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The School of Athens

January 25, 2012

The period known as the High Renaissance (occuring in Italy in the early sixteenth century) is not necessarily a distinct style of its own, but rather what art critics and historians view as the peak or most refined period (only lasting about 40 years) within the Renaissance. For this period to be viewed as the most refined, with the Renaissance being characterized by both extremes of naturalism and idealism, the art community suggests that in the High Renaissance there was an unsurpassed balance between both the natural and ideal: integrating Italy’s historical influence in the Classical period (the ideal) with more naturalistic depiction of themes and subjects (as well as a greater command on design elements such as visual balance and unity, which serve to give the works familiarity and comfort, the illusion that they exist in reality).

The piece that exemplifies High Renaissance art the most, to me, is The School of Athens by Raphael. Done in the papal libraries of Rome, Raphael’s painting depicts the epitome of Classical intellectual and philosophical exchange, a lively scene of the most important figures of the sciences engaging in discussion and instruction.

This piece and it’s context is especially amusing to me considering my own context. As an agnostic atheist during the Republican primaries, I’m reminded of the evangelical Christian political agenda that seemingly wishes to ignore what science has taught us in regards to many subjects: human impact on environment, evolution, womens’ reproductive rights, et cetera. That is why it’s funny to me to imagine a time when the Church was excited about human potential, and our potential to observe and deduce how our world works. The idea that God created us in His image, and therefor we have the ability (and almost an obligation) to study it, to uncover the mysteries that God has laid before us. The phrase “God works in mysterious ways” seems to take two totally different meanings to these groups: the humanist Church of the High Renaissance hears a challenge to explain our world, to bring out the glorious intricacies of Him, whereas today the phrase is a stock response to discredit something proven by scientific reason. Imagine a Church now where the interior decorators are commissioned to incorporate the most celebrated scientists and philosophers of today!

Apart from the distinct humanist traits this piece has, the visual design of this work is awe inspring. The impact that inear perspective has on the realism of this piece is obvious, but the subtle shift of value from the foreground group to the background group gives the very realistic impression that there is a skylight out of sight just beyond the foremost arch, and that this painting is not a painting but rather an extension of the building itself. Surely we cannot undermine the role of pure techincal ability, but other strictly design elements, such as the wonderful symmetry and the varying implied gestures and poses of the figures, tell us that Raphael was truly a master.


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  1. Suzette Johnson permalink

    The School of Athens is a remarkable piece. I was also intrigued by Raphael incorporating Michelangelo into the piece with his sculpting boots on. Raphael must have thought highly of him.

  2. Of course there was the issue of Galileo… He built a telescope and furthered Copernicus’ observances about the true nature of the Solar System and indeed the Universe….that it did not all rotate around the earth as the Church at that time claimed but that the earth and the rest of the planets of the Solar System rotated around the Sun. Copernicus claimed this strange anomaly was just a strange glitch in the movement of the heavenly bodies but Galileo stated it as fact and was imprisoned for it. The Church also regularly burned heretics at the stake. The painting does express an excitement to observe and deduce how our world worked but underlying that is the understanding that those observations needed to line up with their version of Scripture.

  3. I like that this piece focuses on classicism, which is a key part of humanism. In terms of classicism, I like that Raphael is not only highlighting classical philosophers, but also touching on classical mythology. A statue of Greek god Apollo, for example, is depicted on the left side of Raphael’s painting. This inclusion is also an homage to the classical nude (which is very humanist in nature, since the nude is a celebration of the human body).

    -Prof. Bowen

  4. I love the detail in this piece. I like how the people are becoming idealized and more natural. I also really enjoy the way space is presented. I feel putting these people in a setting adds a lot of description to this piece.

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