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Raphael’s
Combining
the
Pagan
Past
with
the
Christian


Present
in
The
School
of
Athens



By
Jeniffer
Harrison
–
Spring
2010







 Raphael’s
School
of
Athens
(1510‐1511),
a
fresco
located
in
the
Stanza
della


Segnatura
within
the
Vatican
on
the
east
wall,
depicts
a
gathering
of
allegorical


figures
of
ancient
philosophers
and
other
intellectuals
and
innovators
within
an


architecturally
Greco‐Roman
Classical
structure.





Jeniffer Harrison 2
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

The
frescos
for
the
Stanza
della
Segnatura
were
commissioned
by
Julius’
II
for
his


papal
library 
to
portray
the


four
main
parts
of
human
knowledge:

Philosophy
in
The
School
of
Athens,
Religion


in
the
Disputa,
where
theologians
present
their
writings,
Poetry
in
the
Parnassus,


where
writers
group,
and
Jurisprudence
where
Prudence,
Temperance,
and


Fortitude
sit
below
Justice.

The
School
of
Athens
was
the
second
fresco
of
four


Raphael
began
for
the
papal
library.

All
the
frescos
possess
numerous
references
to


the
arts
of
the
world
hundreds
of
years
prior
to
rendering
the
frescos
including


science
and
mathematics,
while
being
a
distinctively
Renaissance
work
of
art.


(Rowland,
103)

Further
study
of
the
work
and
its
subjects
exposes
the
complex


symbolism
utilized
by
Raphael
and
reveals
multiple
levels
of
interpretation.


The


work
contains
many
references,
both
obvious
and
slightly
veiled,
to
philosophy,


religion,
and
architecture.

Observation
and
analysis
of
The
School
of
Athens
provides


information
on
both
the
subjects
of
the
painting
and
details
of
its
setting,
however
of


specific
interest
of
this
paper
is
the
investigation
of
the
way
Raphael
seamlessly


blended
Classical
times
with
the
Renaissance
period
art.




2
Jeniffer Harrison 3
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

Examination


Upon
examining
The
School
of
Athens,
the
viewer’s
gaze
is
pulled
toward
the


center
of
the
fresco
where
two
figures
stand
symmetrically
facing
one
another.

The


two
central
figures
are
to
be
considered
the
most
significant
as
the
space
directly
in


between
where
their
heads
are
placed
at
the
focal
point,
which
is
also
the
vanishing


point
for
the
perspective
of
the
piece.

This
single‐point
perspective
not
only


illustrates
their
hierarchal
importance,
it
also
serves
to
be
evidence
for
the


importance
of
the
discipline
of
philosophy.
As
the
figural
portrayal
of
hierarchy
in


Renaissance
art
is
prevalent,
this
is
the
most
obvious
suggestion
of
their


significance;
more
subtle
indications
are
additionally
included
to
draw
the
viewers’


attention.

The
empty
space
below
the
primary
figures,
for
example,
widens
out
as


the
viewers’
eyes
move
down
the
fresco
creating
an
implied
triangle
created
by
the


figural
arrangement
which
draws
the
viewer’s
gaze
up
to
the
point
of
said
triangle


and
back
toward
the
two
figures.

An
archway,
separating
the
figures
within
the


space
from
the
surrounding
figures,
provides
a
frame
for
those
same
two
figures.


“The
parallelism
and
complementarily
of
this
central
pair
is
echoed
and
deepened


by
the
figures
who
surround
them
in
two
rows
in
straight
lines
on
their
left
and


right
and
who
follow
this
central
dialogue
with
passionate
intensity
and
even


involuntary
astonishment,
thereby
programming
our
own
reaction
(Most
157‐

158).”

The
immediate
surrounding
figures
also
seem
to
be
facing
the
two
in
the


middle,
who
are
the
only
ones
in
that
area
facing
the
viewer.

The
two
central


3
Jeniffer Harrison 4
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

philosophers
are
the
central
figures;
however
are
not
the
only
focal
point
of
the


piece.

Other
techniques
are
employed
to
steer
the
viewers
of
the
painting
to
other


important
details.

The
two
groups
of
figures
in
the
foreground,
for
example,
also


form
triangular
shapes
meant
to
lead
the
viewer
upwards
towards
the
larger


grouping
of
people
in
the
painting’s
middle
area.
The
tiling
pattern
in
the
floor
and


the
depiction
of
arches
in
a
hallway‐like
area,
which
diminishes
into
the


background,
brings
the
viewer’s
focus
once
again
on
the
fresco’s
central
area.



