Paintings You Should Know: Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens’, 1509-1511

With my nascent interest in the world of philosophy now seemed like the perfect time to write about the Renaissance masterpiece which is The School of Athens. The painting is a fresco, part of a series commissioned for the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. Regarded as Raphael’s masterpiece, it captures the Renaissance fascination with the philosophy of the Classical (ancient Greek and Roman) world.

raphael-school-at-athens

All the great names are there – Plato and Aristotle debate at the centre and are surrounded by the likes of Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid and Ptolomy – although it is difficult to identify all the figures as many ancient philosophers left no reliable visual representation or commonly-accepted symbolic item. Wikipedia has a possible break-down of identities.

It is uncertain how much Raphael himself knew about ancient philosophy and how much he was working from the guidance of others, but the fresco is filled with a vibrant sense of action. Philosophers read, debate, or contemplate in a variety of poses and attitudes, all robed in Greek attire but each portrayed as a distinct individual. In the centre, Plato gestures towards the heavens and Aristotle towards the earth, actions which are traditionally interpreted as indicating Plato’s Rationalism, expressed in his formulation of the Theory of Forms, and Aristotle’s Empirical exploration of the world.

The building in which they stand is in the shape of a Greek cross, which some have taken to represent the meeting and harmonisation of Greek philosophy and Christian theology. The sense of space and movement is enhanced by Raphael’s employment of the then relatively recent innovation of perspective, which allows him to portray his scene fading into the distance, and the more realistic depiction of individual people: Plato, for example, is clearly a man of mature years and wisdom, while Aristotle is equally clearly a younger man filled with the vigour and certainty of younger years.

This is a painting which I’ve actually seen, and I remember feeling rather sorry for Raphael, as many of the beautiful works he created for the Vatican are primarily viewed today by tourists preoccupied with reaching the Sistine Chapel.

 

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