From the Nov/Dec, 2014 issue of Touchstone


The School of Athens by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

The School of Athens

Mary Elizabeth Podles on Christian Art

By the time he finished the Disputa in 1509, Raphael had already begun work on the opposite wall of the papal library. Facing off against the Disputa's Trinitarian theology was its humanist counterpart, Classical philosophy, the fresco generally known as The School of Athens. The young artist's compositional skill has grown. This wall is even more populous and complicated, yet just as coherent a whole as the Disputa, if only we can find the key to reading it.

The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio
Raphael's The School of Athens
Click here to enlarge with identifying labels

In a Renaissance painting, it is always a good idea to look at where the perspective lines converge. Since the eye is drawn to that point, a sensible artist makes it the focus of the picture. Here, all the lines of the pavement and the massive architecture meet at the two figures framed under the central arch. They are clearly labeled as Plato and Aristotle. Plato, on the left, is carrying his Timaios, and Aristotle is holding the Ethics. One is a treatise on the cosmic harmonies, and the other an inquiry into the rules of moral behavior; so, on the one hand, we have man's place in the universe, and on the other, how he is to behave there.

Natural and moral philosophy are the proper spheres of inquiry for the philosopher, and they divide the composition in two. On the left side, a sculpted Apollo, the god of music, cosmic harmony, and inspiration, presides over the natural philosophers, while on the right, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and science, holds sway over those who ponder philosophy's practical applications. There is a further division into two in each half of the painting, an upper and a lower level, which suggests a hierarchy of philosophers as well. Theoretical and practical, higher and lower, just as in the Disputa—but who are all these men, and how can we tell?

Pythagorean & Euclidean Groups

The group at the lower left surrounds the philosopher Pythagoras, the first to describe the mathematics of musical harmonies, which he saw to be the fundamental measures of the foundations of the universe. Behind him a strange hooded figure holds up two fingers, possibly as a sign of the doubling of the octaves that was fundamental to Pythagorean thought; another holds a tablet inscribed with elaborations of the perfect number, ten. Other mathematicians crowd around and elaborate his fundamental insights. (The morose and Michelangelesque figure sitting by himself at the right of this group is the philosopher Heraclitus, the pessimist. He was not included in any of the original design drawings but seems to have been put in as an afterthought. Raphael put him in as a homage to, and possibly portrait of, Michelangelo, after he was finally allowed in to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.)

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Yet this is a closed group, from which no one goes up to the higher level of Plato's domain. The theoretical math of the ancients, an inspired mystical knowledge, was seen as a closed system, a beautiful, good, and true thing in itself, but not one that necessarily leads to a higher level of thought. An angelic figure in white looks at us and points upward, but the gesturing hand is hidden. The way is not perfectly clear.

At the lower right, however, the realm of applied mathematics is not closed but fraught with comings and goings. The geometer Euclid is giving a lesson to students in varying stages of mathematical comprehension, to demonstrate the turning of Pythagoras' mystical insight into practical, usable geometry. The geometer, incidentally, bears the features of Bramante, the architect of St. Peter's, and at the far right are portraits of Raphael and the painter called Il Sodoma. Raphael places artists squarely in the camp of the practical Aristotelian philosophers. Between them stand two men with globes, Ptolemy, who first measured the earth, and Zoroaster, who took the measure of the heavens. Beyond them, there is exchange between the upper and lower levels: a young man ascends to study higher philosophy, and a mature man comes down as if to put into practice what he has learned. At Aristotle's feet sprawls Diogenes the Cynic, a higher philosopher who casts aside his cup, a metaphor for the fripperies of philosophy.

Upper-Level Groups

On this upper level on Aristotle's side, however, we encounter several closed groups: the Peripatetics tend to go their own ways. Reading from Aristotle rightwards, we find first a group of philosophers debating with the master, then a boy and his tutor, possibly representing the process of grammatical instruction, and a solitary thinker in brown who points downward to the practical basis of his philosophy. At the far right, a young man is leaving, as if to join the practical world, while an old man, perhaps reaching retirement, returns to the world of pure philosophy. A middle-aged man in the middle stands for the middle way. Together, they represent philosophy past, present, and future.

On Plato's side, philosophy is more of an interactive outdoor sport. At the far left, a young man rushes in and is beckoned into the group surrounding Socrates, who is ticking off questions on his fingers. The discourse flows from one figure to another until it reaches the master of the dialogue, Plato, deep in conversation with Aristotle. What might their conversation be?

Two Streams Merged

Plato points to heaven; Aristotle points to earth. Plato's drapery swirls around him on the diagonal; Aristotle wears the colors of earth and water, and his folds fall in a much more orderly pattern of horizontals and verticals. Plato is old; Aristotle is a man in his prime. Plato stands almost on tiptoe; Aristotle is firmly planted on the ground, perfectly balanced but, like a Classical statue, full of potential movement. Plato's followers are young and passionate; Aristotle's are older and more sharply contoured, more precise.

So the poetical and heavenly strain of Platonic discourse is balanced by the lucid clarity of Aristotelian investigation. But still, they are linked, the two streams merge: Plato, whose main concern was ethics, holds a discourse on nature, and Aristotle, whose main interest was the natural world, holds his treatise on ethics. They stand in an archway in a colossal, unfinished building: is this overarching architecture a portrait of the new St. Peter's rising next door?

The School of Athens is on the opposite wall from the Disputa, and so would have been read as the other side of the dialectic: Classical philosophy, the highest manifestation of the natural religions on one side, and Christian theology on the other. If the Disputa is the apse of a basilica, is this picture not the nave, so that the philosophy of the ancients becomes the path that leads to the altar where philosophers and theologians meet, where all human thinking finds fulfillment? • 

Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Naples, Florida.

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“The School of Athens” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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