We begin our look inside the Vatican Museums with an introduction to the deservedly most famous fresco of the four Raphael Rooms. In the background, I wonder whether modern universities are still moved by the ideal it represents.

Show Notes

We introduced the Vatican Museums in the last full episode, while also using them as evidence of the rebirth of serious interest in classical antiquity that scholars later dubbed the Renaissance. The team of Sixtus V and Julius II, an uncle and his nephew from the della Rovere family, were among the popes who, perhaps surprisingly, poured money into a library, museums, and art projects that would help spread and deepen appreciation of the mostly forgotten pre-Christian classics. While no one today, not even the Church itself, longs for the days when popes exercised political power, it’s hard not to be impressed by what Team Della Rovere achieved as patrons of the arts when they ruled Rome. Of course, it’s also impossible not to be shocked by the methods they used to do so.

Today we’ll enter the Vatican Museums and, after quickly introducing Raphael and offering an overview of the Raphael Rooms as a group, we’ll narrow our focus on one fresco in particular, the first, best, and most thought-provoking of them all.

Raphael was born eight years after Michelangelo but died 44 years before him; one genius lived to 88, while the other died at 37. In his longer life, Michelangelo distinguished himself in painting and architecture as well as the sculpting he preferred, while Raphael was primarily a painter. Julius II brought them both to Rome, and one worked on the great ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, while at the same time the other frescoed the rooms that today bear his name. It is a deserved tribute of Raphael that he is buried in the Pantheon, and his epitaph is especially apt, for its focus is on his ability to capture and represent nature, the great aspiration of Renaissance artists and thinkers. It reads like this:


Raphael followed nature so well that he came close to eclipsing her.

The painting of the four Raphael Rooms were commissioned individually, not as a group. Pope Julius died before the third of the rooms was even begun, and Raphael died as the last of them was just beginning. Raphael’s students or colleagues made major contributions, and the ceilings are in some cases the work of artists with no connection to Raphael at all. Each of the rooms has four frescoed walls and a ceiling, which makes for a minimum of twenty large frescoes. I say a minimum, because the there are also subdivisions that add to the complexity of the whole.

When considered as a group, the four rooms approach the size of the Sistine Chapel, and like it, their art offers a showcase of human variety. Different kinds of people are represented as engaged in a variety of activities—praying, arguing, fighting, fleeing, and ruling, for example—and they assume the many different postures suited to their activities. Since this complex array shows various activities in relation to one another, the Raphael Rooms are a supreme example of the hard-won ability of Renaissance artists to help us observe and compare different approaches to human life. Each of the Raphael Rooms has a subject or theme of its own, which invites or requires us to see how one painting is related to its neighbors, as the walls of the Sistine Chapel suggest correspondences between the life of Moses on one side and the life of Christ on the other, for example.

The four Rooms have the following names, the Room of Constantine, the Room of Heliodorus, the Room of the Seal, and the Room of the Fire in the Borgo. The Room of the Seal is the most admired of the four, and it is almost always referred to by its Italian name, the Stanza della Segnatura, and the group of four rooms are commonly called the Stanze.

Two Walls of Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura (Lure, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I think the experts are correct that the Stanza della Segnatura is the most beautifully and skillfully painted, and I encourage you to compare it to the others in this regard. I would not propose myself as a final judge of artistic beauty, but it seems to me that the colors of the frescoes here are perfect, their beauty luminous, and their many characters presented with the utmost naturalness. Although the frescoes in the other three Raphael Rooms are spectacular, the Stanza della Segnatura sets an impossibly high standard.

Even more important for the theme of this podcast series, the Stanza della Segnatura is also the most important and thought-provoking of the four rooms. I’ll begin with it, and although we need to consider each of its four main frescoes in relation to the others, let’s look first at one fresco in isolation. It is called “The School of Athens,” and it is a strong candidate for the greatest fresco ever painted.

Raphael, School of Athens (Charlie Photo)

While we often and understandably associate the papacy with the Inquisition and the attempt to prohibit all but Catholic thoughts, here is a fresco in the heart of the Vatican that honors Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Xenophon, and others who never had a Catholic thought in their entire lives. Moreover, they showed by their daily activity that they honored the life of the mind, wherever it might take them, regardless of the demands of the prevailing authorities. To my surprise, there are no unmistakably Christian thinkers in the entire fresco, but the Moslem Averroes, the atheist Epicurus, and the Persian Zoroaster are present. Nor is there a single cross, or any other sign of the Christian faith. To the contrary, the only divine presence is in the form of statues, and the two gods represented are both pagan deities, and one is nude. The fresco stands out for its beauty and for the variety and life-like character of the thinkers, students, and teachers it represents, but it is also memorable for featuring a subject which we are meant to admire, and which is in no way Catholic or Christian, theist or pious. It is a wonderfully apt symbol first of the intellectual openness the Renaissance brought to Rome and secondly of the Renaissance passion to use this openness to enrich human understanding. The thinkers represented do not merely tolerate one another, passively; they are taking advantage of their freedom to think together.

