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Design Elements in the "School of Athens"

Raphael's painting was influenced by the Italian Renaissance, which flourished in Florence.
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Raphael’s “School of Athens” is from the period of the High Renaissance. The Renaissance was a European cultural movement that flourished from the 14th to the 16th centuries and marked a “rebirth” or “resurrection” of classical culture and ideas. This reawakening produced significant advances in art, architecture and literature and served as the genesis for new scientific ideas and explorations. The “School of Athens” captures many of the themes of the Renaissance, scientific as well as artistic.

Overview of the Painting

Raphael painted the “School of Athens” between 1510 and 1511. The subject matter of the painting is Greek philosophy, and the "School of Athens" in particular. The painting focuses on the two central figures of Greek philosophy, Plato and Aristotle. The painting has fascinated art critics and scholars for more than 500 years for a number of reasons. In terms of form, it is an almost perfect work of art. The painting is a geometric wonderland combining triangles, squares, circles and pentagons as well as other shapes in its construction. As such it is a composition that has much to teach about the elements of good design. The painting exhibits the basic principles of design: rhythm, balance and proportion.

Raphael's Worldview

Raphael and his contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, revolutionized the way artists think about the world. Motivated by the Greek interest in realism and naturalism, Raphael combined the structural elements of design to create the illusion of a three-dimensional image on a flat canvas. The interest in nature and naturalism is one of the essential differences that separate Renaissance and medieval art. The subject matter of the latter was always sacred themes, such as the Madonna and Child or the lives the saints. Medieval artists downplayed nature in works of art to emphasize the sacred.

Significant Symbolism

Plato and Aristotle are engaged in a lively debate as they stroll through the center of the painting. Plato’s fingers are pointed upward, and Aristotle’s fingers are pointed downward. The fingers are symbolic of the essential differences between Plato and Aristotle. One of the central themes of Greek philosophy is the distinction between appearance and reality. Plato is emphasizing the world of ideas or forms; Aristotle, on the other hand, is emphasizing the sensible world. The important point is that Raphael is making Greek philosophy, rather than Christian themes, the subject matter of the painting. Making nonreligious themes a legitimate topic for works of art opened the door for naturalism and realism. Artists began to experiment with things such as perspective and symmetry.

Lines and Shapes

The “School of Athens” demonstrates the interest in realism and naturalism during the Renaissance. Raphael uses a variety of techniques to paint a realistic scene that captures a sense of perspective, depth, life and motion. The painting is constructed with a series of vertical and horizontal lines and geometric shapes and patterns. The lines converge toward the center of the painting. This focuses the attention of the viewer on Plato and Aristotle. Geometric shapes create a sense of depth and perspective. Plato and Aristotle are the focal point of the painting, but they are not in the foreground. They appear to be in the middle of the painting, making their way toward the front. The overall effect is that the viewer is looking at a real, three-dimensional scene. Some objects appear closer than others. There is the illusion of motion, not only with Plato and Aristotle, but also with the whole cast of characters. The painting has a realistic foreground, background and middle ground.

The Importance of Symmetry

The concern for symmetry is another seminal theme in the "School of Athens," and it is Greek in origin as well. The Greeks viewed the universe as a cosmos rather than a chaos. The human soul, like the universe, seeks harmony. The concern for harmony and balance informed Greek philosophy, literature and art. Symmetry is reflected in the idea that everything has its proper place. The "School of Athens" is perfectly balanced. Plato and Aristotle occupy the center, but the human figures on the left and right sides of the painting are almost identical. The architecture of the painting is symmetrical as well; the doorway and window are in the center, and the left and right sides of the painting have the same geometric shape. The barrel-vaulted Romanesque dome frames and completes the painting for the viewer.

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