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The School of Athens - by Raphael
The School of Athens is a depiction of philosophy. The scene takes place in classical times, as both the architecture and the garments indicate. Figures representing each subject that must be mastered in order to hold a true philosophic debate - astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and solid geometry - are depicted in concrete form. The arbiters of this rule, the main figures, Plato and Aristotle, are shown in the centre, engaged in such a dialogue.
If in the Dispute, the central axis contains all the primary components of the meaning, in its counterpart on the opposite wall - The School of Athens - the emphasis is on a horizontal reading, and the main figures, located on the top of the short stairs, are strung out like an animated frieze. Such a distribution is related to the fact that in this fresco the stress is on earthly zones rather than on otherworldly ones so characteristic of its analogue. In the case of the Disputa, the golden tonalities reflect theological and spiritual values i n connection with the miraculous nature of the Eucharist these are in contrast to the clear blues and whites and the crisp, charged atmosphere that characterizes The School of Athens. This is a realm where the power of philosophy and reason, as opposed to faith, seems to dominate.
The School of Athens is the fresco in one of the four Raphael Rooms which form a suite of reception rooms, now part of the Vatican Museums in Vatican City. Together with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel Ceiling frescoes, they are the grand fresco sequences that mark the High Renaissance in Rome.
The School of Athens by Raphael - History
School of Athens refers to a famous fresco painted by Raphael in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. The fresco was painted between 1510 and 1511 and is one of four frescoes painted by Raphael in the rooms now known as the Stanze di Raffaello. School of Athens was the second fresco completed in the room and depicts Raphael”s interpretation of philosophy as a branch of knowledge. Showing a gathering of Greek philosophers engaged in various activities, the fresco is considered a prime example of High Renaissance art and considered Raphael”s masterpiece.
School of Athens is one of a series of four frescoes painted by Raphael representing branches of knowledge. The frescoes, located on the walls of the Stanza, include images descriptive of philosophy, poetry, law, and theology. School of Athens is dedicated to philosophy as a path to knowledge, especially related to understanding causes to drive knowledge. All of the philosophers shown in the fresco traditionally sought knowledge through an understanding of root causes, tying back to the title and theme of the fresco. The overall theme of knowledge is integrated through Raphael”s frescos around the room but School of Athens is considered the best of the series.
The fresco itself includes 21 distinct figures set against a backdrop of a school. The figures are engaged in conversation, work or games. All of the figures are male and are believed to represent all significant Greek philosophers. The fresco also includes images of statues within the school displayed within the school. One statue is Apollo, the Greek god of light, archery and music, holding a lyre. The other statue is Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, shown in her Roman form as Minerva. The building itself is shown in a cross-shape with the figures in the foreground and the interior receding behind them. The figures are scattered across steps and walkways within the school and the fresco is framed with an arch decorated with arabesque swastikas. The fresco measures 200 inches by 300 inches with a tondo above depicting a female figure with a putti stating “Seek Knowledge of Causes.”
The central figures in School of Athens are Plato and Aristotle. Depicted at the central vanishing point of the shown architecture, Plato holds a bound copy of Timaeus in his left hand and is shown as an older, wise, gray-haired man. In contrast, his student Aristotle is shown as a younger, handsome man looking to his teacher. Aristotle carries a bound copy of Nicomachean Ethics in his left hand and walks slightly ahead of Plato. The two central figures both gesture with their right hands but along different visual planes. Plato gestures upwards into the vault while Aristotle gestures horizontally ahead of the figures. Plato and Aristotle are deep in conversation while walking through the other figures.
The other figures shown in the fresco representing other significant Greek philosophers are not as clearly identifiable. While some are more recognizable than others, some of the figures may represent philosophers where no historical image exists. Raphael used iconography to represent those philosophers with no known visual image such as Epicurus. While Plato and Aristotle serve as the central figures of the fresco, the other philosophers depicted lived at various times and were not necessarily their contemporaries. Many of them lived before Plato and Aristotle and barely a third were Athenians. However, the compilation of famous Greek philosophers followed the intended theme of the fresco to seek knowledge through philosophy.
