Raphael’s School of Athens
The School of Athens expresses the humanistic ideals of the Renaissance period. Humanism was a cultural and intellectual movement in literature, art, and civilization during the Renaissance that emphasized the rediscovery of the values of ancient Greece and Rome. Raphael displays many of the most influential writers and philosophers of his time. He places these figures in his composition in such a way that reflects many of the views and politics involved in the Renaissance. The lens through which Raphael sees these famous personages provides his interpretation of these most complex individuals that glorified the world as it was understood in the sixteenth century. Art in this way played an important role in Renaissance society because it educated the public by conveying ideas about religion, and philosophy, which is especially evident in the painting.
What is interesting and evident in this piece is the fact that these philosophers and scientists were probably the most devote in their society because they developed theories of understanding the universe. The most noticeable scene in this piece demonstrates the biggest connection between knowledge and religion. In the center of the scene Plato points up, while Aristotle points toward the Earth as the two walk together. This becomes the focal point. Plato points toward the heavens, exemplifying his belief in the divine and astronomy. At the same time Aristotle, a proponent of what would become the scientific method, directs his gestures toward the Earth, illustrating his belief in science and life on this planet. By making these two figures interact within the same scene Raphael’s painting unifies two conflicting ideals. This conflict between the scientific and religious ideals toward wisdom and divinity was an important underlying theme throughout the Renaissance period.
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The figures that interact throughout the piece appear to be the mature philosophers who are teaching the younger ones; this scene demonstrates the Renaissance notion that the ideas from antiquity should be taught to the young from a more modern period. The middle aged thinkers are being instructed, and are engrossed in conversation with their elder comrades. This idea of the modern thinkers of the Renaissance learning from classical society greatly characterized the Renaissance period. On the right side of the scene Ptolemy and Zoroash are holding globes while interacting with each other. One holds a globe displaying the Earth, while the other holds a globe that displays the constellations. The globe of the Earth and the man holding it symbolizes man and science, while the constellations symbolize man’s relation to the universe and the divine. This connection and interaction between these two schools of thought and the intellectuals studying them demonstrates the association between intellect and religion, and how the two were interconnected during this period. Raphael employs a number of artistic techniques to draw his viewer’s attention to the relationship between the intellectuals of the classical and Renaissance period.
Raphael was able to draw his viewer’s attention to the figures in the painting by the arch that towers over them, and attracts even greater attention to the most important intellectuals in the painting, Plato and Aristotle, by the blue sky that is seen in through the arch in the background. The arch in the foreground frames the figures within the painting, while the arches and blue sky in the background focuses the viewer’s attention to the most prominent intellectuals depicted in the fresco. Raphael created a composition that is constructed from vertical and horizontal planes. One example of a vertical plane are the erect columns and the figures. The two big statues that stand on both ends of the painting emphasize this vertical plane effect. The steps create the horizontal plane, as well as the horizontal line created by the heads of the figures who stand on the top level of this painting. The picture appears to be wholly self-contained by the architecture of the building they are interacting in. This closed arrangement communicates a feeling of balance and stability by creating a feeling of a symmetrical alignment of the characters. Raphael used this symmetrical technique to not only frame the figures in the fresco, but to bring life to them as well. There is balance and symmetry within each horizontal plane as well. The figures are not entirely the same on both sides as there are individual scenes at work, though the work still feels very balanced as a whole. The rules of perspective are utilized by the way the figures in the foreground are larger than the ones in the back, while symmetry plays a role by highlighting the focus, which is not in the foreground.
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The intellectuals in the painting are positioned in the scene on the steps and in small groups, which creates a set of planes on which the figures interact. All of the great thinkers are well-balanced within the frame according to their influence in classical and Renaissance society, with the two most important figures being framed by the arch in the background. Raphael brought the characters represented in the painting to life by giving them their own discrete appearances and gestures, neither of which is repeated by any of the figures. The variation of poses and gestures in the painting gives to the work, and demonstrates a level of discussion in painting that was not evident in recent periods. All of the figures are also lit from one source, which is coming from the top right of the painting, and the light is shed upon them in such a way as to evoke a sense of enlightenment. The colors reflect a sense of enlightenment as well. The variety of pastel colors also illustrates the sense of enlightenment in artistic techniques developed during the Renaissance, which gives the figures a very life like and naturalistic form. The images are sharper and they are all colored with very even tones that draw the viewer’s attention to the important aspects of each character. The realistic architecture in the painting gives the viewer the feeling that they are standing in the room with these great thinkers because of the depth and size created by the architecture and perspective. By proportioning everything in the painting with it’s surroundings, Raphael is able to convince the viewer that a scene such as this had occurred at one point. All of these aspects demonstrate the progress made during the Renaissance in the overall knowledge of artistic technique.
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