School of Athens

By Jill Allison

The School of Athens is a painting from the High Renaissance Period. The painting, in fresco style, shows several scholars in areas, which represent the four pillars of knowledge. These subjects include philosophy, music, law and theology. It was painted in 1510 by Raphael and is considered his greatest work. It is currently located in Vatican City at the Apostolic Palace. This painting is accessible via the intranet at metmuseum.org under “The Papacy and the Vatican Palace”. It remains in wonderful condition, minus some attention or care periodically and is available for viewing during tours of Vatican City.

The significance of the subject was reflected in the painting and its placement in the Palace. Designed for the rooms where the Pope would establish law, the focus is on wisdom, knowledge and reflection. Raphael posed the philosophers in deep reflection and imparting profound knowledge. Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid are shown stressing their arguments. Aristotle by grasping ethics, Plato pointing to the sky in verification of his forms, and Euclid is using a compass to explain geometry. Closer examination of this painting proves that the characters in the painting were integral to the growth of society.

Raphael depicts his interpretation of philosophy and knowledge in this great masterpiece. The fresco reflects on a school with a multitude of great philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists with the knowledge they possess. As his focal point, Plato carries his great work “Timaeus” and “Nicomachean Ethics” for Aristotle. Along with these central characters are Pythagoras, Epicurus, Heraclitus and others. Raphael uses a linear perspective in that he uses a single point, which is Aristotle and Plato. This type of method allows a 3-D object on a 2-D surface. Raphael placed larger images in the front and tapered the size to scale in the back of the painting or horizon point. This allows a rich view of all characters and depth of subject. The arches in the painting are very pronounced and detailed at the front and fade into the background per the use of the vanishing point or use of mathematical lines.

            The painting shows an archway with the thinkers in various stages of learning. Some are walking; some talking and some sprawled from their excesses or poisons. The architectural details include a high dome, vaulted ceiling and statues placed in niches of the wall. The alabaster hue of the walls is in contrast with the richness of the clothing worn and the framework outside the arch. The statues in the niches are Apollo and Athena. His use of Greek figures is not surprising considering the content of the painting and the influence of Greek knowledge.

My reaction to the painting is two fold. At first, I noticed the people that Raphael deemed as worthy to appear in his painting. My slower reaction was the details of the painting. Having recently completed a philosophy class, I can relate to many of his choices. I see he chooses to portray Aristotle as strong and vibrant and alludes to Leonardo Da Vinci in his representation of Plato. The flow allows for a multi dimensional look. Raphael used lines in repetition for this new geometric style of centralizing and drawing out of his vision. Your eyes are automatically drawn from the outside to the center of this warm and rich masterpiece. I hope you enjoy the painting as and find it as breathtaking as I do. 

Works Cited

“School of Athens.” Wikimedia. Web. 20 Oct 2010. <http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c3/Raphael_School_of_Athens.jpg

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