The Cast of Ghiberti’s Baptistery Doors, Inspiration for The Black Gates

Looming ominously in a dimly lit corridor of the ECA’s drawing and painting department, the dark façade of the cast of Ghiberti’s baptistery doors contrasts strikingly with the original. Far from the celebrated centrepiece in a Florentine piazza, its gold gilded panels glinting in the sunlight, the ECA plaster cast is coated black and has suffered several deformities over a century of passing arts students. Despite its differences the presence of the relief is just as powerful; the light-absorbing, shadowy cast results in an experience just as immersive. ‘The Black Gates’ mimics the framework of the Baptistery doors and was greatly inspired by the opposition between cast and original and the immersive experience the darkness of the ECA cast enables.

What is apparent in both the ECA cast and the original is Ghiberti’s innovative sculptural technique; varying between high and low relief in order to depict the stories contained within each panel. The 10 large panels each depict a story from the Old Testament; the landscape or architectural environment providing a unifying setting for the different stages of the story to play out in various areas. This results in an effective illusion of depth, the viewer is drawn into the scene and travels through it along the narrative of each story. 

Condensing the Old Testament into the ordered confines of the framework of the doors; the façade of the gates effectively represent an established description of the genesis of humanity and sets up the order of the world according to the Christian belief system. I am interested in the frameworks we apply (according to the narratives of Science and History) in order to establish our own reality. The orderly Albertian framework of the gates therefore became of particular significance to me.

  Ghiberti’s doors form an entrance, an introduction to another space, as the viewer stands in front of them they are standing at a threshold of one space, anticipating another. I have continually used doorways, windows and entrances in my work as I am interested in this point of contemplation of what lies beyond. Ghiberti’s doors are an introduction to an ordered, well defined ‘space’ (Christian doctrine) that has a beginning in the form of the creation story and a future in the prospect of an eternity in Heaven. While gilded bronze is a reflective material my gates are matt black, similarly the gates themselves do not function, instead they impede. In that sense their function is that of presence and the intimation of a concealed power; in so doing they take on a more primal monolithic aspect more akin to that of an obelisk or menhir. 

With Ghiberti’s innovative sequential imagery in mind I cast each panel in folded forms that mimicked the flow of narrative through each of his panels. My work is, therefore, a reworking of Ghiberti’s, but from an attempted opposite perspective. The surface texture is inversed to its polar opposite, from light reflecting gold to light absorbing matt black. Traditionally black is the colour of night, otherness, mystery both intimidating and enigmatic. The complete opposition of ‘The Black Gates’ to Ghiberti’s glistening bronze Baptistery Doors is intended to represent a negative space, a modern nihilism in stark contrast with a Renaissance Christianity; both products of their time- a reinterpretation from a contemporary perspective rather than an art historical recreation. ‘The Black Gates ‘ are necessarily composed of echoes of the renaissance and the present; a hybridity which perhaps indicates something of the vastness of difference between Ghiberti’s time and our own.