Sometimes You Want People to Stare

30 Oct 2014

When I was in Art History 101, my professor touted the competition for the design of the Baptistry doors in Florence in 1401 as one of the greatest historic art competitions of all time. In one corner we have the young Lorenzo Ghiberti, only 21 at the time of the competition and the artist who would be remembered for re-developing the lost-wax bronze casting art technique that was once used by the ancient Romans. In the other corner is Filippo Brunelleschi, lauded in his time for his theories of linear perspective and his architectural feats.

Sacrifice of Isaac by Filippo Brunelleschi, 1401-03. Sacrifice of Isaac by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1401-03.
Sacrifice of Isaac
by Filippo Brunelleschi, 1401-03.

Sacrifice of Isaac
by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1401-03.

Both artists submitted a panel showing the Sacrifice of Isaac, which was to be judged by the guild holding the art contest in order to win the lucrative commission for the Baptistry doors. Brunelleschi's panel is well crafted, showing the saving angel resting a hand on Abraham's arm as he holds the knife to Isaac's throat. The rest of the panel is fairly standard in terms of its inclusions and presentation.

Sacrifice of Isaac (detail) by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1401-03.
Sacrifice of Isaac (detail)
by Lorenzo Ghiberti, 1401-03.
Ghiberti's panel, as I was taught, made people stare. It was a unique interpretation of the story as it shows the indecision of Abraham in the moment just before he plunges the knife—his fluttering sleeve shows that he is in the midst of a striking motion and the foreshortened body of the angel as it thrusts its arm out makes it seem like there were only milliseconds to spare before Isaac would indeed be sacrificed.

Ghiberti also gave a sense of the mount where Abraham brought his son—the craggy hillock that makes a strong diagonal from left to right on the panel recreates the environment where the story took place. And then there is the body of Isaac—sturdy, young, and a testament to the Renaissance ideal of the male form. All in all, there was quite a reaction to Ghiberti's work, which is definitely a significant part of the reason he won the commission.

I love this story. I always have. Mostly because it reiterates that taking a new perspective on a story or a narrative that has been illustrated countless times before can be done and can be done well. Innovation can still exist for contemporary artists too. I take inspiration from Ghiberti on that and I hope you do the same! And to celebrate all the innovation I know you have within you, we are having Artist's Network TV Sale, which is going on right now. It's 50% off all art instruction DVDs from Artist's Network TV so you can seize all the instruction you are drawn to and get those inspirational juices flowing. Enjoy!

 

 


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