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Let's Decode This - School of Athens

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

What: School of Athens (Fresco Painting)

Who: Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael)

When: 1510-1511

Where: Vatican, Rome, Italy

Greetings! And welcome back to Carivaggio. If you do not already follow me on instagram, please do, (@carilowy) as this idea was born on my stories.

One evening, in my late night quarantine routine, I was searching the web. A friend of mine had reached out to me wanting recommendations for books about art theories. She asked for something like Da Vinci code but in real life. As I scoured Amazon looking for books to recommend, I realized that I had not read any of them myself! Although I am someone who thinks of herself as a low level art detective, I was seriously lacking in knowledge.I ordered about 10 books about art mysteries.

One book I ordered was entitled The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art, by Richard Stemp (book will be linked below). After skimming it once, I realized that the book was positively awesome and broke down specific imagery in a way that was easily understandable to every reader. I put this idea to the test on my Instagram story and people seemed to really enjoy breaking down specific imagery in a large work. So I am bringing "Let's Decode This" to Carivaggio. I want to take art that you probably already know of have seen and begin to help you understand the work more deeply and more thoughtfully.

Today we are breaking down the Iconic painting by Raphael entitled School of Athens (1510-1511). The painting was commissioned by Pope Julius II to re decorate some old suite apartments in the Vatican. They are now called Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael Rooms). The School of Athens is located in the Stanza della segnatura ("Room of the Signatura") and was the location of the library of Julius II. In this room, Raphael connects religion and christianity with ideas of philosophy, theology, jurisprudence (the theory of law), and poetic arts.

After studying the work for a moment, let's break down what we see (Images will be referred to as Figure 1, Figure 2 and so on).

Figure 1.

Figure 2:

Firstly, the eye sees two male figures at the center of the work (see Figure 2). Plato (left) and Aristotle (right) stand front and center, and are also framed by the arch behind them. The Arch both frames them and isolates them from the other figures in the work. Plato believed that everything we see on earth is a dull reflection of something that exists on a higher plane. Aristotle believes that we can only understand the world based on what we can see with our own eyes. These ideas are then reflected in their gestures - Plato points up to the world of ideas and possibilities, while Aristotle points down, noting that we learn from what we can see in this world. Plato holds his dialogue Timaeus and Plato holds a copy of his Ethics - again, echoing the individual philosophies.

Figure 3:

The architecture in this work (see Figure 3) is reminiscent of similar architectural plans for the new St Peters basilica which was being built at the time. This is evident by the grandiose, Roman style architecture. Maybe it puts the painting in a future setting? or in the past?

Figure 4:

Pythagoras (570-495 BCE) was an ancient Greek philosopher who discovered many scientific theories. He and his followers may have been the first people to use mathematics. Here (Figure 4) he is seen taking notes from his ideas on harmony and musical scale. It seems he is mapping out a diagram of the lyre instrument. Geometry had a sacred aspect to it, as it explained the underlying structure of the universe.

Figure 5:

Although hotly debated, it is believed that this figure represents the astronomer and mathematician Democritus (Figure 5). However this figure bears a likeness to famed artist Michelangelo. It is thought that the Raphael used his likeness to pay respect to the older master, as he was working on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel at the time.

Figure 6:

Euclid (dude with red cloak, Figure 6) was a greek mathematician born in the mid-4th century BCE. Here he is explaining a geometrical theory. The famed art historian Vasari identified his likeness to Bramante, the architect who was building the new St. Peters Basilica at the time. Another homage to the artists working in the Vatican. Remember how I mentioned that geometry was sacred? Another example of how Raphael is connecting the theology of the church with philosophy.

Figure 7:

Figure 8:

Well folks, we have made it to the end. If you had not noticed, there are only two figures who are looking directly at the viewer. One feminine looking figure with soft eyes and flowing hair (Figure 7) and one beardless man who looks shy and out of place (Figure 8).

The woman (Figure 7) is said to be Hypatia of Alexandria (350–370 AD died 415 AD). Hypatia was a female philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician. The only female amongst all these men. Why is she gazing out at us? Perhaps to tell us how bored she is surrounded by all these MEN. While all those men are gathered together discussing their philosophies, she stands alone - she too is deserving of this place among histories greatest men.

Lastly, the coy man in the corner (Figure 8). This figure is widely believed to be Raphael's self portrait. To his left stands the artist Sodoma, who Julius II dismissed having been impressed by Raphael's fresco skill. He looks to us - urging us to keep learning. And also, he probably worked so damn hard on this painting, it's nice to take a little credit.

And there you have it! I hope that you were able to look deeper at this painting. As one of the most well known on earth - it definitely has it's mystery. No matter how much you think you know, you can always look deeper.

Let me know what you thought and if you liked this post! See y'all next time!


*I DO NOT OWN ANY OF THESE IMAGES* all images acquired from Wikipedia.

Link for book -

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