A-level: Raphael, School of Athens

Raphael, School of Athens, fresco, 1509-1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Papal Palace, Vatican)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in the very crowded and not very large room, called the Stanza della Segnatura, that is not only dense with people but it’s dense with imagery. We’re looking at a fresco by Raphael.

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:17] Painted during the High Renaissance at the same time that Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling just a few doors away. This room was originally a library, part of the papal apartments. That is, the apartments where the pope lived.

[0:30] In order to imagine what this room would have looked like at the beginning of the 16th century, imagine away all these people. Imagine, instead, the lower walls lined with books.

Dr. Harris: [0:41] Also imagine quiet, which is hard to do here, and an environment of learning where you could look up at what Raphael painted here on the four walls, which are the four branches of human knowledge: philosophy, having to do with things of this world…

Dr. Zucker: [0:57] Philosophy at this time also meant what we now call the sciences.

Dr. Harris: [1:00] On the opposite wall, theology, having to do with issues relating to God and the divine. On the two other walls, poetry and justice. These four areas of human knowledge are symbolized by allegorical figures that we see on the ceiling.

[1:15] It’s so clear that a few doors away is Michelangelo. Raphael is clearly looking at Michelangelo’s figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, especially the prophets and the sibyls. What a moment in the High Renaissance, all commissioned thanks to Pope Julius II.

Dr. Zucker: [1:31] Think about what it means for theology to be presented equally with human knowledge. It is this extraordinarily liberal moment in church history.

Dr. Harris: [1:39] When humanist classical learning can be united with the teachings of the church.

[1:46] In the center of the “School of Athens,” the fresco that represents philosophy, we have the two great philosophers from antiquity in the center, Plato and Aristotle, surrounded by other great thinkers and philosophers and mathematicians from antiquity.

Dr. Zucker: [2:01] Virtually every known great figure. Let’s start with the two in the center. We can tell Plato from Aristotle because Plato is older — Plato was, in fact, Aristotle’s teacher — but also because he holds one of his own books, the “Timaeus.”

Dr. Harris: [2:15] Aristotle holds his book, the “Ethics.”

Dr. Zucker: [2:18] Both of those books represent the contrasting philosophies of these two men. Plato was known for being interested in the ethereal, the theoretical, that which could not be seen. In fact, we see him pointing upward.

Dr. Harris: [2:31] This idea that the world of appearances is not the final truth, that there is a realm that is based on mathematics, on pure ideas, that is more true than the everyday world that we see.

Dr. Zucker: [2:43] Whereas Aristotle, his student, focused his attention on the observable, the actual, the physical, and you’ll notice that his palm is down, and he seems to be saying, “No, no, no, let’s pay attention to what is here.”

Dr. Harris: [2:55] Right, to what we can see and observe in the world.

Dr. Zucker: [2:57] In fact, if you look at the colors that each of the figures wear, they refer to this division. Plato wears red and purple, the purple referring to the ether, what we would call the air, [and] the red to fire, neither of which have weight. Aristotle wears blue and brown, that is, the colors of earth and water, which have gravity, which have weight.

Dr. Harris: [3:15] The philosophers on either side of Plato and Aristotle continue this division. On the side of Plato, we see philosophers concerned with issues of the ideal. For example, on the lower left we see Pythagoras, the great ancient mathematician who discovered laws of harmony in music, in mathematics — this idea that there is a reality that transcends the reality that we see.

Dr. Zucker: [3:40] Compare that to the lower right, where we see Euclid, the figure we associate with geometry. In fact, he seems to be drawing a geometric diagram for some very eager students. He is interested in measure, that is, the idea of the practical.

Dr. Harris: [3:54] Euclid is modeled on a friend of Raphael’s. That’s Bramante, the great architect, asked by Pope Julius II to provide a new model for a new Saint Peter’s.

Dr. Zucker: [4:04] In fact, appropriate to his reincarnation here as Euclid, Bramante’s design for Saint Peter’s was based on a perfect geometry of circles and squares.

Dr. Harris: [4:14] And is really visible in the architecture that Raphael constructed for the School of Athens. Here we see an architecture that is very Bramantean, but also very ancient Roman. We have coffered barrel vaults, pilasters. This is a space that ennobles the figures that it contains.

Dr. Zucker: [4:33] We can see representations of classical sculpture in the niches on the left. That is, on the Platonic side, we see Apollo, the god of the sun, the god of music, the god of poetry, things that would be appropriate to the Platonic.

[4:46] In turn, on the right, we see Athena, the god of war and wisdom who presumably is involved in the more practical affairs of man.

Dr. Harris: [4:53] All of this seems to me to be a place that is the opposite of the medieval, where knowledge was something that was passed down by authority and one had to accept it.

[5:03] Here, on the walls of the papal apartments, we get this image of sharing knowledge and the history of the accumulation of knowledge, all with figures who move beautifully, who, in their bodies, represent the gracefulness that is a reflection of their inner wisdom and knowledge.

Dr. Zucker: [5:22] Well, you’ll notice that Raphael has not placed any names within the painting. The only identifiers are perhaps the titles of the books that both Plato and Aristotle hold. We’re meant to understand who these figures are through their movement, through their dress.