Scholars often place Dante in what they call the Proto-Renaissance, the run up to the full-bodied Renaissance, and a reason for doing so is that Dante’s epic poem pays a great tribute to the literary, philosophic, and even political heroes of antiquity. Not only does he have the pagan poet Virgil play a leading role for much of the poem, but he also puts other great pagans in an honored place, or, at least, in a relatively honored place, namely, the first and least punitive circle of Hell, the First Circle. This is as far as a Christian epic can go, for, after all, these heroes were not Christians and were not baptized, so they end up not in Heaven but in the least bad part of Hell.

Raphael puts Dante in two of his four frescoes in Stanza of the Segnatura (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

I have to think Raphael had Dante’s First Circle in mind when he painted two of the large frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura. “The School of Athens” includes many of the same thinkers as Dante honors in his First Circle, such as Plato, Diogenes, Euclid, Ptolemy, Heraclitus, Aristotle, and others. An adjoining fresco representing the greatest ancient poets includes several of the poets Dante puts in his First Circle, including Virgil, Homer, Horace, and Ovid. It also includes Dante himself.

And yet if the cast of characters is similar, there is no hint of hell in the School of Athens. To the contrary, its main subject might even seem to represent a divine existence. What better than to seek the truth freely and in the company of worthy co-seekers? Whereas Dante honored the pagan thinkers but still showed their failure to recognize the high truths of Christianity, “the School of Athens” frees them from every taint.

So successful was Raphael’s School of Athens in honoring the life of the mind that at least until recently, it was almost a cliché: whenever a college or academic program wanted to suggest that it would expose students to exciting ideas, it printed posters of the School, which was also a popular choice for book covers. Raphael thus helped to spread a Renaissance ideal down into our time, a half a millennium later. Since a theme of this podcast series is to note ways Rome and the West have changed by the force of new ideas, I stressed last week how great a change it was for Team Della Rovere to honor rather than condemn the heroes of pagan antiquity, but it is also important to wonder whether the ideal represented in the School of Athens has recently come under criticism and lost some of its appeal. But, first, let’s look at further at the painting.

The fresco includes just over fifty characters, all engaged in some sort of truth seeking. A quick Google search for anything like “figures in Raphael’s School of Athens” will show you how scholars have assigned names to many of the figures, though some of the identifications are disputed. (Here is one example.) By assembling those who used their great gifts of heart and mind to understand the human and natural worlds, and by representing them and their activity so beautifully, Raphael’s fresco helped to make hard thinking an ideal to be emulated, not a chore to be avoided.

Plato, Aristotle, and their contrasting gestures and books in “the School of Athens” (Public domain)

Raphael makes it clear that his characters represent a great range of disciplines and theories. We see signs of study of geometry, astronomy, metaphysics, ethics, political thought, and perhaps even generalship, for Socrates is engaged with a young man in armor, who might represent Xenophon, Alcibiades, or, anachronistically, Alexander the Great. There are also philosophers who thought that nothing exists but atoms in motion, an especially troubling notion for Christianity. Perhaps the most important point is that the fresco has two central figures, Plato and Aristotle, not one, and they are shown with conflicting gestures and with books that pursue very different paths. Plato points heavenward and carries his Timaeus, a lofty work describing the formation and purposefulness of the entire universe; Aristotle gestures downward and carries his Ethics, a work far more empirically grounded. As they step forward, two other thinkers are sprawled on the steps in front of them, obstacles to the direction in which Plato and Aristotle are moving, which suggests still deeper disagreement in the group.

Raphael shows the variety in subject matter and opinion also by dividing the group into small clumps, each pursuing something a little different, and he also paints two individuals, who isolate themselves. These are the two on the steps, Heraclitus and Diogenes, but even they are either reading or writing, which suggests that for them too, learning is a social activity: whether oral or written, conversation is imperative, and more than a few characters demonstrate evident eagerness to hear what their colleagues or teachers are saying. There are no strictly solitary characters in Raphael’s School. Nor is there boredom. And there is no one character who harangues the others: they do not pontificate; they investigate and share their findings.

The fresco represents a literal impossibility, an ideal, for its human subjects lived in different times and places, and only a few of them ever had the opportunity to come together in conversation.

