ANALYSIS of The School of Athens

Denada Permatasari. 6 November 2017.

Fig 1.0 Fresco of Raphael's Scuola di Atene (The School of Athens), 1509-11 (courtesy of the Musei Vaticani).

The School of Athens by Raphael Sanzio, or more accurately, Raphael and his studio. This elaborate wall mural is a fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican. Measuring 584 cm in length, this artwork was made in 1509 and finished in 1511.

I think that this artwork is a phenomenal masterpiece. From a technical standpoint, it is no debate that the scale and the mastery of human figures are impressive. Every single aspect is carefully planned, apparent from the detail of the backdrop to the individually distinctive figures present in the artwork. The symbolism in this work represent the core of Philosophy through subtle means of the wall division, the composition, down to the character’s body language, where they are situated, and even from the clothes they wear. In this essay, I discuss what all of the previously-stated elements mean and how they come together to give this artwork its meaning, and its significance.

Before delving into analysis of the artwork’s components, it is important to discuss why this artwork was made. This wall mural is part of Pope Julius II’s commission to decorate his private library (Zucker and Harris). The room has four sides, with each side representing the four branches of human knowledge at the time of High Renaissance: Philosophy, Divinity, Poetry, and Justice. The School of Athens, located on the east wall, represents Philosophy and is directly facing Disputa, representing Divinity (Zucker and Harris).

This placement, and the fact that this artwork is no less impressive than Disputa, can be seen as one of the defining attitudes of the High Renaissance: secularization. Here, the religiosity and philosophy are seen as equals, alongside poetry and justice. This is a big step from pre-Renaissance times when religion tended to dominate and rule above all aspects of life (qtd. in Toman iii).

Fig 1.1 Imagined horizontal and vertical lines of The School of Athens.

Moving on to the aspects of form of the artwork itself, I will first talk about its composition. In Fig 1.1, it is shown from the horizontal blue line that “… below the vaulted architecture and celestial backdrop, [Raphael] set the assembly of philosophers in the lower half field, on earth” (Rosand). This means that Raphael deliberately separated man, who is concrete and earthly, from the abstract.

Fig 1.2 Areas of interest in The School of Athens, as labeled with numbers.

Next, the vertical red line between the two figures in the center of the artwork (Area 1 in Fig 1.2). This imagined line serves as a divider for the opposing school of thoughts in Philosophy: Plato, the older man on the left, represents the ethereal and the abstract. He represents the belief that “… there is a realm that is based on mathematics, on pure idea that is truer than the everyday world that we see” (Zucker and Harris). Whereas Aristotle, the younger man on his right, represents the belief “… on the observable, the actual, [and] the physical” (Zucker and Harris).

This divide can be seen from the other characters’ placement in the artwork. In Area 2 (Fig 1.2), which is Plato’s side, are a cluster of people who are also concerned who explains the world from an abstract, cosmic lens (Rosand). This is contrasted by the group of people (Area 3) in Aristotle’s side, who explains the world through factual and concrete means (Rosand). I shall explain how I know the aforementioned observations through analyzing the elements, aspects of form, and the identity of each figure that makes up The School of Athens.

Fig 1.3 Zoom in of Plato and Aristotle.

First, the two main figures (Fig 1.3) in the center of the fresco (Area 1). They are separated from the others by the arc frame of the background. I have said before that the older man on the left is Plato, and the younger man is Aristotle, Plato’s pupil. They are also holding their own books, Plato with his Timaeus, and Aristotle with his Ethics. This section of the essay will highlight how the subject matter and design elements reflect the meaning of the divide in schools of Philosophy.

Plato, representing the ideal and the abstract, wears purple and red. “… The purple, referring to the ether, what we would call the air, [and] the red to fire, neither of which have weight” (Zucker and Harris). Whereas “Aristotle wears blue and brown, that is colors of earth and water, which have gravity [and] weight” (Zucker and Harris). This contrast between the abstract versus the concrete is further compounded by their body language: Plato, pointing up to the heavens, to the realm of high thinking, his bare feet just merely planted on the ground. Aristotle, his hand splayed downwards to the ground, wearing gilded sandals, feet firm on the tiles (Rosand).

