raphael the school of athens dimensions
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.
School of Athens is one of a series of four frescoes painted by Raphael representing branches of knowledge. The frescoes, located on the walls of the Stanza, include images descriptive of philosophy, poetry, law, and theology. School of Athens is dedicated to philosophy as a path to knowledge, especially related to understanding causes to drive knowledge. All of the philosophers shown in the fresco traditionally sought knowledge through an understanding of root causes, tying back to the title and theme of the fresco. The overall theme of knowledge is integrated through Raphael”s frescos around the room but School of Athens is considered the best of the series.
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.
For the meaning of other masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
In fact, modern influence seeps in more frequently than one would think, particularly when it comes to the faces used for certain figures in The School of Athens. Let’s take a look, group by group, to pick apart the concept and see who appears in the famous fresco.
Conversely, Aristotle’s hand is a visual representation of his belief that knowledge comes from experience. Empiricism, as it is known, theorizes that humans must have concrete evidence to support their ideas and is very much grounded in the physical world.
The popular idea that the rhetorical gestures of Plato and Aristotle are kinds of pointing (to the heavens, and down to earth) is very likely. However, Plato’s Timaeus – which is the book Raphael places in his hand – was a sophisticated treatment of space, time, and change, including the Earth, which guided mathematical sciences for over a millennium. Aristotle, with his four-elements theory, held that all change on Earth was owing to motions of the heavens. In the painting Aristotle carries his Ethics, which he denied could be reduced to a mathematical science. It is not certain how much the young Raphael knew of ancient philosophy, what guidance he might have had from people such as Bramante and whether a detailed program was dictated by his sponsor, Pope Julius II.
In the center of the fresco, at its architecture’s central vanishing point, are the two undisputed main subjects: Plato on the left and Aristotle, his student, on the right. Both figures hold modern (of the time), bound copies of their books in their left hands, while gesturing with their right. Plato holds Timaeus and Aristotle holds his Nicomachean Ethics. Plato is depicted as old, grey, and bare-foot. By contrast, Aristotle, slightly ahead of him, is in mature manhood, wearing sandals and gold-trimmed robes, and the youth about them seem to look his way. In addition, these two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upward along the picture-plane, into the vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plane at right-angles to the picture-plane (hence in strong foreshortening), initiating a flow of space toward viewers.
Raphael’s School of Athens achieved immediate critical and popular success. According to Vasari, its beauty and thematic unity were universally accepted. Unlike other monumental works of the era (the Sistine Chapel, for example) its reception was not marred by any reservations concerning its content. The artwork in some respects is comparable to the renown Raphael was held in generally. This is a credible observation given Julius II’s original recruitment of Raphael to the Papal court and his subsequent expanded artistic responsibilities following the completion of the Stanze frescoes.
In the right foreground are concentrated two groups. An absorbed group of students huddles around the leaning figure of Euclid (who may be Archimedes), demonstrating some geometric proposition with a pair of compasses upon a slate. Behind him, in yellow robes, stands the Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy, holding his globe of the earth. Behind him is the Persian astronomer and philosopher Zoroaster, holding a sphere of the fixed stars. Just to the right of these two is Raphael himself, the only figure in the School of Athens who gazes directly back at the viewer.