[5:36] Now, the artist has parted both groups to the left and the right so that the middle foreground is fairly empty. He does this, I think, for a couple of reasons. He wants the linear perspective at the bottom of the painting to balance the strong orthogonals at the top of the painting.

[5:50] He [also] wants to make way for the advancement of Plato and Aristotle as they walk down the stairs. We also have two figures in the foreground in the middle. We have Diogenes, and most interestingly, we have the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, who seems to be writing and thinking quietly by himself.

[6:07] Most of the other figures in this painting are engaged with others, but not this man. He seems to be lost in his own thoughts.

Dr. Harris: [6:14] Well, and he’s writing on a block of marble. In fact, his features are those of the great artist Michelangelo, known for his rather lonely and brooding personality. Raphael has painted him here in the same pose as the prophet Isaiah on the Sistine ceiling, although Isaiah looks up, and here Michelangelo’s Heraclitus decidedly looks down.

Dr. Zucker: [6:37] It’s so interesting that Raphael is paying homage to Michelangelo, the great artist, here, personifying Heraclitus, a philosopher who believed that all things were always in flux.

Dr. Harris: [6:47] The figure of Heraclitus was actually added later. Raphael finished the fresco, added some wet plaster, and added in that figure. We should also note that Raphael included himself here.

Dr. Zucker: [6:58] That’s the young figure looking directly out at us in a black cap and standing among some of the most important astronomers of all time.

Dr. Harris: [7:05] Including Ptolemy, who theorized about the movements of the planets.

Dr. Zucker: [7:09] And Zoroaster, who’s holding the celestial orb.

Dr. Harris: [7:11] We are so far here from the medieval idea of the artist as a craftsman. Here, the artist is considered an intellectual on par with some of the greatest thinkers in history, who can express these important ideas.

[7:25] We have dozens of figures here without any sense of stiffness or repetition. Raphael, like Leonardo in the “Last Supper,” divides the figures into groups. Each figure overlaps and moves easily between and amongst the others.

[7:40] My favorite two figures are the ones just behind Euclid: one leaning against the wall with his leg crossed over, the other who’s hurrying and writing some notes, the other leaning over and watching…

Dr. Zucker: [7:53] There’s a wonderful sense of intimacy there.

Dr. Harris: [7:55] I think it’s a scene you could see walking along the hallway of any college or university.

Dr. Zucker: [8:00] For all the free movement of the figures, the architecture itself is using linear perspective in a rigorous way. You can follow the orthogonals either in the pavement or in the cornices as they recede back.

Dr. Harris: [8:10] The illusion of space here is incredible.

Dr. Zucker: [8:13] Look at the way that the decoration of the Greek meander seems as if it goes back in space. What’s interesting, though, is if this architecture is harking back to any ancient tradition, it’s harking back to the Roman tradition, not to the Greeks, who never used barrel vaults in this way.

Dr. Harris: [8:26] Nearby, Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, could see the Baths of Caracalla or the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. There was Roman architectural ruins all over the city that resembled what Raphael has painted here.

Dr. Zucker: [8:40] It’s so extraordinary that we’re celebrating here the pantheon of great pagan thinkers. None of these men were Christians. Let’s take a quick look at the fresco that’s opposite “The School of Athens,” known as the “Disputa.”

Dr. Harris: [8:51] This fresco represents theology, the study of the divine. Figures here are divided between the heavenly and the earthly.

Dr. Zucker: [8:58] Close to the top, we see God the Father, in the dome of heaven. Below him, Christ in this marvelous full-body halo or mandorla. He’s surrounded by the Virgin Mary on his right and St. John the Baptist on his left. Just below, a dove against another gold disc, and this is the Holy Spirit. All three, together, are the Trinity.

Dr. Harris: [9:19] On either side of the dove are the four books of the gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — that tell the story of the life of Christ. On that wonderful bench of clouds sit prophets and saints.

Dr. Zucker: [9:31] We can actually recognize, for instance, Moses holding the 10 Commandments.

Dr. Harris: [9:35] Then another circle below contains the Host, or the bread that is miraculously the body of Christ during the Mass.

Dr. Zucker: [9:45] The bread functions as a link between heaven and earth. We can see how separated heaven and earth are in this fresco and how important that link is.

Dr. Harris: [9:54] Figures along the bottom are popes and bishops and cardinals and members of various religious orders.

Dr. Zucker: [10:00] The Fathers of the Church. We can make out a portrait of Dante, the great medieval poet.

Dr. Harris: [10:04] We have a sense of the figures on the bottom of the fresco coming to divine knowledge through the miracle of the Host, and two figures on either end seem to be moving away from that divine knowledge.

Dr. Zucker: [10:17] There’s efforts being made to turn them around, to bring them back.

Dr. Harris: [10:21] Here, in the Stanza della Segnatura, a room that functioned as the library for Pope Julius II, a celebration of all aspects of human knowledge.

[10:30] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "A-level: Raphael, School of Athens," in Smarthistory, May 22, 2017, accessed May 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/raphael-school-of-athens-2/.