1500 – 1600
End of the Renaissance and the Reformation

Raphael's School of Athens

Raphael, School of Athens, fresco, 1509-1511 (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican)
Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris


Raphael, School of Athens

The School of Athens represents all the greatest mathematicians, philosophers and scientists from classical antiquity gathered together sharing their ideas and learning from each other. These figures all lived at different times, but here they are gathered together under one roof.

The two thinkers in the very center, Aristotle (on the right) and Plato (on the left, pointing up) have been enormously important to Western thinking generally, and in different ways, their different philosophies were incoporated into Christianity. Plato holds his book called The Timaeus.

Plato points up because in his philosophy the changing world that we see around us is just a shadow of a higher, truer reality that is eternal and unchanging (and include things like goodness and beauty). For Plato, this otherworldly reality is the ultimate reality, and the seat of all truth, beauty, justice, and wisdom.

Aristotle holds his hand down, because in his philosophy, the only reality is the reality that we can see and experience by sight and touch (exactly the reality dismissed by Plato). Aristotle's Ethics (the book that he holds) "emphasized the relationships, justice, friendship, and government of the human world and the need to study it."

Pythagoras (lower left) believed that the world (including the movement of the planets and stars) operated according to mathematical laws. These mathematical laws were related to ideas of musical and cosmic harmony, and thus (for the Christians who interpreted him in the Renaissance) to God. Pythagoras taught that each of the planets produced a note as it moved, based on its distance from the earth. Together, the movement of all the planets was perfect harmony -- "the harmony of the spheres."

Ptolemy (he has his back to us on the lower right), holds a sphere of the earth, next to him is Zaroaster who holds a celestial sphere. Ptolemy tried to mathematically explain the movements of the planets (which was not easy since some of them appear to move backwards!). His theory of how they all moved around the earth remained the authority until Copernicus and Kepler figured out (in the late 1500s) that the earth was not at the center of the universe, and that the planets moved in orbits the shape of ellipses not in circles.

Raphael, School of Athens (detail)Raphael included a self-portrait of himself, standing next to Ptolemy. He looks right out at us.


Your Comments (6)

Previous Comments

Kimberly Anderson wrote on Monday, April 12, 2010

I really love this painting actually. I think it's really a marvelous piece. When we were doing the pre-exam essay for compairison, I found a similar painting I wanted to use for the school of athens, but couldn't because it was in a different time period. I came across the painting called 'Decadence of the Romans', by Thomas Couture. The painting was done in 1847, so about 335 years later than School of Athens. But you should take a look at the 2 side by side, they are actually quite similar. I thought that was interesting since they were so many years apart. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe they are both from Italy as well. The 2 are quite interesting to me.

Ada wrote on Tuesday, October 19, 2010

This is actually one of my favorite pieces from the High Renaissance period. Thanks Dr. Zucker and Dr. Harris for this wonderful video you have cleared up a lot of questions I had regarding this marvelous piece.

nancy enright wrote on Monday, November 01, 2010

Just returned from Roma and seeing this masterpiece...especially moved by Raphael's self-portrait on one side and his lover (left side of painting) engaging the viewer...extraordinary.

Revie Valencia wrote on Friday, October 07, 2011

i like this painting and i was impressed that even [though] they are pagan thinkers, the church accepts their ideas and discoveries.

chelsea wrote on Wednesday, May 23, 2012

this is creepy!

Felix M. Bonaventure wrote on Saturday, December 15, 2012

Awesome! Thank you Drs. Zucker and Harris.

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