Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti

Lorenzo Ghiberti

Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, from Gates of Paradise, 1425–52, Gilded bronze, 79 x 79 cm, The Baptistery, Florence, Photo: Scala / Art Resource, NY

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A Match Made in Heaven

Commentary by

This is the final panel of the gilded bronze reliefs which make up the doors known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’ of the Florence Baptistery, the great masterwork which Lorenzo Ghiberti spent almost twenty years of his life creating. Here, all is golden, harmonious, splendid, and eternal—is this earth, or is it a vision of heaven?

The Queen and King stand in front of Solomon’s great Temple of Jerusalem, the dwelling-place of God on earth, described in great detail in 1 Kings 5–8. Ghiberti’s Temple has followed the biblical descriptions in its general plan, although its classical pillars and gothic arches seem to owe rather more to the cathedral of Florence than to the ancient structure in Jerusalem.

In the centre of the composition, below the great porch, stand Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They turn towards each other holding hands, in a pose which looks very like that of a marriage. This is undoubtedly a meeting of minds rather than a moment of submission: they have emerged from long private discussions to present themselves before the assembly as allies and equals.

To the right stand bearded wise men, while percussionists beat on drums and cymbals, and musicians play a melody on the shawm. Behind the Queen of Sheba stand three female attendants, carrying her long train and bearing vessels filled with spices, while all around, figures jostle to catch a glimpse of the royal pair.

It has long been suggested that this panel was intended as a commemoration of the impending Council of the Eastern and Western Churches, which opened in Florence in 1439. The Queen, as representative of the Eastern Church, and King Solomon as the Western Church, stand together in a glorious union, blessed by God.

Ultimately the attempt to heal the Great Schism was a failure. The same, however, cannot be said for Solomon and the Queen of Sheba’s meeting—nor, indeed, for Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, with their sophisticated elegance, mathematical perspective, and humanist-inspired classicism.

 

References

Gombrich, E.H. 1985. ‘The Renaissance Conception of Artistic Progress and its Consequences’ in Norm and Form: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance I (London: Phaidon), pp. 1–11

Radke, G.M. (ed.). 2007. The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece (New Haven: Yale University Press)