Frescoes were painted on walls, and as such The School of Athens is not framed as a canvas painting is framed. Instead, the frame is the surrounding space on the walls, floor, and ceiling inside the basilica. Each adjoining wall is decorated with frescoes as well as the ceiling. The floor is an intricate pattern of tiles that are essentially formed to create a work of art.
While there is no written signature of Raphael’s on the fresco, he has “signed” it in a different way. He cleverly painted himself into the work as one of the figures on the far right. His face looks straight out at the audience as if he wanted to share a connection with each and every viewer that gazed upon his work.
Raphael’s The School of Athens is not only grand in significance, but also in stature. It stands just under sixteen and a half feet tall and just over twenty-five feet wide. The central figures are two men standing beneath an extended archway punctuated by open sky. They are names nearly universally recognized: Plato and Aristotle. They appear to be engaging in deep conversation as the stroll down a lengthy corridor housing life-sized Greek and Romanesque sculptures and reliefs. The marble floor is designed with a pattern of three concentric squares. These two toga-clad figures are flanked on each side by a small audience, which seems to hang on every word. The foreground shows two more groups, one on each side of the frame. The group to the left seems to be frozen in pursuit of the answer to an unknown question. The men on the right are holding spheres and scribbling postulates, suspended in time with their calculations. Between our two central figures and our two foreground groups are more Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Persians – classical thinkers, perfectly human, bent on uncovering the mysteries of this world.
Immense. Beautiful. Inspiring. Perfect. This work of art is immense. It literally covers an entire wall. Many of the figures are life-size. But it’s not just that – it’s the illusion of depth Raphael has created. When looking straight on at The School of Athens we get drawn into the meeting hall. We become a part of the work, and so we become a member of the many conversations taking place throughout a history of thought. I also find this image to be one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring works of art I’ve come across in my life. The detail with which Raphael painted is truly remarkable. His use of light and shadow, proportion, angles, and depth all come together as separate pieces manifesting in one harmonious unity.
This piece is full of symbols. Each figure represents a philosopher, mathematician, or writer. But while these figures capture the viewer’s immediate attention, a keen observer will notice the statues painted into the picture. These statues were not painted into the composition without careful thought, but what do they mean? Both appear to be Greek. One is holding a classical instrument, most likely some sort of harp, used to play music. Therefor it might be logical to assume the statue represents the muses, which makes sense in a picture full of men who must have drawn inspiration from some source – perhaps a muse. The other statue looks to be holding a rod or staff and a shield with a face carved into it. Perhaps this is meant to be the Greek god Aries, but why would this image warrant a nod to the god of War? Maybe the answer is that each of these men faced an internal struggle or a struggle with the world around them, battling to understand the universe they inhabited.
To me, this piece of work is inspiring. It’s not just that the angles, proportions, shadows, and human features are correct and true, showing that the masters of the Renaissance had equaled the artistic brilliance of antiquity. It is inspiring because of what this image says about greatness. The men depicted in this painting are the men that gave the world foundations of knowledge for future generations to draw upon. Each figure is a pioneer and a titan of scholarly endeavor. But each figure is still only a man, and so it says to me that every man (and woman) is capable of achieving greatness in whatever he or she chooses to pursue. Because the figures depicted here are those foundational thinkers, their names are plastered all over history books. Their bodies may have fallen long ago, but their ideas and their words still echo through the ages. That, and the fact that this image has existed for 500 years makes me think of immortality.
When I see The School of Athens, I think about legacy. What will my contribution to the story of mankind be? Will I make any profound mark on the lives of men living several generations after my death as these men did? I draw hope from that question. These men dreamed big dreams and conquered enormous obstacles. As a future educator, I want to make lasting positive impressions on my students, not for my glory, but for what they may then go out into the world and accomplish. Perhaps I will have a pioneer, a visionary, a titan of thought in my class. I dream of teaching someone who will make the world a better place on a grand scale.
I would like to know why and how Raphael was chosen to create this piece. What do the statues that he painted into the piece truly mean? Finally, how did he come up with the idea to create this unique piece of work? The answers to these questions are likely to be found in a biography on Raphael or perhaps in articles discussing the work itself.
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