Lorenzo Ghiberti, “Gates of Paradise,” circa 1452, gilded bronze, 17 feet, Florence baptistery

Originally created for the east façade of the Baptistery in Florence, Italy, “The Gates of Paradise” by Lorenzo Ghiberti — a monumental pair of 17-foot gilded bronze doors — are considered a defining moment of the Italian Renaissance. How have they landed in Missouri?

A team of engineers and workers triumphed over multiple challenges recently when they successfully installed casts of the original “Gates of Paradise” doors in the Bloch Lobby at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. The 15th-century doors are massive, at 17 feet tall and weighing in excess of 4 1/2 tons.

Via the museum, “The doors require a location that allows for anchoring and framing against a strong wall, and the top of the ramp in Bloch Lobby offered just such a majestic location. The original ‘Gates of Paradise’ were set within the east portal of the Baptistery in Florence, and they functioned as a space of transition through which the baptized passed on their way to the Cathedral, which signified the Heavenly Kingdom to believers.”

“‘Bloch Lobby is the entry point for the museum, and “The Gates of Paradise” will signal that as visitors enter the modern and ethereal Bloch Building, they will encounter not only contemporary work, but also art from all over the world and across many time periods,’ said Julián Zugazagoitia, Menefee D. and Mary Louise Blackwell CEO & Director of the Nelson-Atkins.

“Ghiberti was commissioned in 1425 to create the doors, and he and his workshop toiled for 27 years (1425-1452) to create striking, sculptural panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The panels are surrounded by intricate framework, foliage, fruit, and busts. For centuries, the doors have been considered one of the masterpieces of Western art and the beginning of the Renaissance.

“‘The original doors represented a transition to the Italian Renaissance, which was so fundamentally transformative that its influence left no Western culture untouched,’ Zugazagoitia said.

“‘The contemporary cast of Ghiberti’s ‘Gates of Paradise’ fits within a long trajectory and tradition of copying great works of art from the past, extending to Antiquity. Romans filled their homes and their bathhouses with copies of Greek sculptures. Renaissance collectors including Cosimo I de Medici, and Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, whose portrait by Titian hangs in the Nelson-Atkins, commissioned bronze copies of sculptures for their private collections. The practice continued in the 18th century among English collectors including the Duke of Hamilton, the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale, and the Duke of Northumberland, all of whom commissioned marble replicas of the most important Italian works they saw during their travels on the Grand Tour.

“In the 19th and early 20th centuries, museums throughout Europe and America, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, assembled vast collections of plaster casts of Classical and Renaissance sculptures created from molds taken directly from the originals to educate and as a way to disseminate knowledge. William Rockhill Nelson participated in this trend from the early 20th century and acquired a small collection of sculpture casts, which he displayed in a gallery on the second floor of the Kansas City Public Library. Such plaster casts provided museum visitors — many of whom found travel to Europe difficult —the only opportunity to experience the extraordinary power of great masterpieces of Western Art. Mr. Nelson also commissioned copies of paintings by the ‘European Old Masters,’ works that he felt ‘have stood the test of time and are acclaimed as the foremost achievements.’

“The contemporary bronze casts of Ghiberti’s ‘Gates of Paradise’ at the Nelson-Atkins offers visitors another opportunity to see a monumentally important work of art in its original scale and materiality. It is one of two authorized casts made in 1990 from molds taken by Bruno Bearzi in the late 1940s, directly from Ghiberti’s original. The casting process was organized to preserve the original and was fully monitored by the Ufficio Tecnico dell’Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and carried out by the Fonderia Marinelli of Florence. The ‘sister’ cast on view at the museum is the one in the east portal of the Florence Baptistery, replacing Ghiberti’s original doors, which are now on display inside the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.

“Between 2013 and 2016, the new casts of ‘Gates of Paradise’ traveled in an exhibition tour that included Mumbai, India and Seoul, South Korea. On returning to Florence, they were purchased by the DeBruces as a promised gift for the Nelson-Atkins. The massive gates were crated, sent on a ship across the ocean, and transported to Kansas City, arriving in February of this year.”

To learn more, visit the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.

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Andrew Webster
Andrew Webster is the Editor of Fine Art Today and works as an editorial and creative marketing assistant for Streamline Publishing. Andrew graduated from The University of North Carolina at Asheville with a B.A. in Art History and Ceramics. He then moved on to the University of Oregon, where he completed an M.A. in Art History. Studying under scholar Kathleen Nicholson, he completed a thesis project that investigated the peculiar practice of embedded self-portraiture within Christian imagery during the 15th and early 16th centuries in Italy.

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