The School of Athens
Raphael’s School of Athens typifies the ideals of the High Renaissance in a myriad of ways. The painting
melds paganistic themes and imagery with Christian architectures and compares old classical masters with the new, commenting on how the discoveries of antiquity are present in modern thought. It symbolizes humanism and the conjoinment of ancient Greek, Hellenistic culture and Renaissance ideals and perspectives. The overall message of this masterpiece is “we are as they were”.
In this painting, Raphael illustrated the idea that Renaissance artists were just as innovative and spectacular as the philosophers of ancient, Hellenistic Greece. He depicts this by painting several Renaissance artists as philosophers. For instance, one of the prominent figures in the painting is Leonardo da Vinci, who is portrayed as Plato with his hand pointing to the sky, indicating Plato’s idea that all philosophy and ideas come from the Gods and from the Heavens. Beside him is Aristotle, whose hand is palm down, suggesting that all ideals and philosophy come from the observation of the real world and from the Earth. Together, these two figures represent the Renaissance ideas of Heaven and Earth coming together in the philosophy of Humanism, the main belief during the Renaissance (symbolized by a circle within a square).
To further his belief, Raphael painted Heroclitus, a philosopher who believed that suffering and despair are a part of life. Heroclitus assumed the role of the melancholy, moody, perfectionist Michelangelo (sassy Jesus); the creator of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, located in St. Peter’s Basilica. The School of Athens is also housed in this church. Bromante, the designer of the Basilica,is portrayed as Euclid, the father of modern day Geometry, symbolizing his mathematical genius and his superlative skills. The background of this painting is the unfinished Basilica, as it appeared in 1509. To even further instill his belief “we are as they were”, Raphael paints the carvings of Athena and Apollo into the walls of the Basilica, and displays mythological figures in the sea of
Raphael painted himself in the undulating wave of philosophers to show that he is one of the greats and that he will not be forgotten as the ages of time wear on. He is located in the left corner, next to Ptolemy, a believer in the geocentric theory. Raphael is one of the few figures in this master piece that is peering at the audience.
Other important figures that appear in this piece are Socrates, one of the fathers of modern Western philosophy and the questioner of the universe, Diogenes, one of the founders of the Cynic philosophy, and Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism (the belief that there is an eternal war between the
benevolent and the wicked). These figures are included in order to show that these virtuoso thinkers of the ancient Greek period were great and immortal. They were depicted in order to show that even though they were gone, their ideas and perspectives were being shed back into the light in this period of rebirth and reawakening.
The School of Athens was created around the time that Michelangelo was breathing life into his masterpiece,
The Sistine Chapel. Awe-struck by this adroit, Raphael would furtively sneak into the Chapel in order to watch his idol work. He was thus inspired by the great master.
St. Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world; therefore, the inclusion of paganistic influences in its structure is all the more symbolic.The Grecian deities Apollo, god of music, athletes, and male beauty, and Athena, goddess of wisdom, battle strategy, and patron of the arts, are painted on either sides of the entrance as gigantic statues. This is to show how classical thought is integrated, and makes up the infrastructure, of Renaissance thought - a very humanist view.
In conclusion, Raphael created this awe-inspiring piece of art, the apex of the Renaissance, and used it to show how the “Greats” of his time were as the thinkers and philosophers of Ancient Greece were. He uses linear perspective, a new technology at the time, and manages to paint St. Peter’s Basilica in incredible, minute detail. This painting typifies the Renaissance because it captures Renaissance innovations, ideas, and portrays them in a humanistic, unique, and beautiful way. It is a full visual embodiment of the Renaissance.