Lorenzo Ghiberti, Cain and Abel, from the Eastern Doors of the Florence Baptistery, 1425-52
Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) was a Florentine artist who worked in sculpture and metalwork. He is best known as the creator of the bronze doors of the Florence Baptistery. Michelangelo called them the Gates of Paradise, a name that has stuck. The first commission took twenty-one years to complete and consisted of the North doors depicting the life of Christ. At only 23, Ghiberti won the commission in a competition with his Sacrifice of Isaac panel. In 1425 he received a second commission to create the East doors, which took twenty-seven years to complete. All the panels are equally magnificent and intricate, but I found the depiction of Cain and Abel especially compelling. The scene is quite complex and contains multiple elements of the story told in different spaces. The panel has a left to right motion, beginning with Adam and Eve in the upper left, while Abel tends to his flock in the middle left and Cain plows his fields. At the top and towards the right Cain and Abel make their sacrifices to God. Just below that we see the murder, in the midst of Cain's attack on Abel. Just below that Cain appears again to receive the curse or mark from God who appears on the far right. It is quite remarkable that Ghiberti achieved such complex use of space and managed to clearly depict the story. However his skill in metalwork is even more remarkable. He makes the metal soft and hard at the same time, especially noticeable in the rock formations that take up the center of the panel; he conveys their hardness, but they appear flowing and soft as well. He creates a different effect altogether in the leaves of the trees, which are molded quite rigidly, but only to show their density and fineness. Ghiberti's molding of musculature is also incredibly skillful, as is the way he depicts Cain's pair of oxen, a technique that was still being worked out in the fifteenth century. Also note the flowing curves of the river on the right, the appearance of which is mirrored in the tendrils of fire in the sacrifice.