The
arches
create
an


implied
upside‐down
triangle,
with
the
base
being
at
the
largest
arch
and
with
a


point
that
leads
down
towards
the
center.


Observations


Observation
of
the
subjects
in
the
fresco
leads
to
the
analysis
of
their


importance.


The
first
step,
then,
is
the
identification
of
the
men
Raphael
has


4
Jeniffer Harrison 5
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

portrayed.

Since
the
time
of
Vasari’s
Lives
of
the
Artists
until
today,
debate
on
the


identity
of
the
figures
in
the
fresco


continues.

Although
there
are
many


theories
and
speculations,
each
with


compelling
evidence,
many
figures
are


generally
agreed
upon
(Bell
639
–
646).



Two
such
figures
are
the
main
figures
of


Plato
and
Aristotle.


Each
man
gestures


with
his
right
hand
and
holds
a
thick
folio
in


their
left
hand
while
looking
at
each
other


as
if
in
conversation.
This
is
the
only


conversation
in
The
School
of
Athens
in


which
the
“interlocutors
speak
and
look
only
at
each
other
(Most
157‐158)”.

Janson


identifies
the
two
by
the
books
they
hold,
Plato
with
Timaeus
and
Aristotle
with


Ethics
(Janson
and
Janson
475).

Bellori
also
notes
the
positioning
of
the
two
on
the


highest
level
of
steps,
which
denotes
their
hierarchy
in
the
fresco.


Plato’s
hand


gestures
towards
Heaven,
which
represents
Plato’s
contemplation
of
the
divine
and


Aristotle’s
hand
is
extended
as
a
symbol
of
worldly
matters
(Bellori
50).

The
other


figures
of
the
piece
are
identified
in
similar
manners.

Pythagoras
is
identified
as
the


figure
crouched
with
book
in
hand
in
the
left
side
of
the
foreground.

Bellori


identifies
the
book
as
Pythagoras’
writing
on
harmonic
proportions
(Bellori
49‐50).


Glenn
W.
Most
eloquently
describes
one
of
the
groups
in
The
School
of
Athens


according
to
his
ideas
of
identification
of
the
fresco’s
members
when
he
says,


5
Jeniffer Harrison 6
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

“On
our
left,
the
forward
movement
of
the
left
circumambulating
pair
is
prolonged


into
one
group
of
nine
figures
made
up
of
six
closely
packed
together
(Socrates
and


his
listeners)
and
then
three
at
some
distance;
on
our
right,
the
backward
motion
of


the
right
circumambulating
pair
is
again
followed
by
nine
figures,
one
group
of
three


extending
downward
toward
us
onto
the
steps
(Diogenes
and
two
others)
and
six


others
spaced
out
along
the
main
floor
to
the
right.

The
symmetrical
disposition
of


these
two
extensions
of
the
central
group
is
emphasized
by
the
balance
of
two
other


figures;
near
the
extreme
left
on
youth,
his
head
turned
away
from
us
over
his


shoulder,
come
running
onto
the
scene
just
as
at
the
extreme
right
another
youth,


his
head
turned
toward
us
over
his
shoulder,
is
hastily
rushing
off
(Most
157‐158).”




6
Jeniffer Harrison 7
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

Glenn
W.
Most
continues
his
descriptions
of
the
remaining
groups
each
of
which
is


completely
separate
from
the
other.

The
second
group
of
nine,
which
includes


Raphael,
in
the
right
foreground,
is
separated
not
only
by
location
but
also


additionally
by
their
gestures
and
postures,
which
deliberately
seclude
them
from


any
other
group,
sealing
their
independence.
This
group
appears
to
be
involved
in


the
transmission
and
understanding
of
knowledge.

The
third
and
last
group,
like
the


second
are
concerned
only
with
what
is
occurring
in
their
area.

The
group
includes


Pythagoras
writing
on
his
tablet
while
other
men
crouch
around


as
if
to
access
an
unyielding
secretiveness
held


by
other
members
of
the
group.

Unlike
the
other
groups,
the
third
is
subdivided
into


two
subgroups.
(Most
157‐158)


New
Identification
of
Fresco
Figures


While
the
identities
of
most
of
the
subjects
of
The
School
of
Athens
have
been


agreed
upon
by
scholars
through
the
years,
it
is
not
uncommon
for
there
to
be


7
Jeniffer Harrison 8
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

variances
between
different
descriptions
of
the
work.