School of Athens continues to drive discussion and analysis among art historians and scholars. Insufficient information exists to validate whether Raphael received specific direction from Pope Julius II on the components of the fresco, how much philosophical knowledge he had or how much he may have been influenced by his contemporaries. Regardless of the background or direction brought to the fresco, School of Athens shows the depth of Raphael”s artistic talent, including the ability to integrate four different frescos to a connecting theme. Whether the fresco is considered an artist”s representation of philosophy or deeper meaning is associated to the various gestures and details, School of Athens continues to provide a beautiful view into High Renaissance art.
Introduction: The School of Athens
Raphael, The School of Athens (Wikimedia Commons)
This is a fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raffaello Sanzio (1483 – 1520), better known in English as Raphael. (Optional: The Wikipedia entry on Raphael – not to be confused with the archangel or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – has biographical information and reproductions of many of his major works, including “The School of Athens.”)
Raphael painted “The School of Athens” between 1509 and 1511 for Pope Julius II. The work is part of a series of frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican in Rome. It depicts the great philosophers of the ancient world. These philosophers are almost all either Greek or Roman and from the period between 600 B.C. to A.D. 500. I want to use this painting to introduce three important points about the material we’ll be covering in this course.
THE FIRST POINT is that the study of the natural world was part of philosophy. It was a branch of philosophy called “natural philosophy.” Many of the people whose work we will study in this class considered themselves to be “philosophers.” (For example, Galileo and Newton called themselves natural philosophers.) The term “scientist” was not coined until the nineteenth century. Although there were no “scientists” (or nobody who called him or herself a scientist) until the nineteenth century, there was certainly lively interest in the natural world.
However, natural philosophy is not just what science was called before the modern period. Natural philosophy and science were fundamentally different endeavors. Natural philosophy was part of philosophy – the search for wisdom. The word philosophy comes from the Greek roots philo (love) and sophia (wisdom): philosophy is the love of wisdom. Philosophy, including natural philosophy, was supposed to make a person wiser and more virtuous. In Plato’s Republic, for example, he argued that astronomy “forces the mind to look upwards, away from this world of ours to higher things” (Plato, 247). In a Christian context, natural philosophy was often about the search for knowledge of the Divine Creator. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Lutheran astronomer Johannes Kepler declared that the study of the heavens revealed “the Creator’s most profound plan,” and should inspire “knowledge, love, and worship of the Creator” (Kepler, 225).
In Raphael’s “School of Athens,” we can find several figures who wrote, studied and taught about the natural world. The two central figures are Plato and Aristotle. Raphael placed them at the center of the composition because they were (and still are) considered to be two of the most influential figures in western intellectual history. Plato (427-347 BC) is the older man on the left. He carries copy of the Timaeus, his work on natural philosophy. In this book, he described the creation of the universe – the earth, animals, plants, and human beings – by a benevolent deity. Aristotle (384-322 BC) is the younger man on the right. He was a student of Plato, and he wrote extensively on natural philosophy. Whereas Plato wrote just one small book on natural philosophy (the Timaeus is less than 100 pages in modern translation), Aristotle wrote on a wide range of natural philosophical topics. He wrote books on physics (Physics), astronomy (On the Heavens), meteorology (Meteorology), and animals (The History of Animals, On the Motion of Animals, On the Parts of Animals, and On the Generation of Animals). (Please note: the links in this paragraph are all OPTIONAL. They are not part of your required reading.)
Raphael included the figures of Zoroaster and Ptolemy to represent the subjects of astronomy and geography. Zoroaster (ca. 628 – ca. 551 BC), an ancient Persian philosopher, holds a celestial sphere. Ptolemy (ca. 85 – 165), Greek living in Alexandria under Roman Empire, holds a terrestrial globe. Note that this ancient philosopher believed that the earth was spherical! As we will see, the notion that before Columbus everyone thought the world was flat is not true. Ptolemy wrote on astronomy and astrology as well as on geography and cartography.
Raphael included the figures of Euclid and Pythagoras to represent mathematics and geometry. Euclid (300 BC), on the right, represents geometry. Pythagoras (569 – ca. 475 BC), on the left, represents mathematics.
