Ghiberti, The Painter In Bronze
( Originally Published 1912 )
FOR more than half a century, Andrea's doors remained the pride and glory of the Florentines. It was long ere they gathered force for a renewed effort, and then their concern seems to have been to find a man who could worthily duplicate the work of Andrea. It was under the strictest conditions of duplication in all essential particulars that they called upon the artists of Italy to compete for the privilege of making doors for the north entrance. They were to be framed in the same way, and to contain the same number of panels, with the same quatrefoil outline. A trial panel was to be the test, and that the comparison might be more easy and just, an identical subject was assigned to all, Abraham's Sacrifice. Of the numerous panels presented in this competition, but two seem to have attracted much attention those of Filippo Brunelleschi (later to be famous as the builder of the great dome of the Cathedral) and Lorenzo Ghiberti, known to us almost solely in this connection. These panels are now preserved in the National Museum of Florence. There is no better task that can be set the student of art than to imagine himself one of the Florentine commission appointed to consider the merits of these trial panels, and to decide which is best and why. We know the decision of the Florentines ; we can only guess their reasons. There is some doubt whether their reasons were the same as ours. That their choice was the wise one, few will be found to dispute, but we are not so certain that the outcome was altogether what they expected.
In comparing these two panels let us again remember the complicated nature of the problem. We have a story to tell whose incidents and spirit must be carefully considered. In turn, we have a space to fill, and a very exacting and peculiar space. And finally, we are making a door whose function must not be lost sight of. It is a partition, as we said before, movable but none the less functioning as such. We must keep it a screen, flat and impermeable in thought as in fact. And finally, we must remember that when it is open we are to pass by it, perhaps with draperies afloat, and that it must not be jagged or disagreeable to contact. Some of these considerations are very utilitarian ; others subtle and idealistic ; they are all important and are all appreciated in some degree even by the least analytical mind.
Our story is a highly dramatic one. It concerns Abraham, whose devotion and trust in God are in strange conflict with his paternal instincts. It concerns Isaac, himself to be sacrificed, and naturally unreconciled to the course of events. It concerns Jehovah and his messenger, the Angel. And finally, there are servants mentioned in the story, but obviously and necessarily excluded from full participation in the councils of their master. The ass and the ram play subordinate but essential parts in the story. The physical setting and the problem which it involves we have already mentioned.
Beginning with the decorative problem, let us see how our artist has arranged his picture and filled his space. And here it must be remembered that in considering the problem of decoration we do not want to think too much about per-sons. It makes little difference whether we are dealing with persons or things. The problem of filling the space is a problem of arranging the prominent masses which reflect the light more strongly to the eye, the high-lights, as they are appropriately called. They may be rocks, or trees, or persons. It is with these elements that we must build our picture, create our lights, and fill our space.
(B 416) Turning to Ghiberti's panel we notice one great ridge or mass, perhaps unpleasantly prominent, in the shape of the rocks which, beginning in the upper left hand corner, sweep in a general direction to the right, then curve downward and then again curve to the right. They constitute a sort of diagonal from upper left to lower right, not in a straight line but in a shallow, sinuous curve. This mass of rocks is the backbone of the picture. The next mass or line we shall find in the body of Abraham. It makes connection in the lower right-hand corner with the mass already described. If we begin there and move upward we shall see that it branches off from this great diagonal and, sweeping in a perfect curve, moves upward and then, ignoring a trifling break, passes on into the figure of the Angel in the upper right-hand corner. This superb curve that is thus thrown to the right of the picture is unmistakably intentional, the more so as but for the necessity of this curve, the figure of Abraham would almost certainly have been differently posed. The artist has strained a point to give this curve. This, there-fore, is our second composition line. Passing now to the other end of our diagonal, we see, making close connections with it and dropping downward, the figures of the servants, notably the one on the left. This figure is not so curved as that of Abraham, but the harmony of line is preserved by the very accommodating way in which, as we get near the lower corner, he puts one foot out behind. In a general way, therefore, we have a line similar to the one we have just described on the right, though curving less, and crowded more up toward the frame. So far we have three lines, and they constitute a flowing letter N admirably adapted to this space. But this letter N is crowded to the left simply to make room for another figure that of Isaac. Here again the artist carefully disposes the figure in such way as to repeat the great curve spoken of in the right center. This, as it were, echoes this great line of the composition, a very characteristic method which we shall find in all Ghiberti's work.
