How to Read Paintings: The School of Athens by Raphael

Ancient Greece in the heart of the Pope’s palace

If you’ve ever visited the Vatican City in Rome and walked through the decorated rooms of the Apostolic Palace, you’ll know how the profusion of art on display is overwhelming.

Visitors are led through room after room whose walls and ceilings are covered in immense fresco paintings. Four rooms in particular stand out, known as the Stanze di Raffaello (the ‘Raphael Rooms’). These are a suite of reception rooms decorated by the Italian painter Raphael and include his workshop of the early 16th century. Museum visitors tend to see these first, before being led onto the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo painted his famous ceiling frescoes.

It is in the Raphael Rooms, where the image known as The School of Athens is displayed. Painted in around 1510, it covers one wall of the Stanza della Segnatura (the ‘Signature Room’). This room was a council chamber where most of the important papal documents were signed and sealed with ‘bulls’ of wax or lead.

Raphael was commissioned to paint the walls of the Stanza della Segnatura by Pope Julius II. Julius was an industrious pope whose visionary ambitions for the Christian faith saw him undertake numerous architectural and artistic projects.

Born in 1443, Julius II was an old man by the time he became the head of the Catholic Church, but that didn’t mean he was short of energy. Not only was St Peter’s Basilica being rebuilt by the architect Bramante, Julius II was also engaged in an elaborate decoration project for his private papal suite.

At the time, the Vatican Library was swelling with newly recovered ancient Greek, Hebrew and Christian manuscripts, brought to Rome by refugees from the recent siege of Constantinople. Julius saw it as his duty to look after these ancient texts; indeed, the paintings in the Stanza della Segnatura are an expression of that wish to preserve and exalt the wisdom of the ancient past.

The Stanza della Segnatura is a roughly square room and, each wall is formed with a semi-circular archway known as a lunette. The School of Athens sits adjacent to three other paintings; together, the four sides of the room echo the four pillars of Christian rationality, namely theology, philosophy, jurisprudence and the poetic arts.

At first glance, The School of Athens looks like a meeting in an ancient temple. It is reminiscent of a grand Roman bathhouse or a classical temple, filled with discussion and debate. Raphael has painted marble sculptures which are set into niches and tunnel vaulting lined with a series of sunken octagonal panels, a decorative technique known as coffered vaulting.

The symmetry of the architecture draws our attention towards the two men at the very centre of the painting. They are perfectly framed by the archway behind them so that their heads stand out against the patch of blue sky. The two figures are shown walking directly towards us, as if along a triumphal pathway lined with disciples on both sides.

It is unusual in the history of art to find an arrangement like this, where the central figures are moving directly perpendicular to the image plane — that is, straight towards us. The gathering of people around them make way to allow the two figures to proceed down a central aisle, giving the work a perpetual sense of unfolding and movement.

These two can be recognised from the books they are carrying. On the left is Plato, who carries his Timaeus, a book on the origins of the universe. On the right is Aristotle, who holds his text Nicomachean Ethics.

Their hand gestures are significant. Plato raises his hand and points to the sky, a gesture that encapsulates his philosophy of universal ‘forms’ and his notion that the universe is a product of divine craftsmanship. Aristotle on the other hand, gestures towards the floor. This reflects his approach to philosophy which is grounded on the premise that we must study the natural world in order to understand our place within it.

These two contrasting approaches to philosophy are shown by Raphael to be complimentary opposites and provide the basis for the rest of the painting, an image in which nearly every notable ancient Greek philosopher can be found.

An interesting place to start when looking at the wider image is with the two figures on the steps to the right of Plato and Aristotle. They are full of movement as they make their way up the steps, clearly in discussion as they walk. The figure closest to us has his back turned and his arms twisted to his side. He is gesturing with some emphasis to the individual who is sprawled out on the steps below.

This seated individual is Diogenes. Also known as Diogenes the Cynic, he was a philosopher of ancient Greece who inspired much controversy during his lifetime. Not only was he a critic of Plato, he was severely critical of many of the cultural conventions of contemporary Athens. He also made a virtue of his poverty and unruly lifestyle; hence why Raphael has pictured him in this reclined, languorous pose.

The two men in conversation with each other, therefore, are most probably debating the merits of philosophy itself, with one man giving the eminence of Plato and Aristotle as one example, and the other man gesturing to the cynical Diogenes as another. Not only do the two figures offer a sense of inner dialogue within the painting, they also play an important part in the composition, since through their gestures and movements they link the upper and lower levels.

In this way we can begin to understand the dynamic of the wider painting, for what Raphael has depicted is an idealised image of classical thought: the painting may be said to represent the human quest for truth through rational thinking in all its various forms.

Many other notable figures can be identified. For example, in the lower-right corner, the bald-headed man with a pair of compasses (an inspiration to the wide-eyed youngsters around him) is Euclid, the Greek mathematician whose Elements is one of the most influential works in the history of mathematics.

The collection of figures in the lower-left of the painting contains several more recognisable figures from ancient history. The man stood upright with his foot raised is thought to be Parmenides, an early Greek philosopher often considered the founder of metaphysics.

The young man next to him with the blackboard is Archimedes, famous today as the mathematician who declared “Eureka” after he realised how he might measure the volume of an irregular object using water.

Not everyone depicted is from ancient Greece. Towards the lower-left is the Muslim scholar Ibn Rushd (often Latinized as Averroes), who was born in Córdoba in 1126 and who wrote extensively on numerous topics including astronomy to medicine. Ibn Rushd is shown leaning over the shoulder of the Greek mathematician Pythagoras.

Here we can begin to understand The School of Athens as an idealised representation of all that was considered eminent about ancient and medieval scholarship. The purpose of the work is to draw a connection between the ancient classical world and the contemporary setting of 15th century Italy. Above all, it is a way of describing the Christian faith as the natural heir to the achievements of ancient Greece, where Christianity is not only grounded in faith but also in reasoned thought.

The overlap between the ancient and the modern worlds is given further emphasis by the way Raphael has painted several of the faces with likenesses to contemporary figures. For instance, Plato is painted with the features of Leonardo da Vinci. Raphael himself appears, looking out at us as the second face along in the lower-right portion.

Another portrait is the brooding figure at the very front of the painting. Self-absorbed and with writing pen in hand, this is the ancient philosopher Heraclitus — who also bears a strong resemblance to the artist Michelangelo. In fact, the inclusion of this figure was an afterthought, painted a year or so after the original commission as an homage to the older painter, possibly prompted by the recent unveiling of part of the Sistine Chapel.

After more than 500 years since The School of Athens was first made, its power to enthrall and inspire has hardly waned in that time. Through consummate handling of light, form and composition — in the difficult painting medium of fresco — the work successfully transforms a complex intellectual idea into visual form. Endlessly referenced in modern culture, it is difficult to see Raphael’s painting as anything less than a masterpiece.

If you liked this, you may also be interested in my book How to Read Paintings, an examination of fifteen of art’s most enthralling images. Read it on various platforms here.

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