In small, incremental steps, a crew from Belger Cartage Service, Inc., on Thursday carefully moved Gates of Paradise into the Bloch Building at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The two, 17-foot-tall bronze doors weigh 4 1/2 tons, and installation is expected to take about six weeks.
These gilded doors, a new acquisition for the Nelson-Atkins, are casts of the 15th century originals.
The original doors are still on view inside the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo di Santa Maria del Fiore. Ten richly decorated, sculptural panels illustrate scenes from the Old Testament.
On a trip to Florence several years ago, museum trustee Paul DeBruce and his wife, Linda Woodsmall-DeBruce heard about sister casts of the Gates of Paradise. A Japanese businessman owned them, and he'd paid for restoration of the original doors as well as the casts made in 1990. The couple worked to acquire them for the Nelson-Atkins.
It’s been a two-year, multi-stage process. Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, senior curator of European Arts, watched the installation unfold and said she was a little anxious.
"It’s sort of like a baby," said DeGalan. "It’s just so long thinking about it and making sure it’s safe traveling every step of the way and you’re so nervous and really just on pins and needles."
She added, "I am, even now, watching it come through the doors. But I have faith and trust in the crew here. They’re so careful. So I should just sit back and enjoy it, but I am an expectant art curator waiting for these gates to finally be up and ready."
The sheer size and weight limited where the doors could be placed in the museum.
Mark Milani, head of collections, handling and exhibition installation, oversaw the effort. And finding a prominent location, he said, was important. The museum chose to place the doors against a wall just inside the Bloch Building's main entrance.
"It’s a part of the building that was accessed by the public frequently through school groups and tours and it just was a spot that they felt the pieces would really sing with the natural light, the location and the height," said Milani. "It’s just a great feature up here."
DeGalan said she hoped that the Gates of Paradise would draw people into the museum much as visitors would have approached the Baptistery, the original location in Florence.
Ghiberti’s command of perspective in the narrative reliefs, she said, illustrates the important shift in art to the Italian Renaissance.
“Some of the figures are in shallow relief, some are in deeper relief, some are projecting outwards, and it really gives that sense of perspective that allows us entry into that space,” DeGalan said. “It was all about connecting with the viewer and allowing the viewer to relate to that scene and I think he’s done that masterfully.”
As the doors slowly lifted on Thursday to their final place on the wall, Milani said his favorite element of the doors was near the Jacob and Esau Panel, where Ghiberti had made a cast of himself.
“He’s looking down on you, just a little above eye level,” he said. “So if you know about that you kind of have the artist’s eye looking at you while you work on his pieces. It’s kind of cool.”
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.