Raphael, School of Athens (1509-1510)

Commentary
Raphael, School of Athens (1509-1510)

Although the revival of classical literature and renewed interest in ancient philosophy might have been expected to run into conflict with Christian orthodoxy (and in some cases did), what is more striking is the way the legacy of the past was put to serve Christian institutions. This is evident in terms of education, where the expansion of humanist grammar schools would become part of the reforming agenda of Protestants and Catholics alike, but was most visible demonstrated at the heart of the Catholic Church in Rome.  The mission to reconcile ancient philosophy and Christianity had already been fundamental to scholars like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola, active in the late fifteenth century. Representing one of the pinnacles of High Renaissance art, Raphael’s School of Athens is also a testament to this development.  Forming part of Raphael’s large project to decorate the Apostolic Palace with frescoes celebrating the history of the papacy and the Church, the School of Athens (representing Philosophy) joins in the Stanza della Segnatura the paintings on the other walls of the Disputa (disputation of the Sacrament, representing Theology) and the Parnassus (Literature, depicting Apollo, the Muses, and famous ancient and modern poets like Homer, Dante, and Ariosto). Here, in an architectural space reminiscent of the work of Bramante and in the shape of a Greek cross, we see an eternal conversation between the ancient philosophers: Plato and Aristotle stand in the centre; the former, holding the Timaeus, pointing upwards, indicating the timeless nature of Forms; the latter, holding the Nicomachean Ethics and pointing (in a brilliant display of foreshortening) downwards, indicating earthly and empirical knowledge.  The message is the unity of the truth sought by the philosophers and realised in Christian revelation.  Within this scene, Raphael depicts many of his contemporaries, including Michelangelo, Bramante, and Raphael himself.  Plato is almost certainly modelled on Leonardo da Vinci.
 
Credit: Oren Margolis (July 2018)