The School of Athens by Raphael: Description, Figures & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Historical Background
  • 2:16 Details of the Painting
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Learn about the subject, style and meaning of the painting 'The School of Athens' by Raphael and test your understanding of the Italian Renaissance, art, and European culture.

Historical Background

The School of Athens is a painting by the Italian master Raphael. It was hugely influential at the time and is remembered as the perfection of artistic ideals from the time period. The painting features several figures from classical Greece, and is a statement about the coexistence of pagan Greek philosophy and modern Christian Italian culture, as the basis for European civilization.

The School of Athens was painted from 1509 to 1511, during a period called the Italian Renaissance. This lasted from roughly 1300 to 1600. The Renaissance was characterized by a wealthy new intellectual elite class that had a huge passion for the arts. Religious fervor was also at its height. Renaissance thinkers mixed ancient Greek and Roman culture as the roots of European civilization.

Raphael was one of the great masters of the later Italian Renaissance. He is famous for his skill at artistic techniques like foreshortening and perspective. Foreshortening means adjusting a figure into non-realistic proportions to give the impression that certain parts of the body are closer to the viewer. For example, a subject's hands are the same size, but if the subject is standing sideways, then the more distant hand is painted smaller so it appears further away. Perspective is a similar form of illustration where more distant objects are painted smaller, and the edges of all objects are angled towards a single point on the horizon - the vanishing point. Our eyes perceive space around us this way, so recreating the effect makes the painting feel real.

In 1508, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint several rooms in the Vatican. The first room was the library of the Pope. Raphael chose the theme of how Classical Greece and Rome, pagan nations, influenced Christian Italy in spiritual and worldly wisdom. The frescoes, or wall paintings, represent the classic origins of theology, law or literature, poetry or music, and philosophy. The last of these is The School of Athens.

Details of the Painting

Art historians have long argued over who each figure represents in Raphael's masterpiece. The most obvious characters are in the center, Plato and his student Aristotle, founding figures of Western philosophy. Both men hold copies of their books. Plato seems to be pointing up, suggesting his cosmological philosophies, while Aristotle gestures towards the ground, referring to his belief that ethics must be practical. Plato's own master, Socrates, is also clearly identifiable in brown robes on the left side.

The man in pink robes in the front is believed to be Pythagoras, the mathematician whose formula for finding the side of a right triangle was instrumental in geometry and architecture. The father of modern geometry, Euclid, is seen on the right in red robes teaching.

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