Creation panel on the Gates of Paradise, by Lorenzo Ghiberti
Artist: Lorenzo Ghiberti
Title: Gates of Paradise: Scenes from the Story of Adam and Eve
Location: Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, Italy
Medium: Bronze sculpture
Movement: Early Renaissance
The doors of the Florence Baptistry, created by Lorenzo Ghiberti and aptly termed the “Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo when he first saw them (Shaw), display the history of redemption. But given that the ten narrative panels are meant to portray prefigurations of Christ, the Creation panel seems out of place in its emphasis on Eve rather than Adam. Eve’s creation is at the focal point of the panel, while Adam’s is relegated to the lower left-hand corner; angels crowd adoringly around the newly created Mary as well as forming an admiring arch over her head, while the few watching the forming of Adam are more engaged in wondering deliberation amongst themselves than in wonder at God’s new handiwork. On either side of the artwork Eve is again the most prominent figure: in the temptation scene on the left she is fully displayed while Adam is partially hidden, and in the exulsion from the Garden on the right Eve almost obscures Adam from view. This emphasis may seem out of kilter with the over-all message of salvation Ghiberti meant to portray with his doors, as it is not Adam, the precursor of Christ (the Second Adam) whom he chose to make the focus of his first panel.
But Ghiberti’s emphasis on Eve revealed his message of salvation clearly to the contemporary viewer because of her connection in Catholic dogma to both the Virgin Mary and the Church. Adam in the Bible prefigures Christ, who is spoken of as the Second Adam, but the Catholic church extended this relationship to Eve as the prefiguration of Mary, whom they termed the Second Eve (Dilbeck, 26). Eve is the mother of all the living, while Mary is the mother of the One who gave eternal life; Eve’s disobedience brought death, while Mary’s role as the mother of Jesus Christ brought life (26). Therefore one of the angels clinging to the newly-created Eve has its hand placed on her womb, foreshadowing one effect of the Curse, pain in childbirth, as well as the triumph over the Curse that childbearing will bring when Mary bears Jesus (27).
In Ghiberti’s theme of salvation his emphasis on Eve as a typological figure serves a dual purpose, extending not only to Mary but to the Church. St. Augustine compared the creation of Eve to the creation of the Church: while Adam was put to sleep by God in preparation for the forming of Eve, Christ was put to sleep by the death he suffered in order that the Church might be formed; while Eve was taken from Adam’s side, the Church found life in the Passion and Baptism symbolised by the blood and water that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side (27). The theme of the Church is taken up again in the last panel, where the Queen of Sheba represents a recognition of the Church (45). Adam and Eve are exiting the gates of paradise, while the Queen of Sheba and Solomon are about to enter his palace, just as sin has banished us from the gates of heaven but Christ’s saving work has provided the means for reentering them (Corn, 460). Thus the formation of the Church and its fall is seen in the first panel with Eve and its establishment and redemption in the last panel with the Queen of Sheba.
The story of the Creation panel as a whole provides a fitting beginning for the theme of salvation by depicting the sin which brought condemnation while at the same time pointing to salvation. Adam and Eve’s sin in eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil brought a curse upon the whole human race and caused them to be expelled from Paradise; here again Eve plays a central role as the initiator of the sin and the first receiver of the curse (Genesis 3). But the water flowing along the bottom of the panel represents the water of baptism, which in immersion and reemergence from water references Christ’s death and resurrection (Corn, 453) and initiates believers into the salvation he accomplished. As believers entered the Baptistery, the first panel on the doors was meant to remind them of their need for redemption, the accomplishment of that redemption through Christ’s birth and the creation of the Church through his death, and the symbolic purpose of the baptism which took place in the building. In remembering this the doors to the Baptistery symbolically became the Gates of Paradise, and Eve a fitting figure to open that story.
Reader, George. Creation Panel, Gates of Paradise. Digital image. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/grharrisondc/1025423101/sizes/z/in/photostream/>.
Shaw, Jonathan. “”The Gates of Paradise”” Harvard Magazine. Apr. 2007. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://harvardmagazine.com/2007/03/the-gates-of-paradise.html>.
Dilbeck, Gwynne A. “Opening the Gates of Paradise: Function and the Iconographical Program of Ghiberti’s Bronze Door.” 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2772&context=etd>.
Corn, Alfred. “Ghiberti’s Greatest Work.” Web. 10 Apr. 2012. <http://www.hudsonreview.com/CornAu07.pdf>.