The Queen of Sheba in Florence

by Kurt Wenner

Yemen Update 40(1998):58

In the summer of 1996, former AIYS President Kurt Wenner spent some time in Florence at the European University Institute conducting research on Muslim immigrants to Europe. He sends along the following information for Yemen Update readers...

One of the major sights in contemporary Florence is the Baptistry, which stands opposite the Duomo &emdash;the major cathedral of Florence, which is the fourth largest building in Christendom (after St. Peter's in Rome, St. Paul's in Rome, and the Duomo of Milan). The Baptistry was believed to have been a pagan temple dedicated to Mars, and excavations have confirmed that it was,in fact, built upon Roman foundations dating back to the first century C.E. In its present octagonal shape, and with its contemporary facade, it was consecrated to John the Baptist in 1128.At the beginning of the 14th century, it was decided to replace the first set of doors. An artist named Andrea Pisano designed and completed the first set of doors in bronze and gold-leaf in1338.

The next set of doors was designed by Lorenzo Ghilberti. He spent nearly 25 years on the task: 28 panels depicting the life of Christ. The Florentines were so pleased with the set completed in 1427 that they commissioned a second set. This time Ghilberti set out to depict, in ten panels, the most important events/themes from the Bible. What those of us interested in Yemen are likely to find of more than passing interest is that of those ten panels (which included such obvious choices as the creation of Adam and Eve, the story of Noah's Ark, the story of Abraham, episodes from the life of Moses, etc.), Ghilberti chose as the theme of his tenth panel the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. Of course, as one can see, the scene takes place in a typical Renaissance architectural environment and in typical Renaissance dress. Nevertheless, the doors, considered one of the jewels of Renaissance sculpture, helped to keep alive the story of the Queen of Sheba inthe minds of contemporary Europeans, and may, indirectly, therefore have contributed to the long-term interest which Italian commercial and scientific communities had in Yemen right into the 20thcentury.

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