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Gates of Heaven (PDF)
The Bible in Bronze (PDF)
Praying with the Doors (PDF)

This spring, the Seattle Art Museum is privileged to host a once-in-a-lifetime exhibit of three panels of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance masterwork, the bronze doors of the baptistry of the Cathedral of Florence.  A series of inserts in the bulletin will help us celebrate this event and learn more about “the Gates of Paradise” and our own magnificent bronze doors created by Ulrich Henn.

On Saturday, March 29, St. James Cathedral parishioners are invited to gather for a special event with dinner, Renaissance music, a lecture from Chiyo Ishikawa (SAM curator), and a private viewing of the panels.  The cost is $125 per person.  For information, contact Maria Laughlin, 206-382-4874.


Lorenzo Ghiberti Self-PortraitIn April, 1424, Lorenzo Ghiberti oversaw the installation of his new doors for the baptistry of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.  These doors, depicting twenty scenes from the New Testament, weighed thirty-four thousand pounds and cost twenty-two thousand florins.  Ghiberti, now 44 years old, had labored at them for twenty years—his entire adult life.

The Merchants’ Guild of Florence, who had commissioned the doors so many years before, were delighted with the results.  No sooner had they seen the doors in place and heard the raves from every side, than they decided to commission another set of doors from Ghiberti.  This time, they told him, he was to pull out all the stops.  “He had permission to do anything he wished so that the doors would turn out even more elegant, rich, perfect, and beautiful than he could ever imagine.  Nor should he worry about the time or the expenses, so that just as he had surpassed all other statuary up to that time, he could now outdo and surpass all of his own works” (Vasari).

Ghiberti threw himself into this new project with zeal.  Finally he had a worthy rival to compete with:  himself!  For twenty-four years, he labored at this new set of doors, revolutionizing art as he went, making breakthroughs with each panel, in perspective, relief, and in the casting and finishing of bronze.  The doors, which were finally installed on the east side of the baptistry in 1448, depicted stories from the Old Testament, from the creation of Adam and Eve to Solomon in his glory.  Many years later, another Florentine artist, Michelangelo Buonarotti, was seen pausing to look at them.  “When he was asked what he thought of them and whether they were beautiful, he replied: ‘They are so beautiful that they would do nicely at the entrance to Paradise’” (Vasari).
Ulrich Henn and the Cathedral's Bronze DoorsAt St. James, we know that the age of great church-doors is not in the past.  In the early 1990s, Father Ryan—like the Merchants’ Guild in Florence so long ago—was in search of an artist who could create bronze doors for St. James Cathedral.  While the Merchants’ Guild had held a contest which drew artists from all over Tuscany, St. James Cathedral cast its net far wider.  “After spending considerable time on research and study,” Father Ryan has written, “we began an international search for an artist to handle the commission. Artists from across the country and around the world, including some fine ones right here in the Northwest, submitted proposals for consideration. In the end, the decision was made to award the commission to the internationally recognized German sculptor, Ulrich Henn.”   Well-known in his native Germany, Henn had completed only one commission in the United States—the magnificent gates of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  After receiving the commission, Henn visited Seattle, taking the measure not only of the building but of the community as he commenced work on this new project.

Henn’s bronze doors were the work not of days or months, but of years.  Fifteen feet high, the great central doors were to depict the journey to the heavenly Jerusalem, beginning with Adam and Eve in the garden, through Noah and Moses, and the story of Christ’s ministry from his Baptism in the Jordan to his lonely journey to Calvary.  As in Ghiberti’s day, sculpting the doors was only the beginning of a long, immensely complex process developed by the Romans before the Christian era—the lost wax process.

—M & C Laughlin

Read more about the Cathedral connection to the Gates of Paradise in the Catholic Northwest Progress


  • Doors have great symbolic significance in our culture.  We speak of being “on the threshold” of something, of someone “opening doors” for us, of having the door “slammed in our face.”  In your life, when have doors opened for you?  When have they closed?
  • Jesus said, “I am the gate.  Whoever enters through me will be safe” (John 10: 9).  The doors of a church, not unlike the altar and the ambo, are a sign of Christ in the building.  Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” and our own doors created by Ulrich Henn are unlike ordinary doors in that they have no handles: they can only be opened from within.  How did you first enter the Church?  Who opened those doors for you? 

—M & C Laughlin


The Bible in Bronze

Ghiberti Adam and Eve
Lorenzo Ghiberti. Adam and Eve

Lorenzo Ghiberti chose to depict not one image of the story of Adam and Eve, but multiple moments simultaneously. He is radical in his non-linear approach to narrative. He invites the viewer to “read” the story of our first parents, from creation to the expulsion from the garden—but not necessarily in that order! Chronologically, we begin in the lower left-hand corner, with the creation of Adam, in very deep relief (1). The story continues with the beautiful vision of the creation of Eve in the center, portrayed in “middle relief” (2). We see Adam asleep on the ground, while Eve, supported by angels and encircled above by another flight of angels, is drawn from Adam’s side. Next is the temptation in the garden (3), in low relief on the middle left hand of the panel. Finally, we see the figure of God the Father (4), surrounded by angels, commanding his angel to send Adam and Eve from the garden. Their exclusion is represented by a portal (5) through which we see the angel pointing the way out, while Eve looks up in anguish; Adam is barely visible behind her. Wonderful details abound in the panel, including the birds sitting in the trees (look for the wise owl!), and two tiny lizards meeting in the foreground at Adam’s feet.

