By Margaret, News Team Contributor
Nowadays, when you think of the epitome of intellectualism, you think of elitist colleges, renowned for everything from their excelling athletics teams to academic prestige that are insurance of a bright future. However, centuries before all the hype over the Ivy Leagues, who (or shall I say, which educational institute) dominated the scholastic field? The School of Athens is one of the many names that come to mind, yet one of the few to be commemorated via art (it was painted by Renaissance artist Raphael for the Italian Vatican Museum circa 1509).
Although the individuals in Raphael’s piece seem like average Greco-Roman citizens at first glance, they all have established their claim to fame with their significant contributions to academia today. In the center of the image, there are two prominently featured scholars. One is Plato pointing up, suggestive of his fixations with less concrete ideals and what exists beyond our world, exemplified by his book the Timaeus that he is holding in his hand. Next to him is Aristotle with his hand turned down, which shows his primary concerns with empirical thinking, and is holding his book Nicomachean Ethics about human relationships.
The rest of the painting places subjects on the same side as the central figures depending on whether they looked to the stars for their work (like Plato) or firmly stayed grounded (like Aristotle). On Plato’s side, Socrates, the founder of Western philosophy, is indisputably portrayed in olive green and surrounded by disciples. Towards the bottom of the frame, the great mathematician and scientist Pythagoras in salmon pink and white is interestingly enough to the left of Plato due to his belief in metempsychosis (a belief that lends credence to the ideas of immortality and reincarnation). Heraclitus is shown in a typical “thinking figure” position who was believed to be representative of Michelangelo, but is rather Raphael’s homage to Michelangelo’s artistic style, since the latter was another featured artist in the Vatican Museum (with the painting of the Sistine Chapel).
On the other side, Euclid (the “Father of Geometry”) who discovered many mathematical theorems is situated in a position nearly mirroring Pythagoras’ and uses a compass to demonstrate a lesson to surrounding students. Near him, Ptolemy, another great mathematician and astronomer, is depicted with a globe resembling the earth and Zoroaster is believed to be the other man holding a more celestial-looking globe. Raphael himself is included right next to Zoroaster, a daring artistic move for his time, especially considering the subject matter of his piece.
Raphael’s artwork was not solely limited to the human sphere of existence. He incorporated two Greco-Roman deities representative of the two thought forms present in his piece (see the newsletter for the statues). Apollo, as the god of music, dance and poetry takes his rightful position on Plato’s left and is depicted with his emblematic lyre, his musical instrument of choice. On the right, his sister Athena or Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, is prototypical of the intellectual style of Aristotle and associated figures to his right.
All in all, this painting is so much more than a commemoration of some of the greatest thinkers early on in the history of mankind, as it shows that true intellectual accomplishment can be easily recognized and transcend time and societal barriers.
Feel free to visit this website for more information about this masterpiece!
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