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Monday, 27 February 2017 12:28

To understand is to look: putting Raphael’s 'School of Athens' into words

An elaborate classical Roman arch frames Raphael's School of Athens (1509-1510), behind which three more arches advance towards a vanishing point; focusing the viewer's attention on the two central male figures. The man on the left, pointing determinately upwards to the sky — the celestial realm — is the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. He casually grips a book, his own oeuvre, inscribed Timeo, and looks commandingly at the younger philosopher, Aristotle, standing next to him. Aristotle holds his oeuvre, Etica, and in contrast to Plato he splays his right hand out, gesturing towards the ground beneath him — the terrestrial realm. Marcia Hall (1997: 17) explains that Raphael's School of Athens revolves around these men and their two extremely opposite philosophies.

Like Hall, it is my sense that these men's contradictory gestures are like two opposing forces which indicate a contrast in their philosophies about celestial wisdom and terrestrial knowledge. In Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of the Renaissance, E.H. Gombrich (1972: 92) supports this claim: according to Plato's Timeo, and as his upward pointing finger suggests, wisdom comes from an understanding of that which is up above — the divine. In contrast, Aristotle, in an earthy brown and tangibly bright blue robe, focuses on knowledge and the ethical behaviour of humans in the physical realm over which his hand is protectively splayed. Even the classical roman sculptures of Minerva, goddess of wisdom on the right and Apollo, teacher of Ethics, on the left, reinforce the antithesis of godly wisdom versus human knowledge.

Raphael enhances the energetic nature of such philosophical debate through strong visual contrasts. For example, he juxtaposes the looseness of Diogenes’s pose — who is splayed out languidly on the steps — against the tight intensity of the huddled group on the left. This group strains forward to see what Pythagorus is writing, intent on what they are learning. Despite their varying individual poses, the "v" shaped composition of these foreground clusters of figures makes the entire image seem to focus back towards Plato and Aristotle. Hall (1997: 11) notes that this energetic composition, which represents a conversation between great philosophers, seems to have roots in the sacra conversazione (sacred conversation). Raphael confronts how to visually intertwine the terrestrial and celestial realms. He does this, like in the representation of the saints from different historical periods in the sacra conversazione, through the unbelievable idea of having philosophers from all different times depicted in one space. However, this space is painted incredibly naturalistically; making it appear real and believable, and of the earthly realm. So, the artwork speaks of a multi-layered sense of continuity and change. While Raphael draws on the sacred conversation idea, there is radical change in his replacement of Holy figures with secular philosophical figures: Raphael does not depict a conversazione of saints but rather of classical pagan philosophers. Raphael's fresco is alive in its depiction of these specific, identifiable classical philosophers. The idea of continuity with past traditions, or finding new ways of depicting familiar themes, is present in Raphael's inspiration drawn from classical antiquity. In turn, the classically inspired scene then seems to oppose the painting's religious context; creating a playful duality between continuity and radical opposition.

Raphael creates a scene which explains, rather than flatly personifies, the different branches of philosophy: the group to the right shows the viewer how geometry is practiced as they gaze intently at each other and downwards at Euclid, who measures something with his compass. Glen W. Most (1996: 148) explains that before Raphael artists personified the abstract idea of philosophy through stylised figures, such as St Thomas of Aquinas and Dame Philosophy. Raphael’s tondo (fig.2) situated above the School of Athens depicting Dame Philosophy in this allegorical way, reinforces his radical break from this style. Instead, Raphael's careful treatment of form, pose, depth and perspective creates a sense of reality and harmony in this fresco. The harmony of these formal artistic elements is perhaps used by the artist to show how the classical figures depicted here can, despite their secular nature, be brought into cosmic harmony with one another within the context of the Holy Vatican Church. In other words, he draws on certain formal strategies, used to indicate the spiritual, heavenly, and religious realm, to cloak his blatantly pagan and secular subject matter. By looking closely at the individual visual indicators in Raphael’s School of Athens, and how they interact with one another, it is possible to understand the ways that High Renaissance artists drew on past traditions in their art but interpreted these traditions in a radical manner. And thus, “to understand is to look”.¹


¹ In After Babel, George Steiner (quoted in Ricoeur 2006:11) claims that “to understand is to translate”. I adopt and adapt his words in the title, ‘To understand is to look’ — putting pictures into words; is this not a form of translation?

Sources Cited:

GOMBRICH, E. H. 1972. Symbolic Images: Studies in the Art of The Renaissance. London: Phaidon.

HALL, M. (Ed). 1997. Raphael's School of Athens. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MOST, G. W. 1996. Reading Raphael: "The School of Athens" and it's Pre-Text." critical Inquiry 23(1): 145-182

STEINER, G. quoted in Paul Ricoeur, On Translation. 2006. London: Routledge.

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