The sacrifice of Isaac made for the Baptistery door competition by Lorenzo Ghiberti. Located in the Museo Nazationale del Bargello, Florence, Italy.
When I was in high school, my history teacher told our class about the famous competition held in 1401 to determine who would design the bronze relief panels for the north doors of the Florentine Baptistery. The organizers of the competition, a guild of wealthy merchants, required that the competitors submit a sample panel that depicted the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Among the seven finalists were two brilliant young artists, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, both in their early twenties and eager to prove themselves.
Before telling us which of the two won the competition, my teacher, knowing I was an artist, put up slides of their submissions and asked me to make the call. Very conscious that my own artistic credentials were being evaluated, I examined the images for a few moments before diffidently announcing my decision: Brunelleschi’s was the best. You can imagine my mortification upon being told that the judges had chosen Ghiberti’s work, deeming it “perfect in all its parts,” and so graceful and well finished that it seemed “to have been breathed into existence.” My teacher added that Brunelleschi’s piece adhered more closely to the old-fashioned Gothic style than Ghiberti’s, which was more Classical and indicative of the direction art would take in the Renaissance.
I tried to cover my embarrassment by saying that the slides were a bit unclear, that I couldn’t really see the images clearly, but that yes, of course, if you take the view that Classicism is preferable, why then the Ghiberti is certainly not without merit. At the time, I think I preferred the central placement and greater naturalism of the figures in Brunelleschi’s version to Ghiberti’s more off-center composition; looking at them now, the Brunelleschi seems busy and cluttered, the poses of the figures awkward.
So, what’s the truth? Were the judges right? Was I wrong then and right now? Is Ghiberti’s work really better than Brunelleschi’s? Can such questions even be answered?
Can We Judge Art?
These are matters for art criticism to deal with, but any conclusions we may come to will depend on what we think art criticism is and what it can accomplish. Specifically, even though we all play the part of the art critic at some time or other, if only to pass judgment on a movie or a piece of music, the unresolved question is, are these pronouncements actually meaningful? That is, do they tell us something true and real about the work of art under consideration, or do they only reveal something about ourselves?
These days, it is hard not to have absorbed something of the relativist doctrine that absolute truth in aesthetic judgments is impossible. There is no good or bad, no better or worse, only opinion. Relativist critics—and they are legion among modernists and postmodernists—argue that any objective standards that others might think they see are chimeras generated from the fact that many people share the same taste. Critical statements may well disclose our personal tastes and preferences, but they cannot be applied meaningfully to the object itself. Nor can tastes themselves be argued with—”you like what you like and I like what I like,” but not “you are wrong to like what you like” or “you should like what I like.” With no standard of quality, art can be anything you or the artist want it to be.
Taste is an undeniably real phenomenon, no matter what we might think of relativism: The infinite variety of fashion and style offers abundant proof. We all have our own likes and dislikes, which change and evolve over time accordingly as they are shaped by personal circumstances, familiarity, peer pressure, culture, and a host of other subjective factors. Nevertheless, many people, particularly those of a religious or less-aesthetically-permissive temperament, suspect that the relativist account of taste is at best incomplete, if not disingenuous, since it seems to be used primarily to justify the deliberate grotesqueries and worst excesses of contemporary art, and to attack any.aspirations toward beauty and nobility at the same time (let alone that it is extended so far as to deny certitude about anything, including moral truth). Can tastes be justified or elevated to the level of objective reality?
Critics of aesthetic relativism contend that objective standards assuredly do exist—some artworks really are better than others—and point to either realism or idealism for philosophical support. Whether it is nature or a perfect metaphysical ideal, both of these systems affirm an absolute reality, independent from subjective human opinion, that constitutes the supreme model for artists to imitate and the final authority by which to judge their efforts. The two differ in that the idealist regards the forms of nature as flawed and in need of “artificial” improvement to bring them in line with the ideal pattern, while the realist condemns any such tampering with nature precisely because it is artificial and unnatural. But in either case, the judgment is founded on an impartial comparison, not the taste of the judge: It is something true and real about the work of art itself.