Second, the homage to ancient antiquity, apparent in the pagan sculptures of Apollo on the top left and Athena on the right (Rosand). The design of the architecture, with coffered barrel vaults, pilasters, et cetera, is ancient Roman design as well. The god and goddess of the ancient times only reinforce the conceptual divide of the artwork, with Apollo, the god of music and poetry, things that are appropriately platonic (Rosand). Then there is Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, who is more involved in the practical affairs of man (Zucker and Harris).

The architecture design, which is equal throughout the artwork, represents the unifier in this artwork full of divides. They serve as a reminder that even though there is a fundamental divide in perspective, all of them are still under the same branch, Philosophy (Rosand).

Fig 1.4 The labeling of figures in Plato’s side using capital alphabets from A to F.

Third, the groups of people on Plato’s lower side in Area 2 (Fig 1.2). These figures are labeled with letters (Fig 1.4). Though the identities of many of the figures here is much debated, since Raphael did not leave any notes or annotations, let’s agree for the sake of discussion that:

A: Pythagoras, a Greek philosopher and mathematician who is arguably in the center of this group gathering. He sought to discover the mathematical principles of reality through musical harmony and geometry (Rosand).

B: Boethius, a Greek philosopher who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy (Lahanas).

C: Anaxagoras, a Greek philosopher that correctly explains solar eclipses and the presence of small particles (atoms) in all objects (Agutie).

D: Parmenides, a Greek philosopher who founded the method of reasoned proof for assertions (Agutie).

E: Hypatia, an Alexandrian philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer. She is considered to be the most famous student in the School of Athens (Lahanas).

F: Ibn Rushd (Latin: Averroes), a Spanish-Arab philosopher who wrote commentaries on almost all of Aristotle’s writings and major works of Plato (Agutie).

All of the figures in this cluster are concerned with the cosmic, bigger-picture truths, echoing Plato’s ideals. Moreover, two figures in this cluster deserve special attention: Hypatia and Ibn Rushd. Hypatia’s placement in Plato’s side is reminiscent of Plato’s principle of women’s equality (Fakhry), in fact she is the only woman in the whole artwork. On the other hand, Ibn Rushd’s placement in Plato’s side is curious, since he is more associated with Aristotle’s works more so than that of Plato’s (Fakhry). Even so, Raphael must be commended for including a woman as an equal with men and a Muslim figure, which was seen as radical and out of line in his era.

Fig 1.5 The labeling of figures in Aristotle’s side using capital alphabets from G to J.

Fourth, the group that represents Aristotle’s way of thought in Area 3 (Fig 1.2), concerned with the physical and the concrete. They are labeled with letters (Fig 1.5), with identities as follows:

G: Euclid, a Greek mathematician. He is the father of geometry and is seen bent down, applying geometry with a compass to a tablet, flat on the ground (Rosand).

H: Zoroaster, a Greek astronomer, founder of Zoroastrianism, holding a celestial orb (Agutie).

I: Ptolemy, the royal astronomer, who was the first to believe that all heavenly bodies revolve around the earth (Agutie).

J: Raphael, the artist himself in black, and his mentor in art, Sodoma, in white (Lahanas).

The figures in Aristotle’s side are arguably more interesting than Plato’s, as there is more diversity in terms of the principles that the figures represent. Of course, they are all still united in their more earthly and human-centric concerns, but the inclusion of the artist’s self-portrait is the main highlight of this area of interest. For Raphael to include himself is a historical statement, as stated by Dr. Beth Harris, “… here, the artist is considered an intellectual, on par with some [of] the greatest thinkers in history” (Zucker and Harris).

Fig 1.6 Zoom in detail of Heraclitus.

Last, but certainly not least, is the lone figure of Heraclitus (Fig 1.6), an ancient philosopher that sits and thinks alone, separated from the others (Area 4 in Fig 1.2). What makes this figure stand out is the fact that he is a deviation from the orthogonal perspective of the whole artwork. Apart from Diogenes, who is sprawled on the steps, also by himself, Heraclitus feels out of place in the artwork. This is because Heraclitus was actually added after the fresco was finished (Rosand).

