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The Sacred Doors of the Duomo

Text by: Sarah Windes
Photography by: Kevin Parker Photography

The symbolic reference to the celebrated ritual of a groom carrying a bride “over the threshold” indicates a human awareness, conscious or subconscious, throughout many centuries, of the significance of doors and passageways. The superstition surrounding this step exists because of its symbolic meaning of something much larger than merely entering a structure. It is the pivotal point in the couple’s relationship as they start a new life together. Throughout time and in diverse cultures, this universal value is evidenced by the humble, or ornate, workmanship on the doors of government architecture, religious temples, and even personal homes, which are, in essence, believed to be creations of beautiful passageways into personal realms. Passing over, or through, a threshold that has been fashioned into a masterpiece is the ultimate, perhaps even sacred, welcome to the guest.
It is because of this belief that the three sets of entryways into the Florence Baptistery of the famed Duomo in Italy became the subject of careful consideration among the stakeholders of how to guarantee that the Baptistery’s significant entrances did not go unnoticed. As such, they commissioned an unprecedented competition among the local artists of that time, which gained vast attention around the world. As a result, the city of Florence gained historical popularity and clout amongst all of Italy, and was thrust to the forefront of the “cultured” world making it the birthplace of Italian Renaissance. Two artists won the commission: 21-year-old painter, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and seasoned sculptor, Filippo Brunelleschi. Before the work began, however, Brunelleschi refused to share the commission with Ghiberti. Thus, Ghiberti alone dedicated the remainder of his life sculpting two masterpiece thresholds for the Florence Baptistery. The east doors were nicknamed by Michelangelo as the “Gates of Paradise” because their beauty was "fitting enough to grace the entrance to paradise,” and are the most famous and influential of the two. For the competition, the moment Abraham drew up his dagger to sacrifice his son was the opening subject chosen for the competitors to sculpt. It is no coincidence that this weighty scene was chosen. It was meant to honor the symbolism of the threshold it would soon grace and to represent the abstract meaning of the moment in a life when someone must make a choice, must decide whether to cross over a threshold or stay behind. In this liminal space, one experiences the risk of entering new terrain, no matter the choice made, and it becomes a moment of growth and no return.
For centuries, people have marveled at the result of Ghiberti’s workmanship: the minute attention to detail, the beautiful, time-consuming technique that was used, and the passion that is felt through his life-long crafting. Much of the attention is drawn because of the allegorical qualities of the subject matter the doors were created around. The panel of Abraham is added upon by nine other panels, each depicting the crossing over or closing of doors presented to figures of the Old Testament. The scenes are: Adam and Eve’s fall from innocence to gain more experience and knowledge in the world; Cain's impulsive act to set aside God’s law and murder his brother; Ham’s disrespect of his father Noah; Jacob’s deceit of his father for the birthright; Joseph being sold into Egypt; Moses bringing the law to a wayward Israel; the fall of Jericho; David slaying Goliath; and, finally, the Queen of Sheba coming to discover the truth of what she had heard of King Solomon. These moments each carry the significance of the threshold, a time when one is faced with a point of no return, enabled to either cross the threshold or close the door. Some of these moments allowed entry into the divine, while some closed the doors and left the individuals in the profane world. In the 27 years it took to craft the panels of the “Gates of Paradise,” one can only imagine the wisdom that must have come through depicting such profoundly moving moments in the lives of these Biblical figures. Ghiberti, too, must have felt the weight of the threshold as he found himself knocking at the door asking the divine to enter and inspire the outcome of his creation. The long-lasting impressions that the doors have made on the world attest to his success in crossing that abstract portal to inspiration. Onlookers certainly feel the poignancy of standing at these doors to a sacred place. The scenes of historical religious journeys confront the audience and give promise that, if one chooses to open and cross the threshold, divinity may be found therein.