BYU MOA acquires casts of famous ‘Gates of Paradise’

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The BYU Museum of Art recently acquired plaster casts of Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise.” The original artwork decorates doors on the San Giovanni Baptistery in Florence, Italy, but the MOA will take charge of preserving and displaying the casts in Provo.

The relief sculptures depict Old Testament stories on 10 3-foot-square panels, carved by Renaissance sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti in the early 1400s. Former BYU art professor Sharon Gray discovered the casts in a storage room at BYU-Hawaii, where she was a service missionary. She began negotiations, and BYU-Hawaii allowed the MOA to acquire the casts earlier this year.

Gray was organizing BYU-Hawaii’s art collection when she made the discovery. She had visited Florence and seen the original “Gates of Paradise” in 1984 on a study abroad program, allowing her to recognize the white plaster heads as soon as she saw them in a crate in Hawaii.

Gray made a few phone calls and confirmed the casts’ identity with an archivist. Gray said the plaster panels had been resting in crates in the university’s storage areas for more than 30 years.

“It’s a little like Indiana Jones,” Gray said.

Jan Fisher, a former art faculty member at BYU-Hawaii, had acquired the casts from Florence and shipped them to Hawaii. There are conflicting stories about when the casts were made and when Fisher acquired them. However, the word “1984” was scrawled across one of the crates underneath Italian packing tape reading “fragile” and “Firenze.”

Gray said Fisher originally thought the gates would be a good addition to the Polynesian Cultural Center, but this didn’t work out, and the panels went in storage.

“The Renaissance and the Polynesian Cultural Center don’t really mix,” Gray said. “There’s a dissonance there, even though they’re both paradise.”

BYU-Hawaii doesn’t have an art museum, so the two universities collaborated to transfer the panels to Provo for proper care, preservation and display.

MOA senior registrar Trevor Weight and head fabricator John Adams packed the original 11 boxes into five padded, custom-built crates. The pieces were then freighted to Los Angeles and trucked to Provo, arriving in early July. The casts sat untouched in the museum vaults for several months to allow them to settle and adjust to changes in humidity.

The MOA discovered only a few small cracks after unpacking the panels. Weight said he expected some damage from vibrations caused by planes and trucks, but he was surprised at how well the casts transferred. There were also no apparent effects from the change in climate.

BYU Museum of Art director Mark Magleby said the “Gates of Paradise” are often viewed as a starting point of the Florentine Renaissance.

In the year 1400, Ghiberti competed against six other artists to win the commission for the doors on the south side of the Florence Cathedral baptistery. He earned the commission and created his first set of doors, then was hired to create a second set.

Two generations later, Michelangelo studied the second set of doors and nicknamed them the “Gates of Paradise,” a mantra which has been used since.

Magleby said the doors significantly influenced Renaissance artists, especially Michelangelo.

“He found in those doors the inspiration to do his High Renaissance style,” Magleby said. “Exquisite naturalism in the anatomy of the figure, proportional figures in space; that’s something that was achieved pretty radically in Ghiberti’s second set of doors.”

Magleby said the museum has not yet determined how to display the panels. Opinions vary on whether to leave them as white plasters or to coat the surface with a patina to better represent the original work, but Magleby said the first thing the museum will address is the piece’s conservation by sealing the surfaces to protect them from dust and pollution.

There are at least two choices when it comes to displaying the panels in the museum, Magleby said. One option is reassembling them vertically like the original doors so viewers can get a sense of the work’s magnitude. Another option is displaying each panel horizontally so viewers can see greater detail and work chronologically through the Old Testament stories. Magleby said the museum would like to leave both options open so viewers can appreciate the panels in different ways at different times.

“It was a tremendous act of generosity and faith that BYU-Hawaii would entrust us with these,” Magleby said. “We’re glad that they knew that we are so careful with our objects that they would receive cautious, proactive attention for their preservation, conservation and preparation for viewing.”

Plaster casts and their uses

The first step in making a plaster cast of an existing work is creating a negative mold. This requires extreme care. The mold is then filled with whatever material the copier wants the cast to be (in this case, plaster). That material, once hardened and removed from the mold, makes a positive cast of the piece, a reproduction just one generation away from the original work.

MOA director Mark Magleby said many 19th-century museums collected plaster casts of artworks from around the world. Visitors could then study pieces created around the globe without leaving one room. The casts were seen as educational tools instead of original artworks, which is how museums will now look at these casts, Magleby said.

Museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, often created a patina on the casts’ surface to resemble the finished work instead of plaster. Art academies typically left the surface white because it reflected nuanced light for students drawing the piece. Magleby said the MOA will look at other museums’ examples when deciding how to exhibit the casts.

“We’re going to make a decision, ultimately, about these, first about the best conservation and preservation of them, and secondly how they will become most legible and inspiring and tell a story to our audiences,” Magleby said.