biblical Interpretation

The bronze doors of Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455) on the east side of the Baptistery at Florence are composed of ten “Albertian Renaissance windows” that depict scenes from the Old Testament in stunning detail. From an art-historical perspective, these panels demonstrate a significant development in Renaissance art. Rather than depicting a single instant in a biblical narrative, Ghiberti's panels combine multiple scenes into one composite image that conveys critical elements of long and complex stories. In the first of these panels, Ghiberti illustrates God's creation of Adam and Eve, the act of disobedience at the tree, and the expulsion from the garden. Ghiberti's organization of these events, his rendering of the characters, and the various details he includes (and omits) provide a window into the mind of a sophisticated exegete. When modern biblical scholars peer through this window, we note that Eve emerges as the central figure, while Adam is a largely peripheral one. We also note how Ghiberti establishes the literary pericope for his visual exegesis in a way that generally accords with modern source-critical hypotheses about Genesis 1-3. Indeed, by illustrating certain elements of the creation story and excluding others, Ghiberti is practicing de facto source criticism. Furthermore, Ghiberti's portrayal of the various characters in the text presaged twentieth- and twenty-first-century feminist readings of Genesis 1-3, as well as modern literary-critical analysis and ethico-theological critiques.

Affiliations: 1: Emory University


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