There are two bronze panels at the Bargello Museum in Florence that deserve every visitor’s full attention. They’re small and as a result can be easily overlooked, dwarfed by the great statues in the vast Donatello’s Hall. But they are well worth a closer look, as you’re in the presence of two artworks that defined a pivotal moment in art history.

They were created for the famous Florence Baptistry Competition, one of those episodes remembered in books as it changed the course of art history. It happened at the very beginning of the 15th century, at a time when a new sensitivity was rising among Florentine artists, an artistic change that paved the way to the Renaissance, and ultimately, to modern art.

Competion Panels by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi | Florence Baptistry

It was the year 1401. The Arte di Calimala needed to find an artist to design the east doors of the Baptistry, the ones facing the Cathedral. The Baptistry was one of Florence‘s most ancient and revered religious buildings, where Florentines went to be baptised. The Arte di Calimala (Guild of the cloth finishers and merchants in foreign cloth), one of the more important guilds in Florence at the time, was the official patron of the Baptistry, and responsible for its maintenance.

Florence Baptistry in front of the Cathedral

The subject matter of the Baptistry door competition panels was a scene from the Old Testament: the Sacrifice of Isaac – when Abraham is asked by God to kill his only son to prove his faith. The door would then be decorated with scenes from the Bible.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac (…) When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” (…) “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.

Genesis 22:1-19

What was the competition between Ghiberti and Brunelleschi?

Many artists competed for this important commission. Among the competitors, there were two young artists – Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) was 22 and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) a year older – who were working in Florence and were at the start of what would become very impressive careers. Their work ended up among the 7 semifinalists.

But what was the difference between their styles and why were they so significant? Let’s have a look.

Ghiberti created an elegant, and perfectly harmonic composition. His scene is simple and clear. On the left side you see the two servants, isolated from the main scene by rock. Atop is a ram that will be sacrificed in Isaac’s place – note the intriguing detail of the horns caught in a bush. On the right side, Abraham is about to stab his son, who looks almost serene, proudly offering his chest for the sacrifice. The angel stops the killing with an elegant, composed gesture.

The scene can be conventionally read, from left to right like a piece of writing, and is easy to comprehend. There are evident Gothic influences in the way the bodies are arranged, even if the altar’s decorations and Isaac’s body reveal a classical taste.

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ghiberti and brunelleschi competition panels
Ghiberti’s competition panel

The panel done by Brunelleschi, on the other hand, is a totally different story. The scene is cut horizontally: below the donkey stands out, dividing the space in two. The servants on both sides seem distracted (one is looking at his foot, a pose that’s a clear reference to a classical statue).

Above is where the drama happens: Brunelleschi creates a geometrical, pyramid-shaped scheme, using the heads of Abraham and Isaac. But what’s really different is the tone of the scene: here we see drama, violence, horror. Look at the way the head of Isaac is brutally turned. The Angel himself looks fierce, there’s an urgency in his gesture that was lacking in Ghiberti’s work. Figures are real, active, and the emotion is visible.

This was what Brunelleschi was aiming for: reality entering the world of art. The young artist had recently written his theory about perspective. And in his panel he’s put exactly that into practice: a rational symmetrical scheme with geometrical bases. In his scene the triangle formed by father and son’s heads is broken by the angel that brusquely comes from the left, distorting the eye of the viewer. Nothing so dramatic as Brunelleschi’s panel had been seen since classical art.

This was the shift to modernity. Art reflecting reality, shapes, volumes and psychological details.

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Ghiberti and Brunelleschi competition panels
Brunelleschi’s panel for the 1401 competition

Who won the 1401 Florence Baptistry Competition?

Ghiberti won the competition and went ahead to decorate the set of doors for the Baptistry, made of 28 bronze panels decorated with scenes from the Bible. His skills are undeniable. His panel looks more balanced and harmonious to the eye. It might be that the judges preferred his more traditional approach, that was easier to appreciate and more pleasing to the eye.

But some sources disagree. In Brunelleschi’s biography, Manelli wrote that the judges were unsure, and the competition ended with a tie, but Brunelleschi refused to work with his competitor, whose taste was too distant from his, and left him the job. While Ghiberti wrote that the victory was exclusively his.

Some art critics also point out the fact that Brunelleschi’s panels would have been much more expensive to produce. When creating his panel, in fact, he used 7 kg. more of bronze than Ghiberti => see this informative article that shows behind the panels.

=> After you’ve seen the competition panels, check out these Top 8 Artworks at the splendid Bargello Museum.

Ghiberti ended up creating another set of doors for Florence’s Baptistry -> the second one was finished in 1452 and called by Michelangelo ‘Gates of Paradise’ (porte del paradiso) to praise their perfect beauty. Today the ones you see at the Baptistry are copies, you can see the originals at the Opera del Duomo Museum.

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