Ideal Trumps Real
Which brings us back to Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. Their two panels stand at the cusp between the declining realism of the Gothic era and the ascendant idealism and Classicism that marks the beginning of the Renaissance. Both are transitional pieces, and although both artists were inspired at least in part by the art of the ancient Greeks, it was Ghiberti who looked decisively to the idealized sculptures of the fifth century. His Isaac is modeled not on an actual person, but on the Classical physique and proportions developed by Phidias and Polykleitos, while the undignified young man in the lower left corner of Brunelleschi’s submission recalls the famous third-century Spinario or “thorn-puller”—a Hellenistic, not Classical, sculpture. All of Ghiberti’s figures, including the animals, assume relatively graceful, timeless poses, and interact harmoniously with each other. Overall, his composition, clearly articulated and fluidly divided into left and right groupings by the craggy sweep of stylized rocks, conveys a sense of quiet formality that belies the drama of the subject.
Brunelleschi’s panel is far more tense and dynamic—the eye leaps from one figure to another in jagged paths that are reflected in the contorted poses of every player in the scene. Restless energy animates them. Indeed, the panel is unable to hold them all: Three of the figures project beyond the margins of the piece. It hardly seems possible that both panels contain exactly the same number of animal and human actors. Yet this expressive and chaotic spontaneity is probably more realistic, more the way the event would have played out, than the artificial—or unnatural—composure of Ghiberti’s portrayal.
But that is why it is inferior—for the idealist Florentine judges. Or rather, the majority of them, for their determination was not unanimous, nor based entirely on aesthetic considerations (Ghiberti used less metal in his sample cast, which would greatly reduce the cost of the actual project). It happened too that Brunelleschi and another top finisher in the competition, Donatello, seeing the judges’ lack of consensus, graciously deferred to Ghiberti, agreeing that envy should not deprive him of the opportunity “to bring forth those greater fruits of which this was a promise.” That, at any rate, is how Vasari records it; other writers suggest that Brunelleschi, upset that his superiority should have been questioned, left Florence in a huff, never to sculpt again.
Open to Debate
So, what are we to conclude from this? Once we have settled on a aesthetic philosophy like realism or idealism (or indeed, relativism), critical judgments are easy: Realists and idealists will naturally prefer art that conforms to their aesthetic standard. But choosing one of these philosophies, let alone proving it is true or correct, is more problematic. Undoubtedly, it is matter of faith that philosophy itself is not equipped to decide. Catholics may find either position easy to adopt, because we believe that God made a real world, and because we recognize that all the perfections of art and beauty, truth and goodness, find their source in that God, who has divinely revealed himself. Catholics too are used to the idea of a authoritative magisterium. In practice, however, when it comes to art we are probably all relativists, realists, and idealists at one time or another—we have our tastes; we like a beautiful sunset and art that “looks real”; we put on makeup or nice clothes to make ourselves “look better” and are pleased by the perfection of a Greek statue or a Raphael Madonna.
There is no magisterium in art, no universally agreed-upon philosophy, neither among the mass of professional critics, degreed art historians, and tenured museum curators who give presumably educated voice to their opinions, nor among the public at large. To be sure, the lack of an authoritative voice is a serious matter in religion, but whatever ambiguity there is in art is far from a liability; in fact, it is its great strength. How boring would it be if aesthetic questions were as conclusively resolvable as scientific questions, if art were as objective and unambiguous as a mathematical formula? Art is interesting because we can’t figure it out completely, because it can be approached from many angles, because we don’t always agree about what we see. There will always be debate and discussion, mystery and uncertainty. It is the critic’s job, whether we accept their evaluations or not, to help us discover what there is to see in the artwork, and in so doing, perhaps lead us to discover what we ourselves believe.
Ghiberti and Brunelleschi would each go on to accomplish great things. Ghiberti toiled 21 years to complete the 28 panels for the commission, and a further 27 years to create a second set for the east doors of the Baptistery (Michelangelo praised them as the “Gates of Paradise”); he later produced several monumental statues of saints for other Florentine guilds. Ironically, his fame was eclipsed in the judgment of later critics by Brunelleschi’s achievements: He designed the great dome of the nearby Florence Cathedral, which had been thought impossible, and is credited with co-inventing linear perspective, which indelibly transfigured Western pictorial art.
Is Ghiberti’s work better than Brunelleschi’s? It depends. Are you an idealist, a realist, or a relativist? Or maybe you have another point of view. Let the discussion begin.