At this point, I will discuss the personal aspect that Raphael weaved throughout this commission; Heraclitus’ figure is one of them. The model for this ancient philosopher is actually based off of Michelangelo, and this insertion, this acknowledgment of the older artist is very curious in of itself. The personal antipathy between them is well known; Raphael, the sociable and cultured artist was intensely disliked by Michelangelo, the brooding and melancholic artist, who accused him of stealing his ideas from the Sistine ceiling (Hale 274). For Raphael to include him in his impressive fresco can be said as an homage or a tribute to Michelangelo (Rosand). This speaks of Raphael’s respect and regard for the other artist despite their differences.

Heraclitus is not the only figure who is modeled after someone else –in fact, most of the major figures in this artwork are modeled after someone else- take, for instance, Plato who is actually modeled after Leonardo da Vinci (Toman 336), an artist that highly inspired Raphael. For him to model Plato, the central figure of his fresco and one of the greatest thinkers of all time after Leonardo is a significant honor to his person. Another instance is Euclid. The geometer is actually modeled after Bramante the architect, Raphael’s friend and professional companion (Toman 336). His tribute for Bramante doesn’t end there; the architectural design of the background is actually inspired by Bramante’s architectural design and vision (Martindale 83).

All of the analysis of the components, and how even the smallest things contribute to a greater meaning, is the main reason why I think this artwork is phenomenal. If anything is to be obvious from my essay, is the amount of planning, effort, and thoughtfulness that Raphael did for this fresco. For me, personally, there is nothing more impressive than a successful execution with an underlying concept that is well thought of in every step of the way. In this, I am very pleased with Raphael’s technical skill to make something so legible on an intimidating scale, yet still retaining a degree of thoughtfulness that is apparent in every single dot of his fresco.

To further compound this, I am not the only one who thinks that this artwork is extraordinary. The School of Athens has received high regard from the moment of its completion, even until the present day. The Stanza della Segnatura has been a famous tourist attraction because of the wall frescoes that Raphael made, and The School of Athens is arguably the main attraction in the Vatican Palace.

Most importantly, however, is Raphael’s own influence on the High Renaissance, and what follows after. As Johan Huizinga, a Dutch art historian has stated:

The Renaissance marks the rise of the individual, the awakening of a desire for beauty, a triumphal procession of joyful life, the intellectual conquest of physical realities, … a dawning of consciousness of the relationship of the individual to the natural world around him (qtd. in Toman i).

To attribute all of those values of the Renaissance to just The School of Athens is optimistic at best and naïve at worst, but it is worth acknowledging that The School of Athens is one of the main highlights of the High Renaissance, and certainly sums up the entirety of the High Renaissance. In this light, Raphael deserves much acclaim, as written by Luitpold Dussler in his book Raphael:

Raphael has left an indelible mark on art. He revolutionized portrait painting … and epitomized the style which has come to be known as High Renaissance. … Perhaps Raphael’s greatest achievement is that he appeals on all levels and makes something profoundly deep and complex appear simple and comprehensible (qtd. in Hale 275).

In conclusion, the value of Raphael’s The School of Athens is that it is invaluable. It was significant by the time it was completed, and is still significant even today, more than five hundred years later. More than just a room decoration, it speaks of the general perspective of Philosophy during the early 16th century. Raphael’s ability to condense such a difficult, multi-faceted discipline into a thoughtful work of art that can be appreciated by anyone, at any level, is a testament to his remarkable technical skill and conceptual knowledge.

I will end my essay with one conviction: that The School of Athens is one of the definitive artworks of the High Renaissance, and I hope that the significance of attributing an entire period to one single artwork is realized and acknowledged.

Works Cited
Zucker, Steven and Beth Harris. “Raphael, School of Athens.” Smarthistory. 27 Jul. 2014. 3 Nov 2017.
Toman, Rolf. Introduction. The Art of the Italian Renaissance. Germany: Könemann, 1995. Print. i, iii, 336.
Rosand, David. “Raphael’s Fresco of The School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura of the Vatican Palace.” Columbia University. New York. N.d. 3 Nov 2017.
Lahanas, Michael. “The School of Athens, ‘Who is Who?’ Puzzle.” Hellenica World. N. d. 3 Nov 2017 <http://www.hellenicaworld.com/Greece/Science/en/ SchoolAthens.html>.
Agutie. “Raphael (1483-1520): The School of Athens, 1509. Interactive Map.” Geometry from the Land of the Incas. 13 Jul 2014. 3 Nov 2017 <http://agutie.homestead.com/files/school_athens_map.html>.
Fakhry, Majid. Averroes (Ibn Rushd) His Life, Works and Influence. London: Oneworld Publications, 2001. N. p.
“Raphael.” Encyclopaedia of the Italian Renaissance. Ed. J. R. Hale. Lindon: Thames and Hudson,1981. Print. 274-275.
Martindale, Andrew. Man and the Renaissance. London: Paul Hamlyn Limited. 1966. Print. 83.