THE SECOND POINT is that mathematics and geometry (and indeed natural philosophy) were associated with abstract reasoning, not with technical skills. Mathematics, geometry and astronomy were part of the traditional Seven Liberal Arts, a tradition going back to the ancient Romans. The Seven Liberal Arts were composed of the three literary arts (also known as the trivium) and the four mathematical arts (also known as the quadrivium). The subjects of the trivium were grammar, logic and rhetoric the subjects of the quadrivium were mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music. The Seven Liberal Arts were the foundation of education, and a prerequisite for study in universities, all the way through the medieval and early modern periods. Most of the people we will study in this course were trained in the liberal arts before they turned to more specialized subjects.
The Seven Liberal Arts, Francesco Pesellino and Workshop, Italy, Florence about 1422 – 1457 Florence, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama
The term “liberal arts” is derived from the Latin word liber, which means “free.” The liberal arts were those subjects appropriate for and restricted to free men, that is, men who did not have to work for a living and were thus free to devote themselves to intellectual and political life. In the ancient world, manual labor was done by slaves and non-citizens. In the ancient world, and indeed for the entire period covered by this course, intellectual work was valued above manual labor – including any kind of working with hands. There was, in fact, a sharp division between working with the mind and working with the hands. If you worked with your hands you were (by definition) not working with your mind, and vice versa. Abstract, pure knowledge was valued above practical skills and know-how.
Of course, there were men and women who had a great deal of practical understanding of the natural world. Without such practical know-how, there would have been no agriculture, no medicine, no building of roads, bridges, ships or churches. However, the skills and knowledge needed to plant crops, compound herbs into drug, and to build even elaborate structures like aqueducts or Gothic cathedrals were valued less than abstract, pure mathematics and geometry. One striking example of this devaluation of practical know-how is the ability of Roman engineers to make concrete that would set underwater, and that would withstand the constant buffeting of waves and corrosion of salt water. Many of these structures are still standing today, some 2000 years after they were built. This article from last year on The History Channel website describes how modern researchers, using sophisticated forms of chemical analysis, have begun to piece together the composition of this concrete and to understand how Roman engineers accomplished this remarkable feat. And another piece from this year on the Archaeology News Network describes modern scientific analyses of Roman concrete that have helped elucidate why the stuff has proved so durable. Why don’t we already know how the Romans did this? Because the techniques were never written down (or, if they were, these texts were not preserved). This kind of knowledge of the natural world (what we might call “materials science”) was simply not seen as important enough to write down and preserve generation after generation. The works of Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid were.
One of the very interesting things about “The School of Athens” is that is was painted in a period when this sharp distinction between intellectual and manual work was beginning to break down. Practical skills and know-how, the ability to make and do things with natural knowledge, came to be much more highly regarded. One group of “manual laborers” that gained considerably more respect and intellectual standing in Raphael’s day were artists. We may not think of artists as “scientists” or as having knowledge of the natural world, but in the Renaissance painters, architects and sculptors were expected to know mathematics and geometry, anatomy and materials science. Painters had to be able to construct pictures using the mathematical technique of linear perspective. Architects needed to know geometry to design buildings. Painters and sculptors needed knowledge of anatomy to accurately portray the human body. And painters, sculptors and architects needed intimate knowledge of the natural materials (stone, wood, minerals for pigments, etc.) that they worked with. Raphael reflects these changes in the hierarchy of knowledge in “The School of Athens.”
Quite remarkably, Raphael painted HIMSELF among the great philosophers of the ancient world. There he is, just to the right of Ptolemy. The older man to Raphael’s right may be his teacher. Raphael is on the very edge of the painting, and indeed, artists were only just coming to be accepted as intellectuals in their own right, on par with philosophers. But he looks directly out at the viewer, a sign of pride and confidence.
Further, Raphael put a number of his artistic friends and colleagues in the painting. Look again at Plato – that’s a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519).
Look again at Euclid – that’s Raphael’s good friend the famous architect Donato Bramante (1444 – 1514).
And the gloomy figure in the left foreground? That’s the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (535 – 475 B.C.), only he’s modeled after Michelangelo (1475 – 1564), who was painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican while Raphael was working on the Stanza della Segnatura.
