raphael the school of athens analysis
The School of Athens fresco was an immediate success, with none of the reservations which greeted the completion of Michelangelo’s Genesis Fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Its pictorial concept, formal beauty and thematic unity were universally appreciated, by the Papal authorities and other artists, as well as patrons and art collectors. It ranks alongside Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, and Michelangelo’s Vatican frescoes, as the embodiment of Renaissance ideals of the early cinquecento.
This fresco – a masterpiece of disegno – represents natural Truth, acquired through reason. Under the arched vault of an immense Basilica with lacunar ceiling and pilasters, (inspired by Constantine’s in the Roman Forum), decorated with statues of Apollo and Minerva, a crowd of philosophers and wise men of the past, along with High Renaissance artists and patrons, argue heatedly among themselves or mediate in silence. The extraordinarily deep linear perspective creates an incredible illusion of depth. In the centre we see Plato (long white beard and the features of Leonardo da Vinci), text of the Timaeus in hand, the other hand pointing to heaven, the “seat of all ideas”. At his side is Aristotle, in turn holding his Ethics and pointing to the earth. The two philosophers and their gesturing make a point which is the core of the philosophy of Marsilio Ficino: Aristotle’s gesture symbolizes the positive spirit; the vertical gesture of Plato alludes to a superior quality, the contemplation of ideas.
A number of drawings made by Raphael as studies for the School of Athens are extant.  A study for the Diogenes is in the Städel in Frankfurt  while a study for the group around Pythagoras, in the lower left of the painting, is preserved in the Albertina Museum in Vienna.  Several drawings, showing the two men talking while walking up the steps on the right and the Medusa on Athena’s shield,  [a] the statue of Athena (Minerva) and three other statues,  a study for the combat scene in the relief below Apollo  and “Euclid” teaching his pupils  are in the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at Oxford University.
The two figures to the left of Plotinus were used as part of the cover art of both Use Your Illusion I and II albums of Guns N’ Roses.
But just what does this famous painting mean? Let’s look at what the iconic The School of Athens meant for Raphael as an artist and how it’s become such a symbol of the Renaissance. At the time, a commission by the pope was the apex of any artist’s career. For Raphael, it was validation of an already burgeoning career.
Raphael rose to the challenge, creating an extensive catalog of preparatory sketches for all his frescoes. These would later be blown up in the full-scale cartoons to help transfer the design to the wet plaster. Working at the same time as Michelangelo, it’s thought that this helped push and inspire Raphael by stimulating his competitive nature.
School of Athens
The all important vanishing point of the fresco is somewhere in the space between the heads of Plato and Aristotle. The use of the sky and the incompleteness of the architecture are indications that the School of Athens is not a physical building that actually existed in the past, nor one inhabited by ordinary human beings. That the vanishing point is constructed in such a carefully considered place (i. e. the heavens) is also a clear gesture that the scene is taking place on some higher plane.
The central figures in School of Athens are Plato and Aristotle. Depicted at the central vanishing point of the shown architecture, Plato holds a bound copy of Timaeus in his left hand and is shown as an older, wise, gray-haired man. In contrast, his student Aristotle is shown as a younger, handsome man looking to his teacher. Aristotle carries a bound copy of Nicomachean Ethics in his left hand and walks slightly ahead of Plato. The two central figures both gesture with their right hands but along different visual planes. Plato gestures upwards into the vault while Aristotle gestures horizontally ahead of the figures. Plato and Aristotle are deep in conversation while walking through the other figures.
The other figures shown in the fresco representing other significant Greek philosophers are not as clearly identifiable. While some are more recognizable than others, some of the figures may represent philosophers where no historical image exists. Raphael used iconography to represent those philosophers with no known visual image such as Epicurus. While Plato and Aristotle serve as the central figures of the fresco, the other philosophers depicted lived at various times and were not necessarily their contemporaries. Many of them lived before Plato and Aristotle and barely a third were Athenians. However, the compilation of famous Greek philosophers followed the intended theme of the fresco to seek knowledge through philosophy.