The School of Athens by Raphaël (1509-1511)

In 1508, at the very peak of the High Renaissance, a 25-year-old Raphaël and his school are summoned to the Vatican by his holiness Pope Julius II. His task would be to create works alongside other artist in a single section of the Pontiff’s apartments. However, Raphaël’s proposition stimulated such enthusiasm in the Pope that all other artist’s work had to be destroyed so that Raphaël could paint all four rooms. Here we will look at one these walls and arguably the most mesmerizing painting of the High Renaissance – The School of Athens.

The School of Athens is situated in the Room of the Signaturas which is where Julius II had decided to settle his study and personal library. To symbolise the content of this room, Raphaël chose to portray rational truth, rather than allegory.

In the School of Athens, Raphaël creates a grandiose room supported by huge pillars, heavily inspired from late roman architecture and Saint Peter’s basilica. In this hall, he gathers a crowd of the greatest ancient thinkers and philosophers. Notice how though the edifice is huge in size, it does not eclipse the presence of the crowd. Note also how every character leaves space for those adjacent to him. In this we can see the amalgam of ancient thought with Christian thought. This harmonious relationship is further heightened by the composition of these thinkers, as the room gives depth both literally and figuratively these thinkers. Notice also, how all are gathered around two key figures, Plato, pointing towards the sky as a symbol of the movement of cosmological thought that rises above the sensible world towards his principle of the ideal. The other figure is Aristotle whose arm is horizontal as a symbol the organisation of the world through ethics and material understanding.

But this painting is not solely a celebration of ancient philosophy but also liberal arts (statues of Apollo and Minerva), grammar, mathematics, music (can all be seen in the group in the foreground on the left), astronomy, geometry (are represented in the foreground on the right), rhetoric and also dialectic (the two standing statues in the background). Raphaël also wishes to honour his generation. To do this he incorporates features of his contemporaries in the greater philosopher. Michelangelo, his great rival, can be seen in Heraclitus (his elbow on a marble block in the foreground), Bramante is found in Euclid (on the right foreground group bent over a blackboard) but the greatest honour is given to Leonardo da Vinci whose beard is found on Plato himself.

The School of Athens seeks illustrate the acquisition of truth through rational thought, but also the celebration of knowledge and genius. Revolutionary as a work, this is one of the few paintings in the High Renaissance which rejects the use of allegories. The message had to remain clear and not lost in allegoric images.

This painting acquired immediate fame. Upon its completion in 1511, the Roman society acclaimed its brilliance and all unequivocally approved this as a masterpiece.

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