The School of Athens represents the two opposing schools of thought in western philosophy – the physical world vs. the spiritual world.
The School of Athens (Scuola di Atene), by Raphael Sanzio da Urbino is one of the most well-known works of the Italian Renaissance period. The fresco is just one of a series of paintings decorating Raphael’s Rooms in the Vatican. It is considered an exemplary work of the High Renaissance period.
The School of Athens represents the central disagreement in western philosophy, the debate between philosophers concerned with matters of the spiritual world and those concerned with the physical world. The fresco’s placement in the room in relation to the other paintings, its human subjects and the setting illustrate the renewed interest in ancient ideas on philosophy, religion and art that characterised the Renaissance.
Art during the Middle Ages was almost exclusively concerned with religion, and artists were considered craftsmen who created works to express the word of the church. The Renaissance, meaning rebirth, bought a renewed interest in Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, art and culture.
The School of Athens was painted between 1509 – 1511 as one fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura. The room is one of four Stanze di Raphaello in the Vatican, commissioned for redecoration by Pope Julius II who intended to use the rooms for his papal apartments. Painting began in 1509 in the Stanza della Segnature, intended for use as a library. Raphael died in 1520, before the completion of the final room, the Sala di Costantino, which was completed by his assistants in 1524.
Around the same time as work began on Raphael’s Rooms, Michelangelo was painting the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. It’s said that working close to Michelangelo influenced and inspired the young Raphael, who was only in his mid-20s at the time. Meanwhile, another artistic great of the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci, is said to have taught Raphael the perspective projection techniques used in the painting. Both artists are featured as models in the painting, with Da Vinci depicted as Plato and Michelangelo as Heraclitus.
The Four Branches of Knowledge
Each wall in the Stanza della Segnatura represents one of the four branches of knowledge during the Renaissance: theology, literature, justice and philosophy. The School of Athens, on the east wall, depicts the study of philosophy by illustrating the greatest scientists, mathematicians and philosophers from classical antiquity gathered together in an imaginary scenario discussing and sharing ideas.
On the opposite wall, the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament illustrates theology, the study of the divine. By placing theology opposite philosophy, Raphael put the two branches of knowledge on the same level. The knowledge of theology is depicted as irrefutable and passed on in a linear line of authority from God, while the human knowledge of philosophy is researched, debated, refutable and passed on by discussion and explanation.
On the two smaller walls, Parnassus depicts literature and Cardinal and Theological Virtues and the Law depicts justice.
Aristotle & Plato
The two central figures of the painting are widely recognised as Plato and Aristotle. Plato, the older man on the left in red, is pointing to the heavens and holding a copy of this book “Timaeus”. These gestures are said to reflect Plato’s philosophical interest in the theoretical and otherworldly. By contrast, the younger figure and student, Aristotle, steadies his hand toward the ground illustrating his interests in the observable aspects of the world.
Many believe the divergence between these two philosophical schools, theoretical and physical, is a central theme in the painting, with the other figures in the painting divided according by these ideals.
Other Figures in the Painting
Below and around Plato and Aristotle, many other figures debate and discuss in groups or engage in solitary study. The identities of these figures are mostly hypothetical, based on physical likeness or interpretations of the iconography Raphael associated with each character. Raphael based the physical depictions of some figures on ancient busts, for example Socrates, while others were modelled on his artistic contemporaries and associates.
On Plato’s side, Socrates debates with students, Heraclitus writes using a block of marble as a table and Pythagoras explains the Diatessaron. On the right-hand side below Aristotle, Euclid, modelled on Donato Bramante, the architect of St Peters Basilica, explains geometry to his students. Next to them, Raphael has painted himself as Apelles in a group including Zoroaster, Ptolemy and Protogenes.
While the subjects of the painting are ancient Greek philosophers, the setting in which they are gathered is Roman. The ceiling looks to be copied from the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine in the Roman Forum, and contains an arch, one of ancient Rome’s great achievements. The indoor setting of Plato’s school is contrasted by the outdoor setting of the theology painting on the opposite wall. The symbolism of the contrasting settings is obvious – theology and nature are the creations of God, philosophy and indoor are the creations of man.
The School Athens is undoubtedly a masterpiece of the Renaissance period and continues to be analysed and debated today. With Raphael’s Rooms open to the public as part of the Vatican Museums, you can visit and decide for yourself what this amazing work means.
Related article: Vatican Virtual Tour