Having noted these main lines, it will be interesting to note how carefully the artist avoids anything like contradictory lines. For instance, this theme permitted plenty of straight lines and angles, but Ghiberti will have none of them. The altar line offers a short straight horizontal which is extremely subdued, but in the donkey which, in the other panel, offers the straight line of his back, the back is obscured behind the figures of the two servants, lest that straight line should show, and he turns his head lazily to the right, thus throwing his neck into a long curve perfectly harmonious with the greater curves we have mentioned. All the minutest details of this picture have been carefully considered in this way. Curves large and small are everywhere, straight lines nowhere, angles positively excluded.
It is interesting to notice also the way in which the artist fills his space. The lower corners are filled moderately full, as the lower part of a picture always should be, while the upper part is less crowded, and yet all the larger spaces, that is, the corners, are carefully filled and filled with matter that is relevant to the story, the ram occupying the upper left hand corner as he quietly rests upon the projecting cliff, and the angel filling the corner to the right. But the little points the artist for the most part leaves unfilled. They are too small to require such attention, and any effort made to fill them would be apt to call attention to their existence, and so to the frame, as such. They can safely and wisely be ignored.
(B 429) Turning now to Brunelleschi's picture, let us seek again a main line or mass. It is difficult to pick out any one that is intentionally prominent. We can hardly do better than to take the figure of Abraham which is drawn in a straight, semi-diagonal line from the upper center to the lower right-hand corner. The other figures or masses form a confused set of short and jerky lines interspersed with angles. It is impossible to find in this confusion the hint of a pattern, nor is the frame very satisfactorily filled. The lower corners are filled too full, the figures are crowded out of the space and lap over and obscure the frame, a most unfortunate feature. The upper left-hand corner is occupied by the Angel, and again seems inadequate for the purpose, though here it is the angel rather than the frame that suffers. The upper right-hand corner is less filled and unfortunately is arbitrarily filled, a tree with no especial meaning, being requisitioned for the purpose and attached to the story by a rather gratuitous flip of Abraham's drapery. The drapery is farther called upon to fill minutely and very arbitrarily the little diamond point to the right. It is plain that the decorative problem was much better solved by Ghiberti than by Brunelleschi, and it is doubtful if the latter thought about that problem at all. It is probable that Ghiberti thought about it too much, but we may be perfectly certain that Ghiberti is thinking about it, and that the arrangement we have spoken of is not accidental. Proof of this will soon be forthcoming.
One thing more needs to be noted before we turn to the intellectual or dramatic side of our problem. There is a hint in Ghiberti's work of distant background, that is, perspective. The little ledge on which the ram is resting seems to extend a good way back. What makes it seem so we will notice later, but it is difficult to avoid that impression. It is unmistakable, too, that the angel is coming in from the back-ground in order to avoid the very unfortunate cramping of limbs and drapery which we see in Brunelleschi's angel, who comes in plainly from the left and in the same plane with the other figures. We cannot avoid the impression that Ghiberti is reaching furtively into that background of which Brunelleschi has made no use, and we know what that means. The decoration, before we know it, will grow into a picture, if that tendency is to be indulged. We must watch for it as we go on.
Dropping these problems of decoration, which of the men has told the story most forcefully and satisfactorily ? We can see at a glance that in Brunelleschi's work there is a vehemence which Ghiberti does not manifest, and which in a way is highly appropriate. If a father were called upon to sacrifice his own son, we cannot help thinking that it would take a tremendous brace, mental and physical, on his part, and such a brace is suggested infinitely more by Brunelleschi's rigid and angular Abraham than by the curving figure that Ghiberti has represented. Is it conceivable that a man standing as Ghiberti's Abraham does, would ever be capable of such an act ? This vehemence is manifest throughout. The angel, for instance, who in Ghiberti's panel comes in majestically and quietly from the background and stays the action with the divine message, in Brunelleschi's panel rushes in at a later moment and incontinently grasps the patriarch by the arm and that not a moment too soon, for the knife is already upon Isaac's throat. The attitude of Isaac, too, is far more suggestive of the struggle of both father and son than the serene, classical figure of Ghiberti.
The same spirit is carried into unnecessary detail. Of the servants, one is pulling a thorn out of his foot while the other is dipping up water to drink, and the donkey, with ears laid back and vicious switch of his tail, is disputing his right to the stream. Even the ram, instead of resting quietly, is scratching his head with his hind foot. There is a nervous activity of body and mind in Brunelleschi's work that needlessly complicates a scene in whose central theme his vehement intensity is appropriate.