It represents an ideal also in that it ignores the outside and inside pressures that often obstruct or deflect the free pursuit of truth. It shows us Socrates deeply engaged in conversation with three or four young men, for example, but it does not hint that he was put to death by the majority vote of about 500 of his fellow citizens. The Athenians found Socrates’ radical truth-seeking to be threatening to their deeply held opinions, so they executed him for—QUOTE—“not believing in the gods the city believes in” and for what they called “corrupting the young.” Social and political demands on those who are trying to think freely are not always so life-threatening as this, but could there ever be a strictly neutral society in which to locate a school? Even in our open society, contemporary universities respond to various kinds of social needs or perceived needs, such as the need to persuade students and their parents that their four years of college will enable them to make more than enough money to pay for them, so their business curricula expand while their humanities curricula shrink. The views of universities as centers for jobs-creation or for stimulating social change suggest very different and conflicting ideals from the one Raphael painted so beautifully in his fresco.

Let me conclude this episode by reminding that Raphael’s “School of Athens” is not a stand-alone painting. It covers but one of the four walls of the Stanza, and its relation to the other walls invites consideration, for the room as a whole has a unified program, as we can see especially with the help of the ceiling, which makes the themes of the walls even more explicit.

Ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura with 4 medallions corresponding to the 4 walls (oneonta. edu)

The ceiling is decorated with four female allegories, one corresponding to each wall, and these help to identify the frescoes on the four walls as representing four different areas of study. Personified in the ceiling just above the “School of Athens,” for example, Philosophy is identified by a banner reading causarum cognitio, “knowledge of causes”; and the other three walls represent Theology, Poetry, and Justice. The room housed the library of Julius II, so it is presumed that his books were divided mostly into these four groups. The suggestion of the whole, then, is that these are different but harmonious fields of study, the way we think of the departments in a modern university. To single out the two largest of the frescoes, which face one another, their particular suggestion is that Philosophy and Revealed Theology can do their work without getting into one another’s way.

But when I think of the novelty introduced by Team Della Rovere and the Renaissance, that classic pagan works should receive an honored position in our studies and our view of the world, I think a question is in order: Is philosophy, as understood and practiced in the old schools of Athens, fully compatible with the revealed theology of Christianity? Or, alternatively, did its promotion in the Renaissance reintroduce a powerful foundation for doubt into Christian Rome? Do studies devoted to the study of nature threaten those that focus on the supernatural?

Way back when the Roman Empire was just being Christianized, Tertullian asked rhetorically, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” By this he meant to mock the views that the classic pagans had anything to teach those who had accepted the truths that came out of Jerusalem, while he also implied that Jerusalem’s truths were the only ones that mattered. The Stanza della Segnatura takes a radically different view. For it, the life of the mind, even without the benefit of Christian revelation, is of crucial importance, and it should be welcomed alongside the theological teachings of the Church.

You may recall the controversy aroused over the statue of Giordano Bruno, which we discussed way back in Episode 2. Pope Leo XIII complained that, QUOTE, “The extraordinary honors paid to this [Bruno] speak loudly and clearly that [his supporters think] the time has now come to break with revelation and the Christian faith: human reason wants to free itself from the authority of Jesus Christ.” What is most striking about the “School of Athens” is that it shows human reason hard at work, and yet there is no sign that Christ’s authority should guide its activity. Christ is still in the room, in the facing fresco, but he exercises no visible influence over the thinkers on the opposite wall.

On the other hand, the thinkers in “the School of Athens” were content to do their thinking in the company of one another, without trying to reform society on the basis of their reasoning. Only much later, in the French Enlightenment, was the claim advanced that human reason could and should take control of human society and drive out or debilitate revealed religion and other errors, and this was the view of those who were so excited to make Bruno a martyr.

So, when looking at “the School of Athens” in relation to the fresco that faces it, my first thought is that its celebration of those who tirelessly pursue human reason wherever it leads would inevitably call into question the activity of those honored in the facing fresco, namely, patriarchs, martyrs, apostles, saints, doctors of the Church, and holy warriors. My second thought is that the thinkers in their school are content to think: there is no suggestion that they have embraced any plan to transform society and try to hold it to the same high intellectual standards they hold themselves. Even if there should ultimately be a tension between the questioning required by philosophy and the believing required by faith, perhaps theology and philosophy can coexist in practice, and even share the same room, at least if each sees some advantage in tolerating the other.

These are big questions, fit for a lifetime, but not for the waning moments of a podcast introducing the Raphael Rooms. We’ll return to them, of course, but in our next mini pod, we’ll take up something simpler. We’ve spoken a lot about frescoes, but I have not yet said much about what they are. I’ll also let you know about some scheduling plans I’ve made.

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