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The Story of Rebirth - Raphael's School of Athens, European Renaissance and its Indian counterpart


Reviewed by Supriya Choudhary

The classic work of Raphael’s School of Athens depicts the conceivable relationship in its theme that must have gone beyond the limits of classical times and renaissance culture. The general interpretation of the School of Athens provides a conventional design presenting an image of a perfect inclusive society, finding its traces back to the early sixteenth century, and a theme expressing an idea of how such a society and its subjects must function. Talking about Italian Renaissance art, Raphael’s works are at par with the other prominent Renaissance artists including Michelangelo di Lodovico and Leonardo da Vinci. When Raphael was summoned to Rome by Pope Julius II in 1508, he commissioned the decoration of Stanza della Segnatura, located in the Vatican Palace, was library of the Pope. Stanza della Segnatura has a collection of frescoes like Parnassus, Disputation of Holy Sacrament, and the School of Athens as a representation of poetry, theology, justice, jurisprudence, and philosophy. These frescoes find their place at the ceilings of the room inside Stanza della Segnatura amongst which School of Athens is one of the most celebrated works mainly because the painting projects a group of philosophers engaged in a dialogue with Plato and Aristotle in the center inside a majestic architectural building.

Studying the relationship between Renaissance art and the School of Athens

Raphael was widely known amongst other renaissance artists, for his representation of truth and reasons. The School of Athens is a subtle painting yet complex to decode in the first view. The idea of this painting lies at the core of human intellectualism and the renaissance movement. Jacob Burckhardt defines this humanists approach as the “individuals who acted as mediators between their own age and a venerated antiquity, and made the latter a chief element in the culture of the former.” At the time when the School of Athens was worked upon, the discussions of humanism and Christianity were at its peak. Therefore, renaissance techniques were used by artists like Raphael and Michelangelo to build a connection between human reasoning with the thoughts of Christianity that might benefit the society in the present and future times.

Coming to the understanding of the School of Athens, various philosophers and classical intellectuals are seen engaged in philosophical debate or discussion. Aristotle and Plato are at the vanishing point of the painting carrying books, which many consider to be their philosophical works. The idea of this can be linked from the fact that Plato and Aristotle are considered as the greatest figures in Western philosophy and are projecting the student-teacher relationship. George L. Hersey in his book titled “High Renaissance Art in St. Peters and the Vatican: An Interpretative Guide” explains that this interaction of natural philosophy and metaphysics forms the center of interest of the painting.

Another observation in the painting is the directions pointed by the center figures, which represent the natural world and empirical science. While Aristotle directs his hands downwards towards the earth, Plato points up to the sky, describing that the earth represents moral teaching whereas the sky represents heavens, philosophical principles and ideas that give meaning to the universe. Hence, what can be understood is that while Aristotle points down signifying wisdom of the world, Plato’s upward gesture represents that human intelligence is derived from the understanding of the universe and values of God connecting with the truth and wisdom in Christianity. On this connection, Luisa Becherucci in the book titled “The Complete Work of Raphael” says: “Recreating poetically the whole significance of Rome, ancient and Christian, as it appeared to him in its own structures, knew how to give a powerful organic character to his theme, an entire synthesis of the course of centuries, including that in which he was living.”

Architecture in the School of Athens

The architecture projected by Raphael in the School of Athens projects a non-materialistic version of an open school believing in open and free discussions, informal debates and a collective school of learning. The structure painted is both monumental and relates to ancient Roman architecture, as the center top has coffered barrel vaults.

Although one can argue that the scene focuses on a debate of human morals and studying biblical values and hence, is a typical classroom surrounded with formal standard. But on an in-depth understanding of delineation, one will see that it is not projected to be a real classroom like scene. Raphael had intended to project the medieval form of teaching where educators or philosophers, for thousand years, believed that learning could also take in places outside the classroom for example, streets, hallways or any public or private space. This is probably one of the reasons how Plato founded his Academy and mostly taught in the same way while walking.

The painting projects a magnificent architecture commanded by three arches and the surroundings are beautifully covered with marble sculptures of God Apollo at left and Godess Minerva at the right, and Roman decorative designs. The architectural description by Raphael is highly appreciated to be one of its kinds providing a classical set up for the conventional characters that the painting deals with and the renaissance connection flowing from it. Another great interpretation of the painting is its open space that represents the scope of open learning of the thinkers engaged in philosophical debate in the School of Athens. Raphael wanted to draw a connection between philosophy and the search of ultimate truth which comes from the study of God, linking up to Plato’s gesture.

I will conclude the study of this painting by quoting poetry titled “The School of Athens” by Anthony Lombardy, where he depicted the painting beautifully entangled in his prose:

They look to tired critics like mere busts

In galleries, but wittingly collected,

By bold anachronism resurrected,

This flesh so warm a skeptic almost trusts

The felt, unliteral fidelity

That framed them under sky and vaulting roof:

The red-cloaked Heracleitus still aloof,

Parmenides still pondering "to be,"

Young Aristotle marking out this world,

Old Plato pointing upward to the forms.

Behind them rise dear clouds, heartbreaking storms,

Lightning that Zeus and gray Jehovah hurled,

And from a corner, winkingly alive,

The face of Raphael at twenty five.

-Anthony Lombardy

Supriya adds, the revival of cultural, social, intellectual and artistic movement in the Bengal region, led the inception of Bengal Renaissance. The ascend of British rule led to the advent of the ‘Bengal Renaissance’, which grew out of the Swadeshi movement. In contrast to the European or Italian Renaissance, the Indian counterpart focused on traditional styles of miniature painting, sketches or paintings. The stalwart artists who pioneered the movement includes Noble laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore and his student, Kshitindranath Majumdar, whose major oeuvres adorn the walls of National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi.

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