We devoted a couple of Mini Pods to the greatest of the Raphael Rooms, but what about the others? This overview should help get us ready for the Room of Constantine, coming up next.

Show Notes

Raphael, Stanza Segnatura (Lure, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve devoted a couple of short podcasts to the Stanza della Segnatura, the most famous of Raphael’s four rooms or “Stanze” in the Vatican Museums. I’ve chosen to emphasize it not primarily for its beauty and craftsmanship, which are undeniable and also deserve emphasis, but for the theme it addresses, which I take to be a defining characteristic of Western Civilization as a whole. I mean the relationship between religion and reason or, better put, between philosophy and faith. An entire wall of the Stanza is devoted to philosophy, and, although commissioned for a pope to decorate a room in the Vatican, the “School of Athens” has nothing Christian about it. It is, however, included in a room whose facing wall includes representations of God the Father, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and all manner of saints and supporters of the Church. The Stanza della Segnatura cannot by itself explain how exactly philosophy is related to faith, but by making the “School of Athens” part of a room with a unified design, the Stanza implies that philosophy and faith do not conflict but are part of a harmonious whole.

While various individuals may have advanced or implied a roughly similar view, it is rare or even revolutionary that high church officials should confidently proclaim such harmony as we find in the Stanza della Segnatura, which was designed with the support of the pope himself. Since the philosophers honored in the School of Athens included Epicurus and Heraclitus for example, as well as Plato and Aristotle, it is easy to suspect that the ideas expressed in the “School” sometimes moved in a direction contrary to the doctrines of the faith. Thus, Pope Julius II’s introduction of pagan philosophers into the heart of the Vatican may be considered courageous by some and imprudent by others.

The Statue of Giordano Bruno in the Campo de’ Fiori (my photo)

Rome’s statue of Giordano Bruno is a good example of the risk to the Church that might derive from the ideas that Julius II expressed in the Stanza. As we discussed way back in our second episode, the supporters of the Bruno statue saw it as heralding an age of reason, one that would help to drive out the age of faith and, with it, the Catholic Church. This was of course a common view coming out of the French Enlightenment, and it remains common today, as exemplified by the much-spoken-of New Atheists a decade or so ago. Perhaps there are ways for the Church to defend reason on the condition that reason not call the doctrines of the church into question, but it is precisely such limiting conditions that the Stanza boldly dispenses with.

The Stanza della Segnatura is widely recognized as the greatest of the four Raphael Rooms, and in my view, it deserves this reputation especially because it raises so well the rich and complex theme just mentioned. As we turn to the other three Raphael Rooms, which are also complex in their compositions and show us numerous representations of human beings in all sorts of postures and activities, we find much to admire; and yet I don’t see the same emphasis on a subject so worth pondering as we find in the Stanza we are leaving. Here is a quick overview of their subjects. I’ll leave aesthetic observations aside for the moment.

The usual flow of visitors to the Vatican Museums takes them through the Raphael Rooms in this order: the Stanza of Constantine, the Stanza of Heliodorus, the Stanza della Segnatura, and the Stanza of the Fire in the Borgo. Only in the case of the Room of Constantine does the name of the room clearly identify its subject; in the other cases, we must infer it from the frescoes in the room.

While the subject of the Stanza della Segnatura is that of the relationship between faith and philosophy, the general subject of the other three rooms concerns the papacy and its authority, which stems from Peter and, ultimately, Christ. Rather than raising a fascinating theoretical question, they hand down an official and political position: the Roman Catholic papacy deserves the authority it exercises, and you’d better believe it! In this respect they remind me of St. Peter’s Basilica, whose beautiful art often serves to glorify the Roman Catholic Church and its popes, even to the point that the themes of the New Testament are shunted to the margins. If you wish to review this suggestion, revisit Episode 22.

Let me sketch the evidence that leads me to this conclusion in the case of the three Raphael Rooms yet to be discussed.

Raphael, Vision of the Cross (Public domain)

The four main frescoes in the Room of Constantine essentially claim that Constantine was able to conquer Rome because he heeded a miraculous sign from the Christian God, that he devoutly embraced the Christian faith, and that he handed over to the Bishop of Rome the authority to be the supreme ruler of the Church, as well as the authority to be the supreme political ruler in the West. Constantine is a figure of the highest importance for Rome and the West, so I’ll be returning in upcoming episodes to explain my reasons for thinking all of these claims to be dubious, and I wonder as well whether Constantine ever got down on his knees before Pope Sylvester, which is how two of the four frescoes represent him.

