The Renaissance is the period of European history, characterized by significant progress in sciences and humanities, as well as philosophy. This has been reflected in all forms of art, including music, painting, literature and architecture. Originating in Italy, the Renaissance took inspiration from the Greek and Roman antiquity and coupled it with recent scientific findings and the dominant philosophy of Humanism, which has led to unique and distinctive style in all forms of art. An excellent example of the Renaissance art is The School of Athens, one of the most famous frescoes by Raphael. The fresco was painted between 1509 and 1511, making it an example of the High Renaissance painting. Thus, it prominently features all the characteristic features of the period, including visual aspects, composition, themes, and symbolism.
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The fresco, painted by Raphael on the upper floor of the Vatican palace, depicts the crowd of famous philosophers of antiquity in the ongoing debate inside the immense domed basilica. The interior of the basilica prominently exhibits arches, pilasters, and a hemispheric dome, which are characteristic of Renaissance architecture (Anderson 18), but also contribute to creating the feeling of orderliness and reason through canonical geometric shapes (Gamwell and Tyson 77). The artist clearly takes advantage of the linear perspective, emphasizing the symmetry and drawing the viewer’s attention to the center of the painting (Kubovy 164). In the center are two of the most prominent philosophers of the antiquity, Aristotle and Plato, in the middle of the argument. Plato is seen pointing upward, while Aristotle points downward.
The painting has all of the formally recognized characteristic features attributed to the Renaissance artistic form of painting – the strong presence of perspective, the dynamism, as it captures a moment of action, the realistic manner of depiction of humans (contrasted to earlier, more schematic approach of Medieval painting), and the accurate depiction of light and shadows. The color palette is also characteristic of the period, used to control the viewer’s attention and emphasize the important elements (“School of Athens” par. 3), and the setting chosen by the artist reflects the influence of antiquity. However, what is more valuable, and, in my opinion, defines how the School of Athens epitomizes its era are its philosophical and symbolic implications.
First, the main theme of the painting is a debate. This aligns well with the notion that Truth is acquired through reason, the centerpiece of both antique and Renaissance philosophy (Soccio 220). The gestures of two central figures – Aristotle pointing downward, to the realm of things, and Plato pointing upwards, to the realm of Forms – represent not only their standpoints but also the central argument of Humanism – the conflict of ideal and material, of man and Heavens (Bohn and Saslow 177). Besides, the secondary characters, while not unanimously positively identified, almost certainly represent philosophers from different time periods. This, coupled with the prominent display of the sky in the open places and the vanishing point, gives the School an unearthly quality. It appears to be an ideal place on some higher plane of existence rather than a real building, and thus better suited for such an argument.
The Renaissance was the period of change. The advancement in science gave humanity an opportunity to better understand its nature, and possibly challenge its long-established belief in the divine and the role of a human being in the Universe. The Mind and Reason were considered suited best for this task. As we can see, all these tendencies have found their reflection in School of Athens‘ theme, setting, and composition, making it a perfect example of the Renaissance Art.
Anderson, Christy. Renaissance Architecture, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.
Bohn, Babette, and James Saslow. A Companion To Renaissance And Baroque Art, Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Print.
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Gamwell, Lynn, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Mathematics + Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016. Print.
Kubovy, Michael. The Psychology Of Perspective And Renaissance Art, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Print.
School of Athens 2013. Web.
Soccio, Douglas. Archetypes Of Wisdom: An Introduction to Philosophy, Belmont, CA: Cengage Learning, 2013. Print.