Ghiberti’s St. John the Baptist (1412-16)

Michelangelo, it is often said, was the first artist to think of himself on a heroic scale and that his sculpture of David, with which he is known to have identified, is a turning-point in art history. Well, yes and no. David has to be part of tradition too because as art, theology and philosophy thrice-confirm, wisdom - their principal goal - never changes.

Lorenzo Ghiberti's St. John the Baptist (left) modelled for a niche on the outside wall of Or San Michele is a century older than David. At 100" tall it was, in 1416, the largest sculpture ever cast in Florence, a massive and mammoth undertaking. Yet to this day it hides a secret with significant implications. Many new readers of EPPH assume that an artist's self-representation - if there's any truth to my argument at all - was a passing fad rather than an integral part of a continuum going back to at least the early Middle Ages but perhaps even prehistory.

Click next thumbnail to continue

















 

Captions for image(s) above:

Ghiberti, St. John the Baptist (1412-16) Bronze. 100" high. Or San Michele, Florence.

Click image to enlarge.

In Ghiberti's St. John the Baptist (left), convention goes, the sculptor modeled the head with great sensitivity but with the generic features of a biblical face.1 Generic. Lacking individuality. Really?

Click next thumbnail to continue














 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Ghiberti's St John the Baptist

Click image to enlarge.

A comparison to Ghiberti's self-portrait, made a few years earlier for one of the doors on Florence's Baptistery, suggests otherwise. It is a little difficult because most images are captured from below. Nevertheless, note the similar shape of their almond eyes, their noses and the lines descending from the corner of their lips.

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Ghiberti's St John the Baptist (1412-16)
R: Detail of Ghiberti's Self-portrait (c.1410) North doors, Baptistery of St. John, Florence.

Click image to enlarge.

In the better-preserved self-portrait on his second set of doors, the eyes are again similar. The nose, with less resemblance from this angle, still has a similar width to its tip and nostrils. The lips, though, are identical, a thin upper one over a protruding lower one. [Click on the image for a better view.]

Click next thumbnail to continue
 

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Ghiberti's St John the Baptist (1412-16)
R: Detail of Ghiberti's Self-portrait (c.1425-50) East doors, Baptistery of St. John, Florence.

Click image to enlarge.

Ghiberti's two portraits adorn the doors of the Baptistery which is dedicated naturally to St. John the Baptist, the very same saint. Each set of doors on which the self-portraits are placed took him decades to make. Fully aware of their importance Ghiberti might well have identifed with the Baptist and, in placing his self-portraits on the doors, the later one in a circular eye-shape, he might have implied that the Baptistery behind them is the inside of his artistic and divine mind, full of art too. The sculpture under discussion, though, the saint in his niche (left), can now be seen as a larger-than-life artist on a public stage.

We learn then that a Florentine artist used self-representation on a heroic scale long before Michelangelo and on a very public commission. Michelangelo would have known that, just as he would also have recognized that St. John's heavily bearded features are far from generic. They were Ghiberti's.





 

Captions for image(s) above:

Ghiberti's St John the Baptist (1412-16)

Click image to enlarge.

More Works by Ghiberti

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 06 Feb 2014. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.