School of Athens by Raphael

School of Athens by Raphael

Who? The artist behind this extraordinary fresco is Raphael. He is considered one of the most accomplished artists of the Renaissance.

When? Raphael began working on the fresco in 1509 as part of a larger papal commission.

What? We are looking at a fictional scene, in which great historical thinkers and philosophers have been brought together in a hyper-classicised setting.

Where? Raphael painted this work to decorate the Stanza della Segnatura in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, a private library and meeting room. Raphael had spent most of his time training in Florence, so this is Raphael making his debut in Rome.

Celebrity spotting

  • Pythagoras: Deep in thought, the Greek mathematician and philosopher is busy writing his famous theorem in a book, whilst his pupil dutifully holds up a diagram. 
  • Alexander: Alexander the Great was a famous ancient warrior and ruler of Macedonia. His military prowess earned him the title of King of Persia. Here, Raphael shows him in conversation with Socrates.
  • Socrates: Socrates was a Greek philosopher. He is considered to be one of the founders of Western philosophy. Raphael shows him counting his fingers as he talks to Alexander the Great. 
  • Euclid: Surrounded by attentive students, the Greek mathematician Euclid is bending down, using his compasses to demonstrate his theorems. Apparently, the Renaissance architect Bramante was the model for Raphael’s Euclid.

A philosophical debate

Plato and Aristotle dominate the scene. But who is who and how are they represented?

  • Aristotle: The philosopher is dressed in blue robes. Raphael shows Aristotle with his hand facing towards the earth: an indication of his materialist and realistic approach to philosophy. It is believed that Raphael used Leonardo as a model for his depiction of Aristotle.
  • Plato: By contrast, the Greek philosopher Plato is shown pointing upwards to the sky, underlining Plato’s idealism and belief in Ideas. 

As noted above. Raphael might have even included a self-portrait of himself in his depiction of Apelles. Why do you think Raphael used his contemporary peers (Leonardo, Bramante) to model his Ancient thinkers? 

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