One
major
example
is
that
of


the
figures
in
the
right
foreground.

Bellori
identifies
the
mathematician
leaning


over
his
work
as
Archimedes,
and
the
two
figures
with
globes
on
the
far
right
as


astronomers
Chaldeans
and
Zoroaster
(Bellori
52‐53).
Janson
challenges
this


statement
and
argues
that
the
figures
in
question
are
instead
the
mathematicians


Euclid
and
Ptolemy
and
the
astronomer
Hipparchus
(Janson
and
Janson
476).



Moving
on
to
the
background
figures,
Janson
and
Bellori
seem
to
agree
on
the


identity
of
the
statues
that
rise
above
the
crowd
(Janson
and
Janson
476).

The


female
statue
is
Minerva;
goddess
of
wisdom
and
reason





dominates
the
right
side
of
the
fresco.

She
was
born
from
her
father,
Jupiter’s,
head


and
her
birth
is
considered
to
be
a
foreshadowing
of
the
Virgin
Mary
giving
birth
to


Christ.



The
male
statue
is
Apollo;



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Jeniffer Harrison 9
Computer Writing – Spring 2010


god
of
health
and
music
which
dominates
the
left
half
of
 






the
fresco.

Apollo
had
many
associations
with
sun,
light,
and
healing
as
well.

Many


of
these
same
associations
would
become
attributed
to
Christ.

Apollo
and
Minerva


appear
to
stand
as
reminders
that
in
many
ways
these
Greco‐Roman
gods
were


predecessors
to
the
figures
of
Christ
and
the
Virgin
Mary.
(Rowland
105)
 


9
Jeniffer Harrison 10
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

Another
argument
is
over
where
Socrates
is
included
in
the
fresco
as
he
was


considered
to
be
one
of
the
greatest


philosophers
other
than
Plato
and
Aristotle


and
should
have
a
significant
location
in
the


fresco.

One
postulation
by
Daniel
Bell
is


that
Bellori’s
identification
of
Socrates


beside
the
military
man
off
to
the
far
left
is


incorrect
and
that
Socrates
is
in
fact
the
man
isolated
on
the
steps
at
the
feet
of
Plato


and
Aristotle.

He
provides
two
key
clues
for
the
proposal
that
this
figure
is
Socrates,


first
Socrates
was
known
to
have
often
lacked
a
robe
or
worn
a
less
than
decent


robe
and
was
often
barefoot
and
second
there
is
a
cup
lying
to
the
left
of
the
man
on


the
stairs
possibly
depicting
the
cup
from
which
Socrates
was
forced
to
drink
the


Hemlock
which
killed
him.

If
Bell
is
correct
this
also
explains
the
two
figures
to
the


right
of
Socrates,
which
would
have
been
his
students
Crito
and
Apollodorus
who


were
in
a
state
of
shock
and
disbelief
at
his
deathbed.

They
are
depicted
in
the


fresco
making
urgent
gestures
toward
the
man
and
pointing
to
Plato
and
Aristotle
as


if
to
be
imploring
them
for
a
reason
for
his
death.
(Bell
639
–
646)

Beyond
the


importance
of
scholars
and
students
researching
and
debating
the
subjects
in
the


fresco
to
uncover
the
identities
of
the
people
portrayed
is
another
important


consideration.

As
with
other
interpretations
relating
the
pagan
world
with
the


Christian,
Bell’s
interpretation
lends
a
new
theory
to
the
death
of
Socrates
for


teaching
Philosophy
to
the
youth
of
Athens
could
be
paralleled
with
Christ
being


killed
for
teaching
Christianity
to
the
Hebrews.

Since
Raphael
did
not
leave
any


10
Jeniffer Harrison 11
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

notes
or
letters
regarding
the
fresco
this
matter
may
be
debated
for
all
time;


however,
in
light
of
the
above
information,
it
is
plausible
that
this
was
an
intended


foreshadowing
effect
by
Raphael
(Bell
639
–
646).



Structural
References


In
addition
to
the
rich
symbolism
Raphael
utilized
regarding
the
figures
in

The
School
of
Athens,
Raphael’s
attention
to
architectural
detail
adds
to
the
meaning

of
the
work
and
its
attempt
to
combine
the
Renaissance
with
the
Classical
period.


