How does Raphael's School of Athens reflect Renaissance art and philosophy?

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jerseygyrl1983 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"The School of Athens" is a fresco in the Vatican that Raphael painted between 1509 and 1511 as part his commission to paint the Stanze di Raffaello, or the papal apartments, in the Apostolic Palace.

As the previous educator mentioned, it is a visual exemplar of the preeminence of humanist values. Humanism was a belief system that arose during the Renaissance. It asserted that most human problems could be resolved through rationalism. It elevated the stupendous physical and mental capabilities of human beings and placed less value on human submission to faith and religious institutions—a tendency that characterized the Middle Ages.

Moreover, the fresco reorients us with Classical values—that is, the artistic and philosophical ideas that are derived from Ancient Greece and Rome. The Renaissance, a French word which means "rebirth," was a revival of these values. It makes sense that Rome was the center of Renaissance activity, for the remnants of Roman culture were ubiquitous in the city, reminding people of the splendors of Roman art and architecture, even during the years of "darkness." This architecture is reiterated in the painting. The figures emerge from high Roman arches, and the ceilings are coffered.

The composition of the painting is important. Its clear lines reference the harmony and order of ancient architecture. Plato (possibly in the guise of Leonardo da Vinci) and Aristotle are at the center of the painting. All of the figures on the top stair, including the primary two philosophers, are level with each other; that is, a line can be drawn through the middle of the painting, showing them all to be at a similar height. Plato and Aristotle are at the center of the fresco's vanishing point. A vanishing point, a common feature of Renaissance painting, is a feature in which an abstract point is formed as a result of a series of parallel lines in two-dimensional space creating a three-dimensional space, as a result of the convergence of those lines.

A vanishing point helps to create harmony in a painting, but it may also tell us something about Raphael's own regard for Plato and Aristotle. He is not demonstrating a preference for one thinker or the other, it seems. He shows that the "heavenly" Platonic ideal and Aristotle's earthly ideas are of equal value.

A vertical line could be drawn between the two figures, however, separating the philosophers on opposite sides of the fresco. Diogenes the Cynic and Heraclitus (in the guise of Michelangelo) sit on the stairs apart from the cliques of philosophers on the right and left sides of the fresco. They are separated, probably due to their respective philosophies, which emphasized human isolation. Ptolemy, Strabo, and Euclid—philosophers mostly concerned with understanding the order of the world and the universe—are on the right. On the left are more philosophers concerned with the human condition and how to live: Zeno, Epicurus, and Boethius.

mlsldy3 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

During the years of 1400 through 1600, there was an huge increase of art coming from Italy. This is called Renaissance Art. Renaissance Art is the painting, sculpture and decorative art of this period in European history. The School of Athens was painted between 1510 and 1511. 

The painting reflects Renaissance art because it emphasizes the focus of worldly matter rather than spiritual. The focus of the worldly was highly popular during the Renaissance era. During the Renaissance the value was on humanism, and was slowly moving away from things that were considered spiritual. 

The reflection of philosophy within the painting is very clear. The painting itself represents all of the greatest philosophers, as well as the greatest mathematicians and scientist all together sharing their ideas and learning from each other. The greatest refection of philosophy is that Aristotle is in the center on the right and Plato is on the left. Aristotle and Plato have been very important in Western thinking. You can see that Plato's hands are pointing up because his philosophy was that the changing world, as we see it, is just a shadow of a higher, truer reality that is eternal and unchanging. Aristotle's hands are pointing down because he believed the only reality is the reality that we see and experience by sight and touch.

Raphael was one of three great painters during this time. His works are still considered some of the most inspiring today. The School of Athens is regarded as one of the greatest Renaissance paintings of all time.