Throughout the course we will look at range of motivations for studying the natural world. We will examine the work of people whose study of the heavens, earth and human body was motivated by a philosophical search for knowledge for its own sake – the pursuit of wisdom. And we will also look at more pragmatic motivations, including the need to predict and/or control natural phenomena. Of course, as we will see, some individuals were stimulated to investigate the world around them by a desire for BOTH wisdom and practical gain. Within each section of the course we move roughly chronologically, but also up and down hierarchy of knowledge. For example, in the first section of the course, on the heavens, we will look at attempts to understand the structure of the universe (a philosophical quest), as well as attempts to gauge the effects of the heavens on life on earth. This latter pursuit, astrology, was largely practical in nature.
THE THIRD POINT raised by the painting is chronology. This course is not arranged chronologically, so it is useful to have some sense of the time periods we will cover. When I use the term “antiquity,” I refer to the period between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500 (roughly from the rise of Greek city states to the end of Roman empire in the west). When I use the term “medieval” or “Middle Ages,” I refer to the period between 500 and about 1450. When I use the term “early modern,” I refer to the period between 1450 and 1800. This tripartite periodization is a creation of the early modern period. Indeed, Raphael’s painting participates in the construction of this particular division of historical eras. In Raphael’s day – a period known as the Renaissance – artists, writers, and philosophers looked back to the ancient world, the world of ancient Greece and Rome, as period of tremendous intellectual and artistic vitality. They saw the period from the decline and fall of the Roman Empire to the period immediately prior their own as a “Dark Age.” And they believed they were living in an age in which ancient culture was being reborn (“Renaissance” means rebirth). Raphael’s “School of Athens” represents this new view of history. The painting, which is full of philosophers from the ancient world, is suffused with light. The figures converse with one another in a building resembling an ancient temple. The building is open to the sky and sunlight bathes the figures and illuminates the whole scene. And remember that Raphael put himself in this painting, and gave several of the ancient philosophers the faces of his contemporaries. In so doing, he drew a connection between the world of the ancients and his own world, in which the glories of Greece and Rome were being recreated. Also note the presence of Hypatia of Alexandria (ca. 370 – ca. 415), the figure in white standing behind and to the right of Pythagoras. She is the one woman in the painting and she represents the end of ancient philosophy. Hypatia was a mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. She was also a pagan and was brutally murdered by a Christian mob. Her death was frequently taken (in the Renaissance) as the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the “Dark Ages.”
As you might expect, medieval people divided history up differently! No one in 900 or 1200 believed he or she was living in a “Dark Age” or a “Middle Age.” But medieval people too divided history into ages of light and darkness. For them, the time before the birth (actually the conception) of Jesus Christ was the age of darkness, and the time after, the time in which they were living, was an age of light. Accordingly, it was in the Middle Ages that the practice of dividing time into B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini, which is Latin for “in the year of our Lord) was devised. (If you are interested in reading more about that, look here and here for biographies of the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus (ca. 470 – ca. 544) who created this dating system.) Because we still talk about three historical period – antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the early modern period – and because we still use B.C. and A.D. (or B.C.E. and C.E.), we see the ongoing influence of both Renaissance thinkers like Raphael and his medieval predecessors.
ASSIGNMENT: Explore “The School of Athens” further on this website. There is a “clickable” version of the painting – identify some other figures in the composition. How many are familiar to you? Watch the video on this website on the composition and construction of the fresco (about 18 minutes) and read “The Mystery Surrounding the Fresco” about the inclusion of the late antique philosopher Hypatia.
Johannes Kepler, Mysterium Cosmographicum, trans. A. M. Duncan (Norwalk CT: Abaris Books, 1981).
David Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Tradition in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, Prehistory to A.D. 1450, 2 nd rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
Plato, The Republic of Plato, translated with introduction and notes by Francis MacDonald Cornford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1945).
3. It was painted one of the most talented artists ever
The early 16th century was a period of unfathomable talent. Here you have 3 of the most prolific artist living together at the same time and basically in the same place. Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael. Together they form the trinity of talent of the High Renaissance.
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino was the youngest of the 3 and was already at the top of his game in his mid-20’s when he started his work on the Raphael Rooms. He was admired by his contemporaries and basically a superstar. Portrait of the Painter of the School of Athens, Raphael. / Wiki Commons
The stakes could not have been higher, and Raphael knew it
The first room that Raphael tackled was the Stanza Della Segnatura, or ‘Room of the Signature’, so-called as the location where the Church’s most significant documents were signed, sealed, and set into enforceable doctrine. The room also served as the Pope’s library and as the meeting place for The Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura – the most powerful judicial body of the Catholic Church. Whatever colours and shapes, narratives and rhythms would ultimately adorn the four walls of this momentous chamber would oversee, if not potentially influence, some of the most consequential decisions affecting the lives (and afterlives) of all those who inhabited the sprawling Holy Roman Empire. The stakes could not have been higher, and Raphael knew it.