Speech: All the World’s a Stage

The School of Athens (Italian: Scuola di Atene) is a fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. It was painted between 1509 and 1511 as a part of Raphael's commission to decorate the rooms now known as the Stanze di Raffaello, in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.

All the world’s a stage” By William Shakespeare, (from As You Like It, spoken by Jaques)

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel And shining morning face, creeping like snail Unwillingly to school. And then the lover, Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel, Seeking the bubble reputation Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, In fair round belly with good capon lined, With eyes severe and beard of formal cut, Full of wise saws and modern instances; And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts Into the lean and slippered pantaloon, With spectacles on nose and pouch on side; His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice, Turning again toward childish treble, pipes And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history, Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

The School of Athens by Raphael

One of four frescoes by Raphael in the so-called Raphael Rooms in the Apostolic Palace in Vatican was painted by the Italian Renaissance artist between 1509 and 1511. The School of Athens revels Raphael’s interpretation of philosophy as a divine form of knowledge, with Plato and Aristotle placed in the center of the scene. 

In total, twenty-one ancient Greek philosophers are painted, engaging in lofty discourse. Raphael’s fresco doesn’t have religious character as such but its location within a Greek cross-shaped building in Vatican has been interpreted as an attempt to reconcile Christianity and pagan philosophy.

  • 1: Zeno of Citium 
  • 2: Epicurus Possibly, the image of two philosophers, who were typically shown in pairs during the Renaissance: Heraclitus, the "weeping" philosopher, and Democritus, the "laughing" philosopher. 
  • 3: Unknown (believed to be Raphael) 
  • 4: Boethius or Anaximander or Empedocles
  • 5: Averroes 
  • 6: Pythagoras 
  • 7: Alcibiades or Alexander the Great
  • 8: Antisthenes or Xenophon or Timon
  • 9: Raphael, Fornarina as a personification of Love or Francesco Maria della Rovere
  • 10: Aeschines or Xenophon
  • 11: Parmenides (Leonardo da Vinci) 
  • 12: Socrates 13: Heraclitus (Michelangelo) 
  • 14: Plato (Leonardo da Vinci) 
  • 15: Aristotle (Giuliano da Sangallo) 
  • 16: Diogenes of Sinope 
  • 17: Plotinus (Donatello?) 
  • 18: Euclid or Archimedes with students (Bramante?) 
  • 19: Strabo or Zoroaster? (Baldassare Castiglione)
  • 20: Ptolemy? 
  • R: Apelles (Raphael) 
  • 21: Protogenes (Il Sodoma, Perugino, or Timoteo Viti)

Jose Manuel Ballester - Escuela de Atenas -(2012 - 2018) - 'The School of Athens' - Digital Print on Canvas, after the Raphael’ original painted, between 1509 and 1511, as a part of Raphael's commission to decorate the rooms now known as the Stanze di Raffaello, in the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican.

This @ganymedesrocks series of three consecutive posts, courtesy of Jose Manuel Ballester, is this week marker and mark of respect towards those who have lost family or friends, to what grew a Pandemic, but also to those fighting this Corona Virus: Doctors, Scientists, Nurses, and to all that assure our ability to resist, and to survive, albeit the fact of the ‘Social Distancing’ this Requires. José Manuel  Ballester, born in Madrid, in 1960, is a painter and photographer, holding a degree in Fine Arts (1984), from the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, Spain, where began his artistic career with paintings, focusing  on the techniques of the Italian and Flemish Schools of the 15th and 18th  centuries. Starting in 1990 he began to combine painting and photography.