The Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore, 1296-1439, Florence Italy
Another building the Florentines were spending their extra money beautifying was the Florence baptistry, a beautiful hexagonal building from the 11th century. In 1401 the guild of wool importers i.e. the wealthy business tycoons of Florence, sponsored an art competition. The artist who won would receive the commission to make the brand new set of bronze doors with sculptural relief for the baptistry entrance. For the competition, artists were supposed to create a single quatrefoil, or bronze 4-lobed panel depicting the biblical story of the sacrifice of Isaac.
Here are the two top contenders: Which do you think should have won?
Lorenzo Ghiberti, The Sacrifice of Isaac (competition panel), 1401
Filippo Brunelleschi, The Sacrifice of Isaac (competition panel), 1401
I personally like the second panel, by Brunelleschi, a bit better. Notice how he chooses to illustrate the most dramatic moment of the story, as the angel grabs his arm to stop Abraham from cutting his son's neck not a moment too soon. Isaac looks like a skinny, frightened boy, and Abraham strong and determined, notice how Abraham's cloak is swinging behind him as if he is moving resolutely forward.
Compare the Ghiberti. Instead of a scared little boy, Isaac is depicted, rather oddly in my view, as a male nude of classical beauty with a serious set of muscles. Abraham's body language is more graceful; it's almost as if he is performing a dance step. And the moment Ghiberti has chosen to portray, a few seconds before the knife touches Isaac's throat and the angel puts out his hand, isn't as dramatic as Brunelleschi's moment. Ghiberti does have a much more interestingly shaped rocky landscape, I will admit, veering up as it does, on the left of the scene.
Fascinatingly, Ghiberti won the contest! What were the judges thinking? This is a wonderful chance for art historians to see what aesthetics early Renaissance Florentines valued, and it turns out they wanted figures like classical Greek sculptures, figures with grace and elegance. Dramatic realism, at this time and place in history, just wasn't as important. In a different century, perhaps Brunelleschi would have won, but not in 1401 Florence.
Don't feel too sorry for Brunelleschi though. He later won another competition to design the great dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore (the same one in the first picture on this post). And he was one of the most prolific artists and architects of the era.