Raphael, Heliodorus (public domain)

The four main frescoes in the Room of Heliodorus show four occasions on which God offered miraculous support of the Church. One shows a scene described in the New Testament, the liberation of St. Peter from prison by angels. The miracle is reported in chapter 12 of the Book of Acts, and in the view of the Church, it enabled Peter to leave the Holy Lands, come to Rome, and establish the Roman Church. It is the only fresco in the Raphael Rooms that is based on a story from the New Testament: the frescoes’ focus is usually on the Church and the Popes.

On a minor point, you may remember this miracle from our discussion of St. Peter in Chains, which was the church assigned to the future pope Julius II when he was a cardinal and the home of the funeral monument sculpted for him by Michelangelo. Since Julius II commissioned this room of frescoes, it likely that he had this scene included in part as a reference to his personal association with the church dedicated to St. Peter’s miraculous escape from prison.

Two of the other frescoes represent moments in which religious authority is shown to trump political and military power. One shows Pope Leo I protecting Rome from an assault by Attila the Hun; he is able to do so because Peter and Paul appear as armed angels and support him from above.  Another shows the wealthy Temple of Jerusalem, which was about to have its treasures seized by an armed agent of the king. But, according to chapter 3 of the second book of Maccabees, the pious prayers of the high priest were answered, and God sent a magnificent horse and rider to drive the king’s agent out of the temple. Ecclesiastical power again trumps political and military power.

The fourth fresco of the “Stanza of Heliodorus” represents the miracle of Corpus Christi, which is a later version of the story of Doubting Thomas. A priest in the thirteenth century doubted that bread could really be turned into the body of Christ, or wine into his blood; and to answer his doubts, God had the bread bleed as this priest was celebrating mass. God thus showed His occasional willingness to give visible evidence for the truth of the faith.

It may appear that this fresco does not suggest as directly as the others that God offers political support to His followers, including the force of arms, but even so, it does claim that He acts in history to defend His Church, in this case, by defending its ideas or doctrines. But it may imply political support as well, for on September 7, 1506, Julius stopped here at the cathedral of Orvieto to see and pray over the relic of the cloth that had caught the visible blood of Christ. Five days later Perugia surrendered to him without a fight, and a month later he took Bologna. He had himself painted in the fresco as a witness to the miracle, and the work suggests that God’s response to his piety contributed to his military victories.

Pope Julius died before the Room of Heliodorus was completed and before the Rooms of the Fire in the Borgo or of Constantine had even begun. His successor

Raphael, Fire in Borgo (public domain)

was Leo X, a member of the Medici family from Florence. Leo commissioned the Room of the Fire in the Borgo, and he had his likeness painted in each of the four main frescoes. The unifying subject of the Room, besides that of the glory of the papacy, concerns the great deeds done by popes who happened to be named Leo; and this, I’m sorry to say, does not seem to me to as engaging a subject as the relationship between faith and philosophy. The frescoes are again beautiful, but they are linked by the accident of a name, and, possibly, the vanity of the pope who commissioned them.

Two of the walls represent scenes involving Pope Leo III, and two represent Leo IV. In the Room we just discussed, Leo I was already shown blocking Attila the Hun’s march on Rome, and of course Leo X had his likeness used for the pope who stood in Attila’s way. So we get lots of Leo’s in short order.

Leo III was crucial for building a relationship with Charlemagne, one which began long and complicated ties with what professed to be a new Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, wittily said be Voltaire to have been neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.

The two frescoes based on reports of Leo’s life record events from successive days in December 800. In the first, he clears his good name by responding to attacks on him by the family of the previous pope, Hadrian I. In the second, he crowns Charlemagne, which thus makes his empire holy and, presumably, would dispose it to lend its support to the Church.

The two frescoes concerning Leo IV represent scenes from his life, which are related only in that both show the power of papal prayers. In one, his prayers extinguish a raging fire. In the other, they bring victory over Islamic invaders at the mouth of the Tiber River. In fact, Saracen troops had sacked St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s in 846, but their later attack in 849 was resisted at Ostia, the port of Rome. A little later, Leo IV built the first version of the high walls that still surround the Vatican.

So, I repeat, there is much more that could be said about each one of the sixteen main frescoes of the Raphael Rooms, not to mention their ceilings as well. But in view of the larger themes of this podcast series, I’ve thought it best to focus on the “School of Athens,” which I’ve done, and the “Stanza of Constantine,” which I’ll do next. As for the powerful prayers of popes named Leo, and God’s active support of the Catholic Church, three of the four Raphael Rooms make an attempt to establish these points. The Stanza della Segnatura, on the other hand, raises questions that philosophers take up with interest.

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