The School of Athens (Figure 1) is a fresco painting–a painting done in sections in the fresh plaster–on one of the four walls of the room, the Stanza della Segnatura this room is designated as papal library in the Vatican palace. In this image Raphael represents pictorially the intellectual activity of philosophy. He chooses to represent philosophy by depicting a large number of philosophers in the midst of their activities. The fifty-eight figures who occupy the grandiose architectural space are depicted in the midst of their activity: they are questioning, arguing, demonstrating, reading, and writing. Each figure is characterized so that it is not a mere compositional device, but a shorthand statement of the figure represented (Murray, 62). Raphael rendered the faces of the philosophers from classical statues if known, or else used his own contemporaries for models (Haas, 8)
Raphael’s School of Athens is the first art work to represent the epitome of Greek philosophy in a unique manner. The fundamental conception of The School of Athens is without precedent in the tradition of European art. Before Raphael, artists depicted philosophy allegorically. (Most, 145). School of Athens depicts the whole complex product of Greek thought. Greek philosophy may be divided in three phases: the material, the speculative and the scientific. These three phases are depicted in Raphael's work, the material and the scientific are purely physical and occupy the lower level, whereas the speculative is depicted on the upper platform (Garigues, 409). In this paper we will analyze how the three phases of Greek philosophy are illustrated so skillfully in Raphael’s work The School of Athens.
The School of Athens is entirely without precedent in the tradition of European art. (Most, 146)
Before Raphael, artists depicted philosophy allegorically, in a tradition that goes back to a passage in The Consolation of Philosophy in which Dame Philosophy appears to Boethius as a majestic woman wearing clothes embroidered with Greek letters and a staircase, holding books and a scepter. (Most, 146) One example of this traditional depiction of philosophy is Gregorius Reisch’s frontispiece in his encyclopedic book, Margarita philosophica, (Figure 2) (Most, 147).
When analyzing Raphael’s School of Athens one needs to understand in what relation his work stands to these previous artistic traditions. A tondo on the vault above The School of Athens depicts a female figure seated on a throne holding two books entitled Moralis and Naturalis while beside her, two heroic children lift the labels "Causarum" and "Cognitio" (Figure 3). This figure is a traditional allegory designating Dame Philosophy and is interpreted as a direct continuation of the medieval traditions of allegorical representations of philosophy (Most, 149). Raphael chose to refer to the pervious artistic traditions but only to make the statement that he was breaking fundamentally with them. In The School of Athens he...