school of athens painting
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.
For the meaning of other masterpieces, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.
The identities of some of the philosophers in the picture, such as Plato and Aristotle, are certain. Beyond that, identifications of Raphael’s figures have always been hypothetical. To complicate matters, beginning from Vasari’s efforts, some have received multiple identifications, not only as ancients but also as figures contemporary with Raphael. Vasari mentions portraits of the young Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, leaning over Bramante with his hands raised near the bottom right, and Raphael himself. 
Modern reproductions of the fresco abound. For example, a full-size one can be seen in the auditorium of Old Cabell Hall at the University of Virginia. Produced in 1902 by George W. Breck to replace an older reproduction that was destroyed in a fire in 1895, it is four inches off scale from the original, because the Vatican would not allow identical reproductions of its art works. 
Apollo, recognizable by his lyre, represents the natural philosophy side. As the god of light, music, truth, and healing, his position puts him adjacent to Raphael’s Parnassus fresco representing literature and poetry.
So who is everyone else? It’s not always crystal clear, as Raphael doesn’t arm all his characters with attributes that give away their identity. Fortunately, there are quite a few that scholars can agree on.
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.
Raphael’s School of Athens was not meant as any type of school that actually existed (i. e. Plato’s Academy) but an ideal community of intellects from the entire classical world. To facilitate this vision, Raphael created a spacious hall that recalls the “temples raised by philosophy” written by the Roman poet Lucretius.
The School of Athens is one of four paintings in that very room with each painting being a ‘fresco’ painted on each of the four walls. Each fresco painting represents the four branches of human knowledge which include Philosophy, Poetry, Justice and the School of Athens – which represents theology and the sharing of knowledge.
The School of Athens painting was begun in 1509 and completed in 1511. However, Raphael had a large team of workers and assistance to work alongside him to paint at this pace. In the center of this theological painting are two of history’s most important philosophers, on the left is Plato and on the right is Aristotle.