From 1509 to 1512, Rafael Sanzio created The School of Athens, a fresco that famously reflects the humanistic interpretations of the Italian Renaissance. This magnificent work is located in the Stanza della Segnatara in the Vatican at Rome, the city Rafael died in April of 1526. At a young age Rafael traveled to Florence, where the Renaissance began, he was influenced by Leonardo da Vinci, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as Socrates, Plutarch and many other great writers, philosophers and theologians.
In The School of Athens Rafael depicts these men and very intricately reflects the thoughts and politics of the Renaissance. “The extent of Raphael’s style is equally prodigious in its interpretation of the most complex stories, the episodical significance of which is transcend into moments of form and light” (Camesasca 9). There is a very definite connection to humanism in this fresco. Humanism “included a great diversity of emphasis and underwent constant changethe noted scholar Paul Joachimsen proposed a simple and fairly concrete definition of humanism as an intellectual movement primarily literary and philosophicalrooted in the love and desire for the rebirth of classical antiquity.” (Kingdon 154).
The School of Athens is the glorification of the pre-Christian world as it was understood in the early 15th century. The philosophy that modern views of science, math, fine arts, and the human nature could be derived from theology and religion, is portrayed by the use of famous scientists, mathematicians, artists, writers and philosophers in the School of Athens, which was titled well after it was completed.
The most outstanding scene in this fresco makes the biggest connection between wisdom and religion. This is the scene in the center of the piece where the vanishing point is. Plato, the one pointing up, and Aristotle, the one gesturing toward the earth, are walking together.
Plato is referring to Christ and the divine while Aristotle, a disciple of the scientific method, is gesturing toward life on earth and represents science. This scene joins the two ideas together that represent the main theme supporting humanism, wisdom from divinity.
The cool colors blues, and off-whites are in clear distinction to the light browns and golden hues in the marble , and emphasize logic as opposed to theological views. Throughout the painting there are old philosophers teaching the young, this represents the classical ideas of the old being taught to the young in modern times using science and the other disciplines. The middle aged writers, and artists are engaged in conversation and work. “The dignity of the personages, young, middle aged and old is an important feature of Renaissance art in general and Rafaels’s more specifically” (Beck 88).
At the “center of the composition, we notice a figure who lies at the feet of Plato and Aristotle in quiet isolation; here, I propose, is Socrates” (Bell 638). If this is Socrates, it would show how Rafael used him as an ancient source to further depict the first main idea of
humanism, and if you look to the left of Socrates there is a cup, this is proposed to be the cup of hemlock Socrates was forced to drink after an unjust trial for teaching young Athenians. Now again, we have the two ideas that support humanism, the old classical, teacher, and young modern students.
If you look to the far right of the painting you’ll see two men with globes, one of the earth, and the other of the constellations. The earth represents science and man and the constellations represent theology. The fact that both globes are being held by intellectuals studying them shows the relationship between theology and intellect, and the studying of this relationship.
The many scenes and the people in them, as well as the location of the School of Athens reflects the thought of the early 15th century very accurately. The Italian Renaissance had a very large influence and I would even say was the inspiration for this piece as it was for nearly all of the art during this time. Artists had to change from being artisans to being intellects during this time, as the idea of humanism and the Renaissance changed the Italian, and later on European cultures. Rafael did that, he was an intellectual and a very fine artist. He understood the concept of humanism, and depicted it very well using many different, effective subjects and techniques.
Beck, James. Raphael The Stanza della Segnatura. New York: George Braziller, Inc., c. 1993.
Camesasca. All The Frescos of Raphael Part 1. New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., c. 1963.
Kingdon, Robert. Transition and Revolution. Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company, c.1974.
Orth Bell, D. “New Identifications in Raphael’s `School of Athens`.” The Art Bulletin: volLXXVII December 1995 p638-646. Chemeketa Community College. Searchbank.