Ulrich Henn

Ulrich Henn, in the ceremonial bronze doors of St. James Cathedral, tells the story of a journey—our journey with Jesus to the heavenly city. The figures themselves form a path, “winding” along the door, from the bottom to the top. The story is told entirely through figures, their gestures and expressions; there is no background, no landscape, no “perspective” as in Ghiberti’s doors. The story begins in the bottom left, with the Baptism of the Lord. John the Baptist points to Jesus (1). Next we move to the bottom right (2), where we see Christ gently healing the man born blind (whose hands express both eagerness and hesitation about meeting the Lord). Above, we see Christ (3) healing the man whose friends have lowered him down through the roof on a stretcher. Witnessing this miracle is a figure in the foreground (4) who turns toward us, the viewer, and seems to shout, “Who but God alone can forgive sins?” (Ulrich Henn himself has said that this man is the most important figure in the doors, because everything depends on our answer to his question.) Moving on, we see Jesus teaching, surrounded by his followers (5). These figures listen with different emotions to the word of God and reward careful study! Next we see Christ entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (6). He is surrounded by women, men, and children waving palm branches and shouting “Hosanna!” Jesus himself is represented as somewhat withdrawn in this scene. His hands bless, but they also suggest obedience, resignation. He knows what is so soon to come.  Next week: Praying with the Doors.


Praying with the Doors

Our ceremonial bronze doors, beautiful as they are, weren’t made just to look at—or to pass through on great occasions! They are intended to challenge us, to make us stop and reflect on the great mysteries of our faith.  The following questions may help you reflect on the doors and perhaps look at them in a different way.

  1. Angel in Eden, Ulrich HennAdam and Eve.  The journey begins as our first parents set out from Eden.  At the Easter Vigil, the great Exsultet reminds us, “O, happy fault! O necessary sin of Adam that gained for us so great a Redeemer!” In our Christian faith, the expulsion from Eden is inseparable from the salvation Christ won for us.  Do you see this Christian view of the fall reflected in Ulrich Henn’s vision of the story?
  2. God’s Covenant with Noah.  A rainbow arcs overhead, and Noah kneels, in adoration, in awe, even in jubilation.  What a contrast this scene forms to the violence of the flood that lasted forty days.  When have you had an experience of God’s mercy following a particularly difficult time in your life?
  3. Moses leads his people through the Red Sea.  The crowd of people that follows Moses includes all of us—young and old, men and women.  Some carry heavy burdens.  A mother tenderly protects her infant.  A young child turns around in amazement at the sight of the waves like a wall on their left.  Who do you identify with in this crowd?
  4. The Baptism of the Lord.  What does Jesus’ gesture and expression reveal about his attitude toward baptism?  What does the figure of John the Baptist say to you?
  5. Healing Stories.  Look at the figure of the paralyzed man, sitting up for the first time.  Jesus heals not just the body, but the soul.  Below, the man born blind reaches out for Jesus with one hand while the other seems hesitant, unsure.  Life in Christ demands huge changes from us.  Are we ready to be healed?
  6. Woman Listening, Ulrich Henn
    .  This scene is situated right before Palm Sunday, suggesting that acceptance of Jesus’ teachings means setting out on the way of the Cross. Look at the faces of those gathered around Jesus as he teaches.  Find yourself among them.
  7. Palm Sunday.  Study the figure of Jesus. In the images of Christ’s ministry, we saw Christ speaking, gesturing, healing.  How does Henn capture the silence of Christ during his Passion?  Sometimes Christian life demands action on our part; and sometimes simply patient endurance of suffering.  When have you experienced this in your life?
  8. Crowning with Thorns and Crucifixion.  We see Christ surrounded by a turbulent, accusing, hostile crowd.  This is contrasted to the image of Christ, solitary, bent double, seemingly crushed under the weight of the cross.  Jesus experiences both the humiliation of public disgrace and the desolation of total abandonment.
  9. Tympanum.  The story of salvation is brought full circle in this dramatic vision of the Heavenly City.  An angel pointed the way out of Paradise; now an angel points to the way back in—the triumphant Lamb of God.  The cross has become burnished gold.  The Lamb who was slain is at the center of the vision, and from him pour forth rivers of living water, trees bearing an abundance of fruit.  What does this suggest about the Easter mystery we are about to celebrate?

Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” were created not just to dazzle the viewer, or to gain a reputation for the artist (though they achieved both of these things surpassingly well!).  As sacred art, they are intended to challenge, to teach, and above all, to illuminate sacred mysteries.

  1. Creation of Adam and Eve.  Many artists focus on the anguish of the expulsion from Eden.  But for Ghiberti, this story is about beauty—the beauty of creation, the sublime beauty of the human being created in the image and likeness of God.  Are we able to see the beauty of God in our fallen humanity?  In the least of our brothers and sisters?  Does our own self-image reflect our belief that we are made in God’s image and likeness?
  2. Ghiberti, Jacob and Esau
    Jacob and Esau.
      In the story of Jacob, stealing his brother’s birthright with the help of his mother, we see God “writing straight with crooked lines.”  Ghiberti’s composition of this panel suggests this.  The busy figures are grouped here and there, but the magnificent soaring arches of the space in which they are situated suggest the divine order that God brings out of human chaos.  “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”  God is not ashamed to be called our God.
  3. David and Goliath.  This panel is crowded with dozens of figures.  A battle rages; Saul, clad in armor and raising his sword aloft, plunges down on the enemy in his chariot.  But it is not Saul who actually wins this battle.  In the foreground we see the little figure of David, cutting off the head of the massive, sprawling Goliath.  The soldiers fight, but God has already given the victory—to the most unlikely victor imaginable.  It is not our strength, but God’s grace, that wins the day. As David the Psalmist would sing, “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory.”

Ghiberti, David and Goliath


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Seattle, Washington  98104
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