Category Archives: Narrative Art

Ghiberti and the Story of Jacob and Esau

Ghiberti, "Gates of Paradise," east doors of the Florence Baptistery: Lorenzo Ghiberti, “Gates of Paradise,” East Doors of the Florence Baptistery, bronze, 1425-52. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

See video at 7:15 where Dr. Steven Zucker states:
"This is a pretty complicated story and yet the artist has been able to delineate it quite clearly".

There is an assumption given in this statement that Ghiberti’s relief is capable of telling a story. Is it true the relationships between the characters in the panel can be decoded as suggested by Zucker’s presentation in the video? Without any reference to the account of Jacob and Esau in Genesis how is it possible the events represented in the panel be arranged in time to delineate the biblical story? Surely only those with knowledge of the biblical account, in addition to knowledge of approaches to pre- and early-Renaissance art for representing space and time, in addition to awareness of the details of Ghiberti’s contract for the doors of the baptistry in Florence, would it be possible to recognise the characters as presented in the panel. For anyone else without a specific awareness of Christian literature and the history of western art the aesthetic quality of the composition and materials would surely take precedent over any association with Jacob or Esau.

This is a good example of how narrative gets used in language about art without any grounding in how techniques in art can, or cannot, produce stories.

See Paul Barolsky’s account of the same work where the distinction between the continuous narrative of a text and the spatial arrangement of a visual composition are clearly distinctive. Barolsky’s view, which appears agreeable, is that the work is not a narrative in the same way as a text is since it cannot follow an explicit order of events. The visual artwork is driven by decisions based visual principles of composition and space within the frame rather than being determined by the temporal order of the story as it is known from the bible. Even if one was aware of the significance of each of the scenes, and recognized their position in the original biblical plot, there is no understandable order to the events in Ghiberti’s panel comparative to the sequence in the bible. Barolsky’s point is that while there is a spatial rationale to placing Rebecca’s conversation with God in the top right hand corner of the composition there is no apparent narrative rationale.
Barolsky’s paper can be accessed online here as a PDF document from Fall 2010, Vol. 18.2 of Arion – A Journal of Humanities and the Classics.