With four large walls to fill and a reputation to secure, Raphael set about dedicating individual frescos to each of the four principal subjects that could be found in the Pope’s library: law, religion, literature, and philosophy. First up was a painting devoted to theology, followed quickly by one on the topic of poetry, entitled Parnassus, after the mountain where according to classical myth Apollo, the leader of the muses, resided. Limbered up, Raphael was ready to take on the discipline of philosophy, which he would exalt by summoning into a timeless space nearly two dozen influential thinkers across a millennium of intellectual speculation – from Anaximander (the 7th-Century BC exponent of all things infinite) to Boethius, the 6th-Century AD author of The Consolation of Philosophy.
The Philosophy behind Raphael’s “School of Athens”
Raphael’s (Raffaelo Sanzio) most well-known masterpiece is The School of Athens. Commissioned in 1508, the fresco is part of the decoration of a suite of four rooms in the Pontifical Palace in the Vatican— now known as Raphael’s Rooms.
What significance does this 500-year-old fresco have, which presents so many thinkers, for us as artists? To me, at least one significance lies in the discourse of Plato and Aristotle. In this article, we will explore the philosophical meaning and artistic choices of the two central figures.
“The School of Athens,” 1509-1511 by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.
According to Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, the architect Donato Bramante, who was good friends with Raphael, convinced Pope Julius II to allow Raphael to demonstrate his skill painting the newly built rooms of the palace (Vasari 312). Raphael was pleased with this arrangement and moved to Rome to begin painting the rooms.
Vasari says that the fresco depicts “the theologians reconciling philosophy and astrology with theology… ” and Raphael “portrayed all the wise men of the world presenting different arguments” (Vasari 312).
The extravagant multi figural composition is grouped around the two central figures framed by a classic architectural arch, Aristotle and Plato.
Detail of “The School of Athens,” 1509-1511 by Raphael. Fresco, 16.4 ft by 25.2 ft. Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City.
Plato is shown to the left and is believed to be modeled after Leonardo da Vinci. He is depicted as an older man in simple clothing. The red color of his garment is contrasting with the blue of Aristotle’s, to emphasize the disagreement in the philosophical discourse. He points to the sky with his right hand and holds his book, Timaeus, under his left arm.
Plato bases all of his thought on what he calls the forms. The forms are the absolute, universal truth and are obtainable through the rational examination of ideas. Truth, for example, exists as a form, and in its true form, it is true for everyone (as opposed to a relative, subjective truth, which is only true for the individual who experiences it).
Plato’s famous allegory of the cave illustrates this idea. Briefly, he suggests that it is like we are all imprisoned in a dark cave. In front of us is a wall that has shadows cast upon it. We mistake the shadows for truth.
One of us, however, is able to escape the chains that keep us inside of the cave, and we investigate the shadows’ source, which happens to be a fire behind passing objects outside of the cave. We find that there’s a whole world beyond the cave, and this world is truer — more real — than the shadows we first experienced upon the cave wall. In other words, our material world is less true than the world of the forms.
Plato holds his book Timaeus under his left arm and points to the sky. Timaeus is a book about how a divine craftsman mathematically ordered and structured the universe. We can now see what Plato may be suggesting when he points toward the sky: the truth of the universe is the eternal, unchanging form beyond the material world and is embodied by the divine craftsman whom we can only know through rational exploration.
“School of Athens,” by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio). Cardboard, charcoal, and white lead 9 feet, 4 inches by 26 feet, 4 ½ inches. The cartoon has been in the Ambrosiana Gallery since 1610. (Venerable Ambrosiana Library, Mondadori Portfolio)
But what does this have to do with artists? Plato famously said artists are liars and should be banned from the Republic or, at the very least, censored. All techne — the skill necessary to do something well — is imitative of things removed from the form that causes them.