Now, to sum up our analysis. Brunelleschi is a realist who is thinking only of the action. He is a realist, perhaps we must add, who is not even thinking of the beautiful side of the action. To make it intense, vehement, truthful, even brutally truthful, is his care. That type of realism has been frequent enough in the history of art, but it was uncongenial to the Florentines and has never been productive of art of a high order. Ghiberti, on the other hand, cares little about historic verities. He has not entered very deeply into the spirit of his story, not quite deeply enough, perhaps, but he thinks a great deal about his quatrefoil pattern, about the grace of his figures, preferring curves, with their inevitable suggestion, to straight lines and angles which are servants to another order of ideas. He is primarily a decorator and an apostle of grace.
Ghiberti received the commission, to the disgust of Brunelleschi, whose disappointment deepened ultimately into intense antipathy for his successful rival, an antipathy which was later to influence profoundly the destiny of another great sculptor whom he chose as his prot้g้. But whether the Florentines recognized in these panels the qualities that we have mentioned is not so clear. There was a tremendous bias in Florence at this time in favor of the classical, a word ill-defined but bearing with it something of that magical reminiscence of the Greek, which was the object of devout if not of intelligent worship. It is an open question whether the classical figure of Isaac in Ghiberti's panel did not influence them more than anything else. If so, they were deceived, for we never find a classical figure in Ghiberti's work afterward; scarce even the nude, so inseparable in the thought of the time from the ancient art.
(B 418) But Ghiberti's opportunity was before him and he made use of it with a singleness of purpose that is without a parallel. Twenty-one years were devoted to the great doors in question, little interrupted by other work, and these doors once in place were adjudged not only the equal of Andrea's but their superior, a false judgment, perhaps, but perfectly in line with the taste of the time. So complete was Ghiberti's triumph that these doors once placed in the north entrance, it was decided to remove Andrea's from their place of honor, and to place them in the south entrance, where they would perfectly match the doors of Ghiberti, and then to have Ghiberti make another pair of doors for the front entrance, giving him thus the supreme honor, and freedom to fashion them as he would. Upon these doors he spent twenty-eight years forty-nine years in all. Seldom has a life been so concentrated, and seldom has concentration been so justified.
Turning briefly to Ghiberti's earlier doors, we note their similarity to the doors of Andrea, but with this important difference, that the panels are for the most part more crowded, more detailed and more ambitiously pictorial. The relief is higher and the panel surface much more obscured. It is plain that Ghiberti is thus confronted with a problem of decorative adaptation in an intenser form. He has not evaded it as Andrea did in part.
In the upper left hand door are two panels, the significance of which it is impossible to over-estimate. One represents the Bearing of the Cross and the other a companion panel, the Crucifixion. Beginning with the latter, we note in the center (and it must be remembered that we have the same quatrefoil frame as before) the cross with the figure of Christ. On either side hovers a mourning angel while below sit two figures, one with upturned face, the other with bowed head, mourners at the foot of the cross. Nothing could be more simple, and yet upon this Ghiberti has exhausted the possibilities of decorative art. In line composition it so far transcends the trial panel, that if this were a consideration on the part of his judges their expectations were more than met.
The things which we are about to note are so remote from our thought in the ordinary contemplation of art that they may easily seem fantastic. They are, on the contrary, constantly present in our feeling. If we like a picture, it is in part, though all unconsciously, because of the things that are here so prominent. We do not know that we like it for that reason. We are very far from analyzing all our feelings. To illustrate, let us take a poem of which we are very fond. We admire it because of the sentiment expressed, so we think, and in part this is true, but let us transpose the words so that we break the meter and destroy the rhyme, inserting a synonym occasionally for the purpose, and then read it. We have not changed the sentiment in the slightest degree, but we have nearly or quite destroyed its value as art. Then for the first time we realize that we are dependent in part upon the rhyme and the meter, yet these were but incidental elements ; they add nothing to the thought. If now we take the same poem and set it to music and it is acceptably sung by a beautiful voice, we get a farther addition to our feeling. Read the words of 4 song and we get nothing like the same effect, but again the intellectual element remains unchanged. No, it is the very function of art to transmit a given intellectual content, transfigured by these sensuous elements, rhyme, meter and melody in poetry and song, color and melody of line in picture, and so on with the rest. We do not analyze these elements ; we feel them just the same.
