By virtue of their scale, location and materials church doors have provided opportunities for important and impressive artistic works throughout the Christian centuries, up to the Renaissance and beyond. Church doors received from pagan palaces and temples communicate the concept of monumentality, the architectural subdivision into rectangular panels framed with decorative designs, the familiar lions' masks supporting the knockers and the all-important method of casting the doors in bronze, which was favored over wood during the Middle Ages and the Italian Renaissance. From late Roman times came the special technique of bronze inlaid with silver.
Church doors have served simultaneously to glorify God and to instruct the illiterate; and, as the threshold to
the sacred, they have prepared the faithful for their spiritual experience within. Accordingly, their themes have ranged from the fall of man and the lives of the Saints to the glory of Christ, and have reflected in their iconography and style changes in belief and artistic sensibility throughout the centuries.
Early Christian. The wooden doors of S. Sabina, Rome, the most celebrated and best preserved from this period (c. 432), consist of 28 panels in alternating larger and smaller pairs, of which 18 remain, and probably presented a concordantia of the two Testaments. The nonrealistic Crucifixion panel of these doors is one of the earliest examples of the subject in Christian art. Other panel themes of disputed identity are probably connected with imperial iconography. Iconographic and stylistic elements suggest an Oriental origin for the doors.
Byzantine. The most important of doors in bronze, a medium favored by Byzantium, is a series from the 11th
century, all now in Italy. Executed mainly between 1062 and 1087 to the order of an Amalfian family, they are located at Amalfi, in the abbey church of Monte Cassino, St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls (badly preserved), S. Michele in Gargano on Monte S. Angelo, and Attrani and Salerno cathedrals. All are executed in the niello technique—the design is inlaid in the flat, bronze plaque in silver and gold. The Amalfi doors consist of 24 plaques attached to the wood and framed by metal bands. On 16 of these plaques, bronze crosses are nailed, and the four central panels represent Christ, the Virgin, St. Peter and St. Andrew in inlaid silver. Faces and extremities consist of silver in thin plates, on which details of the features have been delicately engraved.
The most beautiful of the doors in this category are those of the great church of S. Michele in Gargano, embodying a song of praise for the Archangel in 23 panels depicting his great deeds: he expels Adam from Eden,
rescues Isaac from sacrifice, struggles with Jacob, overcomes Lucifer, protects the three youths from the fire and appears to the bishop of Siponte. In the simple but expressive style, reflecting Byzantine manuscripts, the silver line flowing over the bronze adds sublimity to the remarkably moving figures. An inscription identifies the donor, Pantaleon of Amalfi, and states that the doors were cast in Constantinople in 1076. In 1087 Pantaleon's son presented to the church of Atrani a pair of bronze doors virtually identical to those of nearby Amalfi, the main difference being the substitution of St. Sebastian for St. Andrew. Also imitations of the Amalfi doors and likewise cast in Constantinople are the somewhat larger doors at Salerno.
These Byzantine doors inspired a further series made in Italy during the following century in which the niello technique is extensively replaced by relief in the bronze itself: Troia, Canosa, Trani, Pisa and Ravello. Among these doors the stylistic and iconographic debt to Byzantine ivories is best exemplified in those of Trani, the work of Barisanus of Trani (1175).
Romanesque. Following the apocalyptic threat of the year 1000 the search for new artistic form in western Europe was reflected in a series of bronze doors found in Germany, Russia, Poland and Italy, which reveal the great initial indebtedness of Western medieval monumental sculpture to book illumination. Their new technique and concept of form are best exemplified in the doors cast for Archbishop Bernward of Hildesheim for the cathedral of St. Michael in 1015. They were the first sculptured bronze doors in the West to be cast in one piece since Roman times and probably were originally inspired by the doors of S. Sabina in Rome and S. Ambrosius in Milan. The two leaves of the door present Genesis scenes and episodes from Christ's life. They owe their style to Carolingian and Ottonian miniatures. The figures, widely spaced, seem lost in empty backgrounds, their three-dimensional heads recalling those in Limoges enamels. But the stories are effective in the narrative sense. The Fall is told with simplicity and charm; in the Expulsion, while Adam prepares to endure his fate Eve still glances backward as if hoping that God will recall His command.
Next to Hildesheim the other important center of bronze casting in Germany during the Ottonian period was Magdeburg, with which the doors of the cathedral of S. Sophia in Novgorod, originally intended for the Polish cathedral of Plock, are related. Latin and Cyrillic inscriptions, not all of the same date, clarify the representations, which constitute dramatic interpretations of religious beliefs. Old Testament scenes complement episodes from the life of Christ. Included are a number of allegorical figures whose significance is not clear. Choice of subject and iconography reveal the influence of French art, thus indicating artistic relations between regional divisions of medieval Europe.
Such relations are also exemplified among Italian doors, especially those of S. Zeno at Verona (end of 11th century and product of an Italian workshop), which are strongly influenced by Spanish miniatures.
Renaissance and Post-Renaissance. In the 13th century the architectural development of the portals of Gothic cathedrals caused a decline of sculptured doors, but the Italian Renaissance revived them. Most celebrated are the east bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence, Ghiberti's masterpiece (1425–52), called by Michelangelo "Porta del Paradiso." Old Testament scenes are displayed in 16 large panels, with charming pictorial details, which complement the sculptor's earlier north doors (1403–24) devoted to the life of Christ. Their serene style reveals the master's excellence in combining the styles of goldsmith and sculptor.
Bibliography: h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, eds., f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 14.1:1504–23. o. m. dalton, Byzantine Art and Archaeology (Oxford 1911) 146–149, 616–620. j. beckwith, The Art of Constantinople (London 1961) 120. h. leisinger, Romanesque Bronzes: Church Portals in Medieval Europe (London 1956). a. chastel, Italian Art, tr. p. and l. murray (New York 1963) 121, 122, 162–163, 416, 491. j. wiegand, Das altchristliche Hauptportal an der Kirche der hl. Sabina (Trier 1900). e.h. kantorowicz, "The King's Advent and the Enigmatic Panels in the Doors of Santa Sabina," Art Bulletin, 26 (1944) 207–231. a. goldschmidt, Die deutschen Bronzetüren des frühen Mittelalters (Marburg 1926). a. boeckler, Die Bronzetür von Verona (Marburg 1932). e. n. rogers, La Chapelle de Notre Dame du Haut à Ronchamp de Le Corbusier (Milan 1956).