The School of Athens
The School of Athens is a rectangular fresco of 16'5" by 25'3". To view at its entirety, one must thus look up and far enough at the painting. Ordered by Pope Jules II to Raphael, and painted between 1510 and 1512 to decorate the Room of the Signatura in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, this work aims at representing the harmony between Faith and Reason. Under the arched vault of a monumental temple, a crowd of 60 philosophers from Ancient Greece, Latin Christianity and the Renaissance occupy the core of the composition, characterized by an exceptionally deep perspective. Either arguing or silently meditating, the philosophers surround Plato and Aristotle, standing in the center of the painting, that has often been described as "Raphael's masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance" (Janson 580).
Three dynamics structure the multidimensional space of The School of Athens. The viewer sinks into the composition by penetrating the successive spaces of the fresco until the vanishing point at the center. First, a series of intermingled convex archs cadence the paiting. At the forefront, a vast vaulted arch frames the fresco. Behind this arch, three successive vaulted gates draw a linear perspective towards the vanishing point of the composition. At the very background, the last vaulted archs stands out against the sky. Second, a horizontal line splits the painting into two equal rectangles. The lower rectangular represents the crowd of the philosophers, distributed on three planes. By contrast with the complexity of the layout of the corpses within the lower rectangle of the fresco, the upper rectangle presents a clear symmetry. On the left and on the right, the walls of the temple frame the groups of philosophers. Both engraved with naked statues slightly taller than the philosophers, the walls are separated by the successive vaulted arches described earlier, thus dividing the upper part of the fresco into three equal rectangle thirds. Proportionally speaking, the philosophers and their environment thus occupy the same importance within the composition. Third, orthogonal lines linking the frame of the fresco and its vanishing point structure the painting. At the forefront, the squares painted on the floor sustain these orthogonal lines. The complexity of the perspective invites the viewer to circulate among the different features and to come closer to the composition once he has entered it through the main linear perspective, and thus to engage a dynamic reading of the painting.
The crowd of the philosophers can be read as follows. At the forefront, two groups of philosophers discuss on the paved floor, respectively at the right and at the left of the fresco. The left group is comprised of four main figures, gathered around a seated old man that is writing. Right behind them, a woman stands. Her body leans towards the background while she looks directly at the viewer. The right group includes eight characters, bending or seated on the left and standing on the right. They feature a compass and a terrestrial sphere. On their right, a group of figures stands, back turned to the viewer, except for one character whose head emerges from behind this group and whose looking directly at the viewer. Behind them, a main lies slightly at the right of the center of the steps, in a position that suggests that of a dog. On his right, two figures climb the stairs. On the top of the stairs, another group of philosophers interact, forming a horizontal rectangle of corpse. At the center, Plato and Aristotle walk towards the steps. The verticality of Plato, pointing the sky with his left hand and wrapped into a rectangular toga contrasts with the parallelism of Aristotle's left hand with the ground and the horizontality of the book he holds. They look at each other. The space between their heads encapsulates the vanishing point of the fresco. A group of people aligned within the orthogonal lines leading to the vanishing point form a hedge around them, outlining the perspective of the fresco.
The monumentality of the fresco stems from both its physical dimension and the subject of the painting itself. The impressive size of the fresco echoes the considerable space it represents, technically depicted by the cropped walls of the temple, implying that they overpass the fresco by far, the verticality of the statues on the right and on the left of the composition as well as the depth of the perspective. The space interlaces void and saturated compartments. By contrast with the crowded forefront filled with corpses, the background suggests the existence of invisible spaces between the archs.
The dynamic of the fresco opposes the mobility of the philosophers to the rigidity of the marble at the forefront and the sculptures and the archs in the background. The mobility of the philosophers stems from the movement of the fabrics they wear, the activity of their bodies and the multi-layers perspective that separate their corpses from each other. The smoothness of the fabrics denotes with the hardness of the walls and of the archs, thus inscribing the clear-cut lines of the philosophers' corpses into a mineral landscape. Yet the anthropomorphic statues behind the philosopher create a visual tight between the figures and their environment, thus giving rhythm to the composition.
The contrast between the philosophers and their environment also results from the chromatic dynamic. A luminous association of ocher and dark red structures the marble, the walls and the archs of the temple. By contrast, the matt clothes and skins of the philosophers represent a variety of pastel colors, mostly blue, green, light brown and beige. Yet two chromatic elements link the philosophers and their environment, creating a sustained visual rhythm. First, the blue of the sky echoes the blue of the fabrics wore by five philosophers dispatched on the right. Second, the dark red of the forefront vaulted arch and of the forefront marble resonates with the dark red clothes of several philosophers.
The luminosity of the painting stems from the vanishing point, located in the extremely light-blue sky. This source of light illuminates the composition from behind. The luminosity declines as the forefront gets closer, thus backlighting the philosophers at the forefront of the composition.
The School of Athens embodies Renaissance's ambition to synthesize Western's philosophy as well as to reconcile both Greek and Christian authors. The central position of Plato and Aristotle inscribes them within the composition as the generators of the knowledge symbolized by the other philosophers: Socrate arguing on their left, Pythagore writing at the forefront on the left, Zoroaster lifting a terrestrial globe at the forefront of the right and so on. The arched vaults incorporate the Greek and the Christian philosophers, thus exhibiting their reconciliation and reframing the relation between portraits and landscapes, essential to each other's meaning. Raphael's use of Alberti's perspective rules implies that Greeks and Christians reconciliation was made possible by the Renaissance's techniques. The two characters looking directly at the viewers achieve to represent Renaissance' not only as the synthesis of Western knowledge, but also as the paroxystic expression of this knowledge through art. Indeed, the woman earlier described looking at the viewer on the left is probably Hypathia of Alexandria, a Greek philosopher murdered by a Christian, inviting the viewer through the look to enter the reconciliation embedded in the composition. The man on the right looking at the viewer is most likely Raphael himself. The self-representation of the artist indicates the new status he and his work acquired during the Renaissance: art is not simply a techne anymore, but a vector of political power, in this case a fresco ordered by a Pope wishing to celebrate the harmony between Faith and Reason, nor is the artist a craftsmen, but a figure worthy of being painted among the most illustrious Western philosophers.
© Rosalie Calvet, March 2016
Janson, H. W., Penelope J. E. Davies, and H. W. Janson. History of Art: The Western Tradition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2011. Print.