Now, Ghiberti has taken a very simple story, familiar to the humblest of his audience, and has set it to magnificent music, modifying it, of course, somewhat for the purpose. The rhyme, meter and melody may be traced something as follows: First, the figure on the cross is modified noticeably but necessarily. A figure so suspended would draw the arms straight and taut and these thus drawn would form, as oftentimes they do in art, with the cross piece of the cross, a triangle. But Ghiberti's music is of the kind that excludes the straight line and angle, so the arms are thrown into a curve which changes the whole spirit of the piece. Then the drapery of the angel on the right makes perfect connection with the curve of the quatrefoil frame, continuing that curve on a shortening radius so that the figure seems to be the beginning of a scroll. The angel's wing, in turn is a precisely similar curve, but in the opposite direction, an opposite curve, each emphasizing the other. On the other side, the angel makes very different connection with the frame, but connection still. It is not the continuance of a simple curve, Ghiberti seems never to offset two identical curves, but this time it is a reverse curve, a sinuous curve, such a one as we saw at the outset in the rocks of Ghiberti's trial panel. That line is Ghiberti's sign manual, just as distinct in his art as the round or angular hand by which we characterize a man's handwriting. Every artist has such a "hand," that is, a distinctive stroke by which we can detect his work. The wing of this angel which seems so perfectly to match the one on the other side is, after all, quite differently placed, and this time it repeats the curve of the drapery instead of reversing it.
Let us drop now to the lower part of the composition. The figure in the left with bowed head is curled up in the round corner of the frame. At the right below, the figure touches the frame and then swings around in a curve quite similar to that of the frame but departing farther and farther from it. This is one of the most frequent and fundamental lines in curvilinear composition, a tangential curve. On the other side we have a different curve, the long draperies of the figure, quite unnecessary for other purposes, being required to give us this compound curve which we have noticed in the angel on the left. It is impossible too greatly to admire the skill with which the artist has built his scene with these few simple lines, disposing them always with reference to the frame yet never with mechanical repetition ; simplicity itself yet the very perfection of sculptural music, like some supremely beautiful masterpiece of the great composers, inimitable in its beautiful simplicity.
The one thing to be noted in this is that it is not merely a pretty design, but that in the design the very qualities that we have considered are necessary to the spiritual effect. This is one of the most affecting representations of the Crucifixion that we have, but the sentiment and the tender pathos with which it is suffused are due not to any representation of face, nor yet to dramatic attitude. They are due simply to this rhythm and melody with which the artist has suffused his composition. This may perhaps be accounted the greatest masterpiece of the Renaissance in the field of linear design adapted to the purpose of spiritual expression.
The adjacent panel is different from it in almost every particular. There is no such obvious pattern or design. The composition is full of delicate curves, but they are subordinate to another purpose. That purpose is suggested by the architecture in the background. We see without difficulty that this is a city gate through which the great procession has emerged, but the important thing to note is that it is in the background. It looks some distance away, and we have no difficulty in assuming that it is of large proportions. It does not crowd up into the foreground like the prison in Andrea's panel. And out of this vast background thus suggested comes this troop, easily thought of as limitless, but actually containing only a few figures. These figures seem more numerous because they pass from distinctness to vagueness and we partially lose sight of the last ones, thus easily assuming that there are more beyond which we have lost sight of altogether. This familiar suggestive device is a commonplace of the painter's art.
But it will be apparent at a glance that, having a back-ground like this with things near and far, it is not easy to make a pattern composition like that of the Crucifixion. Such compositions need to be in a single plane such at least was the feeling of the early Renaissance. When more than one plane is used it is like putting up a series of iron gratings of different pattern, one behind the other. They simply spoil one another. It required the ingenuity of Raphael to solve this more intricate problem. Ghiberti simply gives up this attempt when he ventures upon the other. The composition is a-satisfactory one from the pictorial standpoint, but it is not in the least like the other.
Here then we have two utterly contrasted principles. In the one panel we have no background but a beautiful decorative pattern, studied with reference to the surrounding frame and suited at once to decorative and spiritual purposes. In the other we have deep background and a composition, pictorial rather than decorative, and in many planes, but the pattern effect is not attempted.
Picture or decorative pattern ? Which shall it be ? Either may serve the spiritual purpose, may convey the spiritual message. Which, then, is best suited to the purpose of the door ? There can be but one answer, the answer which the thoughtful student has always given, though ambitious art and admiration of skill have as continually obscured the principle. The decorative pattern is the appropriate thing for a door and for a panel in itself highly decorative. Ghiberti stands at the parting of the ways. He may develop either principle. We hope he will develop the decorative. He did develop the pictorial. Even in these first doors the pictorial largely predominates. There are no other panels like the Crucifixion, though there are others embodying much of the same principle.