The
structure
clearly
references
styles
from
Classical
times,
as
evidenced
by
the

presence
of
columns
and
arches,
which
were
pioneered
by
the
Greeks
and
widely

utilized
in
Roman
civilization.

The
structure
itself
shows
that
it
is
largely
open
to

the
outside
world,
which
was
quite
common
in
Greek
and
Roman
buildings.

Pierced

by
three
windows,
the
domed
vault
resembles
Donato
Bramante’s
design
of
St.

Peter’s
Basilica.

The
triple
window
echoes
a
sequence
of
the
three
sizeable
openings

behind
the
dome
bringing
awareness
to
many
subtle
numerical
elements
Raphael

implemented
into
his
design,
much
like
the
triad
referring
to
the
Holy
Trinity

utilized
in
much
of
the
Christian
Church
architecture.

For
Julius
II,
The
School
of

Athens
was
the

incarnation
of
a

Christian
Kingdom
of

Rome
under
his
rule

(Rowland
104).

As

Lieberman
points
out

that
while
Raphael

may
have
drawn

inspiration
from
St.

Peter’s
Basilica,
the

building
he
portrays
is


11
Jeniffer Harrison 12
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

not
an
exact
representation
of
the
church.

One
might
deduce
then
that
Raphael
took

artistic
liberties
with
the
actual
plans
for
St.
Peter’s
Basilica
in
order
to
enhance

them
for
transformation
to
his
fresco.

Worth
noting
again
are
the
details
of
the

statues
Raphael
placed
within
his
structure.

While
also
considered
figures
to
be

recognized,
the
statues
of
Minerva
and
Apollo
also
fall
into
the
category
of

architecture.

Raphael’s
use
of
the
Classical
gods
within
the
depiction
of
a

Renaissance
church
successfully
combines
that
which
is
pagan
and
Christian
as
well

as
Classical
ideas
with
Renaissance
Humanism.
(Janson
and
Janson
475‐476)


Melding
of
Christianity
and
Pagan
Images


The
School
of
Athens
represents
at
its
core
a
melding
of
two
worlds.



Religiously,
the
piece
combines
the
pagan
with
the
Christian
in
a
way
that


emphasizes
the
similarities
of
the
two.

The
philosophers
and
scientists
represent


the
beauty
of
nature
and
the
world
that,
combined
with
not
only
the
artistic


representation
of
a
place
of
worship,
but
also
the
piece’s
existence
within
the


Vatican
come
to
stand
for
a
celebration
of
life
and
the
divine.
(Verdon
128‐129)



While
lacking
the
obvious
Christian
references
of
many
other
paintings
in
the


Vatican,
Raphael
still
is
able
to
emphasize
religious
themes
with
his
subtle
details


and
ability
to
combine
the
thoughts
and
cultures
of
the
Classical
world
with
those
of


the
Renaissance
world.


12
Jeniffer Harrison 13
Computer Writing – Spring 2010


Conclusion



 While
various
interpretations
of
Raphael’s
details
persist
today,
it
is
clear


that
the
work
succeeds
in
visually
and
culturally
combining
the
two
time
periods
of


the
Renaissance
and
the
Classical.
The
fresco’s
style
is
clearly
one
of
the


Renaissances
and
the
methods
used
to
depict
perspective
and
the
human
form


confirms
this.

However,
this,
in
addition
to
the
depiction
of
traditionally
Greek
and


Roman
subjects
and
a
religiously
Christian
structure
obviously
influenced
by


Classical
architecture
as
well
as
subjects,
both
current
and
Classical,
placed
together


bridges
the
gap
in
time
between
the
two
time
periods.

The
lack
of
any
hint
as
to
the


exact
location
where
this
scene
might
take
place
is
due
to
the
deliberate
lack
of
any


outside
landscape,
with
only
sky
and
clouds
showing
we
are
thus
provided
a
neutral


setting
for
the
viewer
to
imagine
this
meeting
of
cultures.

Overall,
a
detailed


observation
of
The
School
of
Athens
allows
viewers
to
see
a
combination
of
two


types
of
worlds,
religions,
and
thinkers
the
way
thinkers
of
the
Renaissance
strived


to
bring
valued
Classical
ideals
to
society
hundreds
of
years
later.

 



13
Jeniffer Harrison 14
Computer Writing – Spring 2010

Raphael
self
portrait
in
the
School
of
Athens


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15