Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Competition

The prize would be a commission to create a set of doors for the Florence Baptistry. At least seven artists entered the competition in 1401, creating a competition piece using the specified size, shape and material. The assigned subject was the sacrifice of Isaac. The work - not surprisingly - differed. Only two of those competition panels come down to us today: the panels by Filippo Brunelleschi (below left) and Lorenzo Ghiberti (below right).
In his book The Feud That Sparked the Renaissance, Robert Paul Walker describes the Brunelleschi panel like this: "Brunelleschi's work is by far the more dramatic and disturbing, all angles and movement and raw emotion, like nothing that had ever been created before. His Abraham is a tall, powerful figure, grasping a frail Isaac along the jawline with his left hand, the father's thumb under the boy's chin to better expose the neck, or perhaps to cut off the flow of oxygen so that his son won't feel the fatal blow. In his right hand, Abraham holds the knife, driving the blade forward with such forceful commitment that the angel sweeping down from the sky must grab his wrist to stop the sacrifice. The story literally bursts out from the panel, breaking the boundaries of the Gothic quatrefoil within which it is supposed to be contained, just as Brunelleschi burst through the boundaries of the Gothic art with his creation." 

Walker also describes Ghiberti's panel: "Ghiberti's panel is more elegant and more beautiful. His Isaac is a perfectly modeled classical nude while his Abraham is a smaller, more graceful man, his left arm wrapped around the boy's shoulders while his right hand holds the knife hovering in the air, as if he has not yet made the decision to strike. The angel floats above them, open palm over Abraham's well-coiffed, curly hair, no need to grab the father's arm but able instead to stop him with a word. The whole scene plays out against an exquisitely cascading mountainside, all neatly contained within its quatrefoil boundary. Whereas Brunelleschi's piece demonstrates an artist aching to forge a new and more powerful image of reality, Ghiberti's demonstrates masterful perfection of the art, as remarkable in its own way for the time and place and age of the artist as is the work of his rival."

If you were one of the patrons with a vote, which artist would you choose? Do you think one better captures the story of the binding of Isaac? Consider the position in which each artist places Isaac. Consider how close we are to the death of the boy. How close is the angel? Where is the ram?

How would you choose? Would you select the one that most closely adhered to the details of the text? Would you choose the one with the greatest emotional impact? Would you use a different criteria entirely?

Spoiler alert: The commission ultimately went to Ghiberti (above right). Tradition says that the judges, unable to choose one of these two artists, asked if the two artists might work together. Brunelleschi bowed out, wanting full artistic control rather than collaboration, so Ghiberti received the commission - though the subject of the competition panel was not used in the commission. The two submissions to the competition remain, however, and remind us of the artistic riches nurtured in Florence at the beginning of the 15th century. The panels are in the Bargello National Museum in Florence, Italy: http://www.polomuseale.firenze.it/en/musei/index.php?m=bargello

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