(B 420, B 422, B 423, B 424) As we turn to the later doors, all changes. It is impossible to contemplate these immortal creations with a feeling of unsympathetic criticism. It is with difficulty that we keep our heads from being turned. Ghiberti, now wholly free, has flung out the quatrefoil pattern with* its severe limitation upon pictorial freedom. The twenty-eight panels give way to ten, much larger and more readily used. Splendid decorations now enrich the massive frames of the square panels in which, with the least exacting of settings, he is free to indulge his pictorial instincts. In all Florentine art there is nothing more wonderful than these pictures, for pictures let us frankly call them. Distinctly the most wonderful thing about them is their perspective, which is always present. Even in so simple a panel as the Blessing of Jacob, it is easy to make out six or seven different planes, the figures being graduated in size and distinctness in a way to make the illusion perfect. In others, like the Taking of Jericho, where the city stretches off, miles and miles away, the perspective is bewilderingly perfect.
Let us inquire for a moment as to the means by which this impression of distance is secured. We recall that the Florentines knew substantially only linear perspective. They were conscious of the meaning of converging lines, but that more important perspective suitable for out of door relations, that atmospheric perspective depending upon color and haze, was discovered by Masaccio alone. Upon his work the later painters gazed admiring and mystified. They never caught its secret. Yet, astounding to relate, Ghiberti seems to have caught it, for the perspective we have here is decidedly atmospheric rather than linear. It is not by convergence of lines or' size that we get the impression. We never have it more than when we look upon the city of Jericho where size is no safe guide. 'No, Ghiberti, denied the use of color, so indispensable to the painter's purpose, merely by lowering his relief and dimming his outlines, building upon the single fact of nature's obliterating haze, gives us with magical certainty that impression of distance which is usually the painter's prerogative. If our standard of judgment is simple skill, then this is the greatest pictorial art that Florence ever produced. That of course is not our standard.
But there is much more than perspective. There is a tender grace and sympathy in these creations which is ineffable. Take the individuals, and notice the meaning of their attitudes, the bowed figure of Isaac as he commissions Esau to get him the venison, it is suggestive of a gentle dignity from which the artist never far departs ; or again, the three angels, listeners to Abraham's petition, it is impossible to doubt the result of a prayer so fervent and addressed to beings so benignant. Even the least significant of the figures bear about with them a grace that in itself is a sufficient reason for existence. We must not for a moment imagine that this grace is idle or irrelevant. It is in this grace, which is of the spirit more than of the flesh, that we find the keynote to Ghiberti's spiritual interpretation of his theme. We do not feel the passions that momentarily master the personalities in these varying scenes. Indeed, it must be admitted that from first to last he shows nothing of the vehement realism of Brunelleschi or the grander dramatic power of Donatello. His stories are all set to melody of a single kind, written in music of a single key, but such melody and such music that the most dogmatic devotee of realism feels little disposed to contest their claim to his homage.
It is interesting to note, too, the refining and deepening of this spiritual suggestion which has come to Ghiberti with the years. In one of the panels of these later doors, the one in which Abraham pleads with the angels, Ghiberti again represents Abraham's sacrifice. It is in the back-ground now, but if we compare it with the first we shall be amazed at the change which the years have wrought. There is nothing materialistic here. Abraham does not pose in arbitrary curves and fix his attention solely upon his awful act ; but, with an upturned face that is full of indescribable emotion, he welcomes the divine messenger who relieves him of this terrible necessity. Transfigured at every point, this is the art full grown which was prophesied in Ghiberti's panel.
This is not the thing to do in bronze. Ghiberti is not a sculptor, he is a painter in bronze. He has not the resources of the painter, but he makes up for the lack by more than the painter's skill. In conception, in transfiguring sympathy, his work is above all praise. He has chosen merely to ex-press a supreme artistic inspiration in an abnormal manner. The bronze worker should not paint; he should not, with half resources, venture into the painter's field and strive for those effects of perspective which are appropriate to the painter's medium. Why not ? Simply because that is not the line of least resistance, and the line of least resistance is always the line of greatest potential achievement. That Ghiberti overcame insuperable obstacles does not alter the principle. The artist should play from his long suit. So will he accomplish most.
But recognizing this principle, conceding that it is folly and mischief to ignore it, let us remember another principle which alone can give our criticism measure and ultimate meaning. The essential thing in art is, after all, not medium or manner. It is inspiration and spirit. Ghiberti violates the canons of his technique, but he is true to the heavenly vision. It is easy to say that this is not bronze. It is infinitely more important to say that this is, after all, art. It behooves us to remember that a later and greater than he once stood before those gates, seeing in them a violation of the rules to which he held most firmly, a man who never praised unless praise was inevitable, who criticized freely where criticism was due, and yet Michelangelo said, "These should be the gates of Paradise !"