Gateway to Paradise: Medieval and Renaissance Views of Baptism

The transition between the Medieval and Renaissance eras was volatile for the disciplines of theology and philosophy with the events of the Protestant Reformation contributing to the debate from a parallel plain as well. On the eve of this season of change, it is not surprising to see Catholic theology and the highest form of art mingling into one – especially in the city of Florence, Italy. It was there that in 1425, sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) began a 27-year-long endeavor to craft the “Gates of Paradise.” Completed in 1452, the enormous work was created specifically to become the monumental doors of the Florentine Baptistery. While the doors themselves are a magnificent bronze casting containing ten panels that depict various characters and scenes from the Old Testament, the work is widely hailed as a revolution in visual perspective leavng behind the flat, two-dimensional medieval style in favor of robust realism. However, what it did not leave behind was the equally robust doctrine of the supremacy of baptism in the Medieval Era.

Gabriel Biel (1420-1495), the German philosopher, academic, and contemporary of Ghiberti writes about baptism’s connection to faith while discussing the nature of transubstantiation during the communion. He notes, “There are three things which form our Christian faith: baptism and participation in ‘the altar’” being the first two.[1]  Baptism forms and participates in faith according to Biel. Other debates among medieval theologians addressed the more poignant aspect of those who desired baptism as new converts. Marcia Colish points out in a 2014 publication that even the most recent Roman Catholic catechism balances its stance that the church “does not know any means other than baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” with the “spiritual benefit” that can be gained through a willing baptism made through obedience and desire.[2] This favorable sentiment towards believer’s baptism[3] is not enough to negate the doctrine of a salvific, infant baptism.

The impact of such theology is certainly seen in some modern Protestant denominations as well as its continuance in the Roman Catholic Church. With baptism being elevated to an essential element of the Christian salvation experience, the process moved beyond the doctrine of sola fide (faith alone) held by many in the Reformation and later.[4] Instead, it inferred that while faith is vital, at least some human action is required to secure one’s eternal reward. Thus, Ghiberti’s masterful creation carried even more than its own four and a half tons of weight.

In fact, the title of the work itself belies the theological intention of what lay behind its hinges. The door to the local baptistery truly became the gates to paradise for members of the Florentine congregation as the hope and promise of eternal life surely did lay on the other side of its waters. As beautiful and haunting as the door’s images, the hopeful minds of parents carrying their children through the gates to be ushered into the Kingdom of God can be just as jarring. No angel with flaming sword guarding this path,[5] Ghiberti’s gates swung wide to receive all who wished to pass on their beliefs to the next generation.[6]

[A contemporary cast of the original doors can be seen on display in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. Find out more by visiting: https://nelson-atkins.org/gates-of-paradise/]

 

[1] “tria sunt que faciunt nos christianos fides, baptismus et altaris participatio” in: Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1963), 278.

[2] Marcia L. Colish, Faith, Force, and Fiction in Medieval Baptismal Debates (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2014), 1-10.

[3] “Believer’s Baptism” became a hallmark of the Anabaptist movement during the Reformation. These so-called “radical reformers” became identified with their practice of re-baptizing adults who had been baptized as infants. For an overview of this movement in context see: George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962).

[4] For more on the discussion of Zwingli, Luther, and others’ stances on baptism as an ecclesial event see: Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2013), 146-147.

[5] Genesis 3:24

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