the school of athens by raphael analysis
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.
Take a virtual tour of the Stanza della Segnatura via the Vatican Museums website.
In 1508, during the High Renaissance (c.1490-1530), the 25-year old painter Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael, was summoned to the Vatican by the ageing pontiff Pope Julius II (1503-13), and given the largest, most important commission of his life – the decoration of the Papal Apartments, including the Stanza della Segnatura. Located on the upper floor of the Vatican palace, this room was used by the Pope as a library. It was here, between 1509 and 1511, that Raphael painted his famous fresco The School of Athens (Scuola di Atene). It was the second mural painting to be finished for the Stanza della Segnatura, after La Disputa, on the opposite wall, and is regarded as one of the greatest Renaissance paintings. The general theme of the picture, indeed the whole room, is the synthesis of worldly (Greek) and spiritual (Christian) thinking, and ranks alongside the finest examples of classically inspired Renaissance art. A rival of the older Michelangelo (1475-1564), Raphael went on to complete three other Papal apartment rooms in the Vatican (known as the Raphael Rooms) and was to remain in Rome serving successive popes until his sudden death in 1520.
In fact Raphael’s painterly skills were soon in such demand that he was obliged to leave more and more work to his assistants, such as Giovanni Francesco Penni (1496-1536), Giulio Romano (1499-1546) and Perino del Vaga (Piero Buonaccorsi) (1501-47). Responsible for numerous altarpieces, such as The Sistine Madonna (1513-14, Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and The Transfiguration (1518-20, Pinacoteca Apostolica, Vatican), as well as other examples of religious art, he also produced several famous Renaissance portraits of ecclesiastical and secular subjects – such as Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (1514-15, Louvre) and Pope Leo X with Cardinals (1518, Galleria Palatina, Pitti Palace, Florence). Arguably the finest painter of the Italian Renaissance, Raphael remains one of the best artists of all time.
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. 
The cartoon for the painting is in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana in Milan.  Missing from it is the architectural background, the figures of Heraclitus, Raphael, and Protogenes. The group of the philosophers in the left foreground strongly recall figures from Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi.  Additionally, there are some engravings of the scene’s sculptures by Marcantonio Raimondi; they may have been based on lost drawings by Raphael, as they do not match the fresco exactly. 
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.
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.
The School of Athens is a depiction of philosophy. The scene takes place in classical times, as both the architecture and the garments indicate. Figures representing each subject that must be mastered in order to hold a true philosophic debate – astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and solid geometry – are depicted in concrete form. The arbiters of this rule, the main figures, Plato and Aristotle, are shown in the centre, engaged in such a dialogue.
If in the Dispute, the central axis contains all the primary components of the meaning, in its counterpart on the opposite wall – The School of Athens – the emphasis is on a horizontal reading, and the main figures, located on the top of the short stairs, are strung out like an animated frieze. Such a distribution is related to the fact that in this fresco the stress is on earthly zones rather than on otherworldly ones so characteristic of its analogue. In the case of the Disputa, the golden tonalities reflect theological and spiritual values i n connection with the miraculous nature of the Eucharist; these are in contrast to the clear blues and whites and the crisp, charged atmosphere that characterizes The School of Athens. This is a realm where the power of philosophy and reason, as opposed to faith, seems to dominate.