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Sacrifice of Isaac was a competition in which the local sculptors in Florence were required to submit a panel which depicted the biblical sacrifice of Isaac by his father- Abraham in the Old Testament (Kleiner, 2009). Numerous artists depicted the story in small panels and entered the contest. However, most of the art history texts only points out that it was a close competition between two panels: Lorenzo Ghiberti's and Filippo Brunelleschi's and that Ghiberti was declared the eventual winner (Kleiner, 2009). Therefore, this essay compares these two pieces of art with respect to their composition, treatment of human figure and illusionistic space.
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At a first glance, the two panel's composition looks pretty similar: both artists depicts an altar, Abraham over his son Isaac and about to strike, an interceding angel and farm animals in close proximity. However, the two pieces are different in certain aspects.
In Brunelleschi's panel, skinny little Isaac is contorted on the altar, with one of the Abraham's hands on his head, twisting Isaac's neck perhaps to get a better angle and a tighter grip of his neck (Ghiberti, Radke & Butterfield, 2007). Abraham's other hand is clutching a knife, microseconds away from slashing Isaac's throat. An important feature that sets the Brunelleschi's panel from Ghiberti is how the angel is portrayed. Brunelleschi portrays the angel as emerging from cloud and firmly reaching out to grab Abraham to stop the act and to save Isaac's life.
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In Ghiberti's, our eyes are immediately drawn to where the action is. With respect to the illusionistic space, his portrayal of the scene, especially his subjects are more frontal as compared to Brunelleschi's (which are more contorted). Isaac is not skinny little boy but rather a male nude. According to Kleiner (2009), this nudity depiction of Isaac recalls the sculptures from antiquity, for instance the ancient Greek sculptures like the Kritos boy. In contrast to Brunelleschi's depiction of the angel, Ghiberti's is not depicted in the moment of stopping Abraham from executing his son. Instead the angel has not yet arrived. According to Kleiner (2009), this to an extent adds tension to Ghiberti's panel.
An emerging feature in these two pieces of art is the way they played with and depicted the moment of the scene in their art works. Ghiberti, for instance, infuses a sense of drama that largely depends on the hints from Brunelleschi's panel. The angel is portrayed swooshing down to stop Abraham from sacrificing his beloved son (Ghiberti et al, 2007). One of the issues that draw tension in this piece of art is what is likely to happen if the angel does not make it in time. On the other hand, Brunelleschi's angel has arrived and the angel's hand sits on Abraham's arm with tension. However, there is a clear stillness that is not depicted in the Ghiberti's panel (Ghiberti et al, 2007).
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In conclusion, both the panels clearly cite and allude to the ancient sculptures. Ghiberti's for instance, does so through his portrayal of the male nude. On the other hand Brunelleschi's figure on the right hand bottom corner of the panel (the boy removing something from his foot) is a direct reference to the ancient Greek sculptures. Therefore, both the pieces are contained and are significant expressive in the drama of their contemporaries.
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