Thursday, October 1, 2015

Bronze doors of Filarete

Today's photos:


1.The doors of Filarete "greet" you as you enter the atrium of the basilica through the main gate. (The worker who was cleaning the steps in front of the doors graciously moved aside so I could take the picture. I only noticed when I got home that he had failed to move his pail and mop!).


2. This close-up shows the top two panels and the inscription above them.


3. The coat of arms of Pope Paul V Borghese above the center gate leading into the atrium. Notice the eagle and the dragon.


4. St. Paul with his ever present sword in his right hand.


5. St. Peter is recognized by the presence of the keys.


6. The martyrdom of St. Peter, crucified upside down.


7. The martyrdom of St. Paul who was beheaded.


8. A detail showing the beheading of Paul. Notice that his eyes are covered.


9. The unusual signature of Filarete on the inside of the doors.



As you enter the atrium of St. Peter's Basilica, your eyes are naturally drawn to the enormous central doors directly in front of you, the so-called Doors of Filarete (photo #1).  They were commissioned to the Florentine artist by Pope Eugene IV (1431-1447).  These doors are one of the few items saved from the old basilica and reused in the new one.  They are made of bronze and were finished by Filarete in 1445, so they were relatively new when Bramante began to tear down the Constantinian basilica beginning in 1506.


This is a large double door, both parts of which are divided into two large rectangular panels, one at the top and one in the middle, and one smaller square panel at the bottom.  Each panel is enclosed by a frame and surrounded by a band decorated with leaves, animals, portraits, and varied scenes, some of which are taken from the stories of pagan myths.  In between the panels are scenes which represent various episodes from the life of Eugene IV.


At the very top of the doors (photo #2), directly on the bronze and therefore difficult to see, is a Latin inscription which reminds us that it was Paul V Borghese (1605-1621) who restored the doors.





Paul V, Supreme Pontiff

 restored it in the 15th  year of his pontificate.


But since this inscription was small and difficult to read, another larger one was placed on the white marble above the doors, making it difficult to miss (photo #1)! It is interesting to note that one inscription has it as the fifteenth year of his pontificate, the other as the fourteenth year.




Paul V, Supreme Pontiff, in the fourteenth year


A curiosity


You would be hard pressed to find a papal monument or work of art which does not contain somewhere on it the papal coat of arms and/or the crossed keys and tiara (triple crown), the most common symbols of the papacy. Just above the rectangular panel at the top  left as you face the door (photo #2), is a small representation of the coat of arms of Eugene IV, held up by two angels.  Matching it, above the panel on the top right are the crossed keys and tiara, also supported by two angels.  At first glance you won't find the coat of arms of Paul V.  However,  notice that on the sides of the inscription (photo #2), you can see an eagle and a dragon, two animals which are depicted on the Borghese pope's coat of arms (photo #3).


The most important decorations on the doors are to be found inside the six panels.  In the top panel on the left (photo #2), we see Christ seated on a throne, identified by the words Salvator Mundi (Saviour of the World).  In the corresponding panel across from him is the Virgin Mary, also seated on a throne, identified by the greeting: Ave gratia plena D. tecum (Hail full of Grace, the Lord is with you).  The two middle panels show St. Paul on the left (photo #4), recognized by the presence of the sword, and St. Peter on the right (photo #5), recognized by the keys


A curiosity


The smaller figure kneeling at the feet of Peter and receiving the keys from him represents Pope Eugene IV.  The strong symbolism here is that Peter, the first pope, received his authority from Christ and is now passing it on to Eugene, indicating the unbroken line of popes beginning with Peter.


The two smaller, square panels at the bottom of the door are filled with interesting detail about the martyrdom of the two saints.  The panel on the right is dedicated to Peter (photo #6).  On the upper right side of it, we see the emperor Nero, during whose persecution Peter was martyred.  He is shown giving the order to a soldier to take Peter away for the execution.  Peter is shown as he is led away, hands tied behind his back.  Then we see him again at the top of the panel as he is crucified upside down.


A curiosity


St. Peter was crucified upside down at his own request, telling his executioners that he was not worthy to die in the same way as his Lord.


The lower panel on the left (photo #7) shows the emperor again, as he gives the order for the execution of Paul.  Then we see Paul being led away, while the execution itself, by beheading, is shown at the bottom right. 


A curiosity


The usual method of execution in the ancient Roman world was by crucifixion. So why was Paul not crucified the same as Peter? Paul was a Roman citizen, and as such exempt from that most ignominious manner of death.  Beheading was considered a more merciful way to carry out an execution, a "privilege" accorded to Roman citizens.


There is a very interesting detail in this panel of the beheading of Paul.  Notice that the Apostle appears to be blindfolded as he kneels awaiting the blow of the executioner (photo #8).  The story is told that a young girl who was present at that moment took pity on him and covered his eyes with her shawl.  So at the top of the panel Filarete shows Paul a third time as he comes down from heaven and returns the shawl to the girl. (For a fuller discussion of the martyrdom of St. Paul, see my book: Rome: Sights and Insights, Chapter 1, Abbazia delle Tre Fontane).


In both of the panels representing the martyrdoms, Filarete wanted to depict the place of execution in as accurate a manner as he could.  Peter was crucified in the area of what is now St. Peter's Square, so we see the Tiber River which flows nearby.  We also see two pyramid-shaped funeral monuments which existed in this area at that time, as well as a large round structure which represents the Tomb of Hadrian, known today as Castel Sant'Angelo.  This was not in existence at the time of the execution of Peter, but it was there when Filarete created the doors, so he included it in the scene to more clearly identify the location.  Paul, on the other hand, was beheaded on the Via Laurentina in the Ostiense area of Rome outside the city walls. Since it was a rural setting the artist included in the scene some vegetation and birds in flight.


A curiosity


When you go into the basilica, look at the inside of this door and you will see that Filarete signed his work in a unique and humorous manner.  Near the bottom of the door, in small dimensions, the artist depicted himself riding a donkey into the city, led by a group of his celebrating students (photo #9).  It makes us think that Filarete must have had a good sense of humor and was perhaps something of a non-conformist to sign such an important commission in this unusual and amusing way!


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