The School of Athens

The School of Athens (1511) may be the most famous fresco in the world after the Sistine Chapel ceiling. That’s fitting since they were both painted at the same time. While Michelangelo labored in the Chapel, Raphael frescoed the Stanza della Segnatura next door. The scene is a Roman structure densely populated with a who’s who of ancient Greek philosophers. Plato and Aristotle occupy the center while other heavy hitters like Euclid, Ptolemy, Socrates, and Pythagoras mingle with student acolytes.

To keep this short I’ll just zero in on the two figures in the lower central foreground. The writer on the left is Heraclitus. I mention him because it’s likely that Raphael intended him as a backhanded compliment to Michelangelo. He had seen Michelangelo’s progress in the Chapel by this time and was inspired by it. Heraclitus is athletically posed like a typical figure of Michelangelo’s, with a striking resemblance to Isaiah’s stance on the Sistine Ceiling. To me it’s apparent Raphael was engaging in the sincerest form of flattery here. He almost certainly intended Heraclitus to look like Michelangelo, too. I say the compliment is backhanded because while Raphael admired Michelangelo’s skill, he didn’t really like him. So painting his Heraclitus/Michelangelo as brooding and dour had a slightly insulting subtext. After all, Raphael once taunted Michelangelo to his face that he had the demeanor of an executioner. He even tried to get Michelangelo fired so he could wheedle the Sistine commission away for himself. The two weren’t on good terms.

The lounging man in blue is Diogenes, a colorful ascetic philosopher whose actions were as interesting as his beliefs. Legend has it that Alexander the Great once met Diogenes sunbathing in the Agora and was impressed enough to offer him anything he requested. Diogenes apparently replied “Could you step aside? You’re blocking my sunlight.”

I once knew of a teacher who had a print of this fresco in her classroom. When a colleague was offended by it and complained to the administration, the teacher was required to remove it. Turns out that both the coworker and the administrator thought it was a painting of the Last Supper. And, they reminded her, religious décor in a classroom is inappropriate. She tried to correct their misidentification but it did her no good. Hm. Well I’m bemused, but far be it from me to tell you what to think.

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