gates of paradise

don’t want to spend thousands on a trip to Italy just to scrum in a crowd ten rows deep for a view of Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise? You can have it all to yourself at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral. An exact copy of the doors grace the grand cathedral’s entrance.

San Francisco's Gates of Paradise: A Copy. 

photo credit: Chris06, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

photo credit: Chris06, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco

At the end of winter, when we first moved to the city, I went on a lot of walks in San Francisco. I'd pick out a "tourist" camera icon on google maps and head on out.  One of my treks was a brisk, two mile roundtrip walk up the hills of San Francisco to Grace Cathedral. Grace is an imposing gothic church originally built in 1862. It burned down, along with most of the city, in 1906. It wasn’t until 1927 that construction began on the current building, and as with many great gothic cathedrals, it wasn’t really finished until many years later: in this case, 1995. But what I really came to see was the cathedral's replica of Lorenzo Ghiberti's eastern facing doors of the Florence Baptistery.

Ghiberti's Baptistery doors are the doors that, legend has it, Michelangelo said were so beautiful, they must be “the gates of paradise.” Did he really say that? Probably not, but the doors are a marvel: exceptionally beautiful and exquisitely crafted.

But before he designed the doors, and the reason he was commissioned to do so, was because he won a commission for an earlier set of baptistry doors in 1401. The powerful wool merchants (akin to today's modern tech powerhouses) set up a competition: whoever designed the best doors for the Florence Baptistry would get the honor of having them installed. There were seven competitors, but the only ones we care about are Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi: two towering figures of the Italian renaissance facing off as rivals for a great prize.

The judges ruled it a tie. Some stories say the judges scored it a tie assuming the two would work together,  but Brunelleschi scoffed at the idea of working with his rival and ditched out. Others say Ghiberti won outright, and Brunelleschi, licking his sculptural wounds, went away to focus exclusively on architecture. All apocrypha aside, Ghiberti did design the doors, and Brunelleschi went off and designed the dome of the Florence Cathedral, the most technologically advanced dome of the time.

Now skip ahead to 1425,  when the wealthiest guilds of Florence, impressed with Ghiberti’s first doors, commissioned him to craft a new set for the north side of the Baptistery. It took him 27 years to complete, and when the guilds saw how technically marvelous, how full of wonder, how skillfully crafted his new doors were, they moved them to the east side, in the place of honor, facing the Florence Cathedral (oh, you know, just Brunelleschi’s fabulous white and black striped Cathedral).

So how did Grace Cathedral in San Francisco wind up with a set of copies? Back in WWII, the Nazis took down the doors to “protect them,” and put them in an old dusty abandoned subway. There are nefarious, probably true, rumors that the intent was less to protect them and more to supply Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering’s art collection with new treasures. But after the Nazis lost, an Italian curator found the doors, cleaned and burnished them, made silicon copies, and put the copies up for sale. An American bought a copy, had them cast, and here they stand in San Francisco. Well, technically, a copy of the copy stands here. The original copy of the original doors is in a museum to protect against elemental damage.

Lorenzo Ghiberti,  Gates of Paradise , 1425–52

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Gates of Paradise, 1425–52

The modern copy in San Francisco, like the original, is made out of brass. There are 10 total panels, five per door. It’s hard to express how otherworldly the doors seem because the images in the panels are so realistically carved, and they extend so far out of the 2D realm that it seems like you’re entering into new worlds in each panel of the door. They’re amazing, and Ghiberti shows off his skill in not only metalworking, but in linear perspective in metalwork. Take a look at each scene closely and you’ll spend hours here.

I had the whole place to myself. In Florence, you have to fight through a ring of people 10 deep just to get a glimpse of it. Maybe it was the rain, or maybe just because it’s a copy, but whatever the reason, I was happy to have it to myself for as long as I wanted.