Let’s take a closer look at this idea in relation to a chair. The form of the chair exists in our minds. The form of the chair is our idea of the chair. By definition, a chair is a chair universally. What this means is that a chair must have certain qualities or characteristics before we can call it a chair, otherwise, it is not a chair.
The craftsman makes a chair based on the idea of the chair, that is, based on the chair’s form. The craftsman produces a chair once removed from the absolute truth of the chair’s form. Thus, the chair, when it’s produced, becomes a multiplicitous expression of the absolute form. In other words, there are many types of chairs made from many materials, and though the craftsman must know something about chairs and their form, none of the created chairs are the true expression of the true form of chairness they are all derivations of the absolute truth of a chair.
The artist, however, can only copy the craftsman’s interpretation of the chair’s form. The artist can also only copy the craftsman’s interpretation of the chair’s form from certain angles and can never show all sides of the chair at once without losing the chair’s form in the process. The artist also does not have to know anything about what is copied but only needs to know how to copy it.
Thus, for Plato, the artist, being so far removed from the source of the chair, its form, can only lie about the chair. Plato saw this as dangerous for the Republic he was trying to construct.
For Plato, the gods, goddesses, and heroes in Athens were already morally abhorrent with stories about them acting worse than the average human being. It was the artist’s job to pay homage to these gods, goddesses, and heroes, but doing so would legitimize and encourage a base morality throughout society that Plato feared would only serve to destroy the society. Therefore, Plato argued, it was the philosopher’s job — as the one who understood the forms — to instruct the artist on what should and should not be depicted so that only those depictions that were worthy of the gods, goddesses, and heroes were shown to the public, and the public would then have true depictions of gods, goddesses, and heroes to follow.
It was the philosopher’s job to get all of society as close to the true forms as possible, that is, as close to the intentions of the divine craftsman as possible. Anyone who was a disservice to this end should be banished.
Detail of the cartoon of School of Athens
Raphael depicts Plato’s student, Aristotle, walking alongside Plato. Aristotle is believed to be depicted after the sculptor Giulliano del Sagallo as a younger man with more elegant, ornate clothing. He looks at Plato as he holds his right hand forward with his palm facing the ground and his book, Nicomachean Ethics, foreshortened against his knee.
Raphael paints Aristotle’s hand as pointing forward and his palm toward the earth as if to suggest that there’s no reason to transcend the world before we come to understand the world, our place in the world, and how to ethically engage with the world.
Unlike Plato, Aristotle separates art from politics and morality to see if art has any goodness in and of itself. He does this by looking at art through what he calls the four causes: material cause, the formal cause, the efficient cause, and the final cause.
For Aristotle, however, and in contrast to Plato, imitation is beneficial for humans because it is directly associated with knowledge. We learn through imitating and imitating successfully, as well as recognizing a successful imitation, gives us a certain pleasure.
But what about the drama and horror of tragedy? How can imitation concerning these be reconciled with Plato’s concerns about art’s effect on the public?
Yes, the artist imitates, but the artist has to have a certain knowledge about what is being imitated in order to imitate it well and conjure the appropriate pleasures for the viewer. So, the artist has greater access to the emotional and psychological aspect of human beings. The artist has to know what it means to be happy, sad, angry, intense, calm, etc., if the artist is going to portray the substance of these emotions accurately in their work.
The artist, with this knowledge of human psychology and emotion, can construct a composition that creates specific emotions within the viewer. The two emotions that stand out for Aristotle are pity and fear. When the artist can create a composition that produces these two emotions, especially when they are produced intensely, then the viewer can have a cathartic experience.
What, then, is catharsis? It has been interpreted as an experience in which pity and fear are taken to an extreme and are purged or purified at their limit. Imagine sitting through a movie that makes you weep because of the fear and pity you feel at the protagonist’s sufferings. Something about this experience, for Aristotle, is ethical.
So the artist, for Aristotle, engages in ethics by understanding the final cause of their art, that is, the emotional and psychological happenings of themselves and their fellow human beings. This is the foundation of building an ethical community.
Plato and Aristotle agree that virtue is essential for a well-lived life. The disagreement presented here would find itself revisited multiple times throughout our historical struggle around the purposes of our arts. This struggle poses the question, “Which is primary for understanding ourselves in relation to our creations: turning toward the world in an attempt to build an ethics within it or transcending the ways of the world toward the potential peace of moral absolutes?”
