GHIBERTI, Lorenzo
(b. 1378, Firenze, d. 1455, Firenze)

Baptism of Christ

c. 1427
Gilt bronze, 79 x 79 cm
Baptistery, Siena

Ghiberti produced two reliefs for the baptismal font designed by Jacopo della Quercia. The Baptistery is located below the Cathedral and consacrated to St John.

The commission for the reliefs, St John the Baptist before Herod and Baptism of Christ, had a complex history. In June or July 1416 Ghiberti was paid the cost of travelling to Siena, where he advised on the erection of the font. He visited Siena twice more, and on 21 May 1417 was commissioned to execute two bronze reliefs within 10 to 20 months. He did not keep to this timetable, and the reliefs were still unfinished in 1425. A document of 16 April 1425 states that he was working personally on one of them, while the other was in the hands of Giuliano di ser Andrea (active 1403-1427). Only on 15 November 1427 was the cost of sending the two bronze reliefs to Siena refunded.

The Siena reliefs differ from the later panels of the bronze door in the strong emphasis placed on the background, whether it represents an interior space as in St John the Baptist before Herod, or a heavenly scene with clouds and angels as in the Baptism. But there are also notable differences between the two Siena reliefs, which foreshadow a decisive turn in Ghiberti's artistic development after 1425. Whereas the scene depicting St John and Herod is dominated by the three-dimensional figures in the foreground, in the Baptism only the four principal figures are in high relief, the rest of the relief being shallow. Accordingly the actual depth of the space in front of the figures in the latter is not great, and appears even less because of its steepness.

We may suppose that the model for the relief of St John before Herod is contemporary with the last panels of the bronze doors, while the Baptism dates from 1426-27 at the earliest. In addition, it seems probable that different hands were involved in the execution of the two reliefs. Despite its delicacy of detail, St John the Baptist before Herod is not of the same quality as the Baptism or the late panels of the bronze doors. The abrupt termination of the architecture on the right gives an unbalanced effect; the figures are unusually elongated; the individual forms of the palace are more delicate than in any other background architecture by Ghiberti; and the slight perspectival distortions are also unexpected, in comparison with the exemplary relief of Christ before Pilate on the bronze doors. This could be a largely independent work by Giuliano di ser Andrea. In the Baptism, on the other hand, Ghiberti accomplished the harmonization of the picture planes and the gradation of modelling that were characteristic of his latest reliefs.