The School of Athens is a huge fresco that was painted by Raphael by commission of Pope Julius II to decorate a room in the Papal Apartments that was to be used as a library for the Pope and his entourage which was Raphael’s largest, most important commission of his lifetime and career as he also contributed to the Papal Apartments with 3 other well-known pieces of work in the rooms collectively known as the ‘Raphael Rooms’ after the master painter who worked on the masterpieces within each of the rooms as well as in the room that houses The School of Athens, there are two other well-known works by Raphael: the Parnassus and the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. The School of Athens is a testament to the dedication that Raphael showed to the commission bestowed on him by Pope Julian II as Raphael utilized his brilliance and genius in every brush stroke that he made in this fresco. The meaning of the painting is known despite what some art historians and scholars say on the subject matter as seen in the fresco itself it is actually a depiction of natural Truth acquired through reason which is why in the fresco there are depictions of philosophers that contributed to human thinking and other pursuits of human knowledge such as Socrates and more contemporary geniuses such as Leornardo da Vinci. Now looking at the scene itself that Raphael painted with such love and tenderness, we the viewer see under a arched vault of a basilica which is intentionally set during the time of Ancient Greece as to remind the viewer of the wisdom of the classic antiquity period, the subjects of Arithmetic, Grammar and Music are represented by certain figures from antiquity and their modern contemporaries whereas Geometry, Astronomy, Rhetoric, and Dialectic are likewise represented by other well-known people from the antiquity and their modern contemporaries who contributed to the subjects represented. Under the dome inspired by the work done by Constantine done on the Roman forum and decorated with statues of Minerva (the Roman goddess of poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, weaving, crafts and magic) and Apollo (the Greek god of music, poetry, art, oracles, archery, plague, medicine, sun, light and knowledge) a crowd of philosophers and scholars of the past interspersed with High Renaissance artists and the patrons that sponsored the arts during the High Renaissance such as the Medici family among others who either argue heatedly among themselves or simply mediate in silence. A trademark of Raphael is seen most prominently in this piece through his use of the linear perspective in the painting of the fresco which creates an amazing illusion of depth which is what Raphael is known for. Now moving on, we see in the center Plato ( with the long white beard and features of Leonardo da Vinci) with one of most famous works in hand the Timaeus while pointing at the heavens as reference to the heavens as being the “seat of all ideas” while at his side is Aristotle with his idea of Ethics pointing at the earth. Now as we shift our gaze to the left, we see a figure cloaked in an olive mantle who is Socrates and is arguing with a group of philosophers that include Chrysippus, Xenophon, Aeschines and Alcibiades among others. We see the venerable contemporary Venetian scientist Zeno being opposed by a figure crowned with grape leaves who is the philosopher Epicurus who is supposedly defending the practice of hedonism while we see Pythagoras teaching to his attentive pupils the four Gospels which is interesting as Pythagoras is mainly known for being a mathematical genius. We see in a strong contrast in front of Pythagoras a figure that has been debated by art historians for centuries whether it is Xenocrates or a philosopher by the name of Parmenides, while in the foreground we see the mournful looking figure of Heracleitus resting his head on his forearm with the features of Michelangelo. Most art historians agree this was added in 1511 as Raphael wanted to pay homage to his rival. This piece relates to the Catholic Church as it was Pope Julius II who commissioned Raphael to paint this fresco and challenged him to be greater than those artists commissioned before Raphael.
The School of Athens was important at the time of its creation as it helped the Pope and his entourage to consider what the people of the classical antiquity and their modern contemporaries had to offer to the Catholic Church and to contemplate the teachings and writings of each and every wise man had made during his lifetime. The purpose and role of the School of Athens was to inspire the Pope and his entourage to act in the best interests of Catholics everywhere by contemplating what the wise men of the classical period would have done in their situation as well as to consider what contemporary thinkers would do in the same situation.
The patron of this artwork was Pope Julius II as he wanted to be a divergent from the Popes that came before him in his taste for art and also as a way to be able to steer his thinking in considering Catholics throughout Europe and beyond. The importance of Pope Julian II being the patron of the art piece is that he challenged the High Renaissance artists to think beyond the norm of what was expected from artists that came before the Renaissance.
The School of Athens is important now as it showcases Raphael’s genius at using the then-new concept of a brightly colored palette and also the use of linear perspective both of which would become hallmarks of Raphael’s later works. This art piece is important today as it makes you realize that you are not part of just a single culture but also multicultural mosaic that stretches the globe and this started with Raphael paying homage to classical antiquity wise men and geniuses as well as their contemporaries in the modern period.
Footnotes for this article
Daniel Orth Bell. “New Identifications in Raphael’s School of Athens.” The Art Bulletin 77, no. 4 (1995): 638. doi:10.2307/3046140..
Glenn W. Most “Reading Raphael: “The School of Athens” and Its Pre-Text.” Critical Inquiry 23, no. 1 (1996): 145-82. doi:10.1086/448824.
Matthias Winner, “The Mathematical Sciences in Raphael’s School of Athens,” The Power of Images in Early Modern Science, 2003, , doi:10.1007/978-3-0348-8099-2_15.
Richard Brilliant. “Intellectual Giants: A Classical Topos And “the School Of Athens“.” Source: Notes in the History of Art 3, no. 4 (1984): 1-12. doi:10.1086/sou.3.4.23202233.
“The School of Athens (1509-11).” School of Athens, Raphael: Analysis, Interpretation. Accessed February 04, 2017. http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-paintings/school-of-athens.htm#description.