We are still only trying to figure it out. We don’t have all of the answers, but it’s part of our story to keep trying, to approach our art with the thoughtfulness and care it deserves, to think of eternity and move toward the future with the type of probing questions built on sincerity. So, what do you think? Do you point up with Plato or gesture toward the earth with Aristotle? Is it possible or wise to attempt both? Or is it wiser to try something new altogether?
Vasari. “Raphael.” The Lives of the Artists. Translation and Editorial Material by Julia Conaway Bondanella and Peter Bondanella, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 312.
School of Athens Inspirations for the Work
There is a great deal of conjecture concerning the solitary Heraclitus figure. Heraclitus was the only figure in the whole School of Athens who was absent from Raphael's preliminary drawing of the painting. Furthermore, technical examination of the fresco confirms that Heraclitus was painted in later, on an area of fresh plaster put on after the adjacent figures were completed. At the time of painting the School of Athens, Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel and despite his efforts to shroud his work in total secrecy, we know Raphael was able to sneak in and have a look. Was this the inspiration for Heraclitus, who not only looks like Michelangelo, with its sculptural solidity, but looks like it was painted by Michelangelo?
After being summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1508, Raphael was charged with painting a cycle of frescoes in a suite of medium-sized rooms in the Vatican papal apartments in which Julius II lived and worked. These rooms, which include the School of Athens, were known as the Stanze.
Raphael's concept for the School of Athens was to bring into harmony the spirits of antiquity and Christianity and reflect the contents of the pope's library with themes of theology, philosophy, jurisprudence and the poetic arts. Raphael's inspiration for the room is worldly and spiritual wisdom displaying the accord which Renaissance humanists perceived between Christian and Greek philosophy. The theme of wisdom is an appropriate inspiration as this room was the council chamber for the Apostolic Signatura where most of the important papal documents were signed and sealed.
Unlike some of his latter frescoes, The Stanza della Segnatura (1508-11) was decorated almost entirely by Raphael himself.
The Raphael’s Philosophy School of Athens Painting Characters
Dedicated to a theme of philosophy leading to knowledge, the School Of Athens Painting has 50 characters in total. These characters are great classical philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians from classical antiquity painted sharing their ideas and learning from each other.
Plato and Aristotle in the School of Athens
The two most prominent and central characters of Raphael’s School of Athens Painting are founding fathers of western philosophy: Plato and his disciple Aristotle. Plato can be seen pointing upwards suggesting his cosmological theories, depicting the divide in their philosophies-another theme of the work. Whereas, Aristotle is suggesting the basis of his practical ethics by gesturing towards the floor.
The rest of the characters are philosophers of some kind with each figure to Plato’s right representing Plato’s theories on philosophy while on Aristotle’s left representing Aristotle’s.
Other Characters in the School
There is still a debate on some of the characters in the School of Athens painting since Raphael himself didn’t label them. However, the main personalities other than Plato and Socrates find their portrayal in this magnificent piece of art.
- On the left of the School Of Athens painting, Socrates is represented with a brown tunic.
- Dressed in pink at the forefront, appears Pythagoras, the founder of geometry and architecture.
- The father of modern geometry, Euclid appears on the right with a red tunic while teaching a disciple.
- Right next to Euclid, is Ptolemy: the great mathematician and astronomer with a terrestrial globe in his hand and wearing a yellow robe.
- An old gentleman sprawled on the steps appears to be Diogenes, the founder of the Cynic philosophy.
- The character seated in the first row with his head resting on his hand appears to be the philosopher Heraclitus.
Though considered widely as a masterpiece of Raphael’s skill, there are a number of facts that most people don’t know yet about the School Of Athens Painting.
Full name: Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino
Birthday: March 28 or April 6, 1843
Place of birth: Urbino, Duchy of Urbino
Died: April 6, 1520
Place of Death: Rome, Papal States
Cause of death: Natural illness
Burial place: The Pantheon, Rome
Parents: Giovanni Santi and Magia di Giovanbattista Ciarla
Education and training: Primarily at Perugino’s workshop
Inspired by: Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci
Art style: High Renaissance
Movement: High Renaissance
Most notable works: Sistine Madonna, Transfiguration, Raphael Rooms, The School of Athens