Understanding Raphael’s School of Athens
Standing over 4 meters high and almost 8 meters wide, the School of Athens is a monumental work. But its impact is not only aesthetic, this immense fresco is an emblem of the greatest thinkers of classical antiquity. Would you like to better understand this painting that has marked history? Today, Artsper’s offering you a detailed analysis of Raphael’s School of Athens!
The importance of context in School of Athens
This masterpiece was commissioned by Pope Julius II, who occupied the Vatican in the 16th century. The primary purpose of the painting was to decorate the personal library of the Pope. But it was also intended to praise the Church, at a time when it was losing legitimacy. The idea developed by Raphael was to glorify certain pagan treasures and subsume them into the Christian doctrine. Through its spiritual and timeless approach, School of Athens links philosophy, the arts and sciences with the Catholic Church. It shows that despite different methods, philosophy, science and theology have the same goal: to discover universal truth. This painting also had a third objective, which was to flatter the Pope. For this, Raphael created a fictional papal court, which serves as a metaphor for Julius II’s followers, namely, the elite!
The emblematic character of the characters in the School of Athens
The very large size of the fresco makes room for many characters – 52 figures in total, mostly well-known and iconic! In the center, Plato and Aristotle hold a golden place against a majestic background. Around them are various figures connected to philosophical currents and sciences. To the left of the duo, we see the representation of mathematics by Pythagoras. But there is also the presence of Socrates, Heraclitus and Francesco Maria Della Rovere, the nephew of Julius II. On the right side, the portrait of Euclid evokes geometry, while Ptolemy and Zoroaster refer to cosmology. The Epicureans, Stoics and Cynics are also present, notably Diogenes. And finally, Raphael himself, who has represented himself looking on at the spectators.
Plato and Aristotle: the opposition between two world views
Raphael’s School of Athens directly opposes two currents of thought. On the one hand, the world of ideas and the contemplative, developed by the sage Plato. On the other, that of Aristotle, which focuses on experience, the sensible and the earthly. Everything is done here to highlight the rivalry between the two intellects.
Their eyes face each other and seem to challenge each other. Plato’s old age questions Aristotle’s youth. Plato’s finger pointing to the sky, referring to the theory of one of his dialogues of a higher reality. We see the palm of Aristotle’s palm facing down towards the ground, to show a grounded reality. To emphasize the contrast, Raphael even went so far as to dress them in reversed colors. Plato wears a blue tunic and a red cloak, while Aristotle is in a red robe and blue drape. But in the end, and in spite of an antagonistic approach, each one seeks the same thing: the truth of existence.
Raphael’s Staircase of The School of Athens: a dual metaphorical meaning
With its undeniable decorative dimension, the staircase painted by Raphael is not only aesthetic. It serves in fact as an allegory of knowledge. First, because it highlights the different degrees of philosophy and science. For Raphael, each character has a precise place on the ladder of knowledge, corresponding to his importance and prestige. Secondly, because the staircase illustrates the approach of philosophers and scientists: it is a path, an ascent to knowledge.
School of Athens: mirror of an era and timeless emblem
If this work remains emblematic, it is because it is both anchored in its time and atemporal. Raphael knew how to expose strong antagonisms, both on a symbolic and visual level. In this way he opposes the divine with the scientific, the realistic with the theatrical, the past with the present. The primary omission, typical of the Renaissance, is the place of women, dramatically under-represented in this painting. As such it is worthwhile to recognize the one woman amongst them – Hypathia of Alexandria. The first woman documented to have made a contribution to mathematics, astronomy and philosophy.
Read about more biblical art on Artsper!
Founded in 2013, Artsper is an online marketplace for contemporary art. Partnering with 1,800 professional art galleries around the world, it makes discovering and acquiring art accessible to all.Learn more