Why Did Raphael Paint the School of Athens?

In 1510 and 1511, Rafael painted the School of Athens in order to depict philosophy as one of the four branches of knowledge in a series of frescoes on the walls of the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. Pope Julius II commissioned the paintings, but it is not known whether he gave Rafael any specific instructions concerning the themes of the frescoes.

The rooms holding the paintings are known as the Stanze di Rafaello. The four branches of knowledge represented in the frescoes are poetry, law, philosophy and theology. Considered by many art historians to be Rafael's masterpiece, the School of Athens has 21 artists and philosophers in a large court with receding vaults. Above them are statues of the mythological Greek gods Apollo, the god of light and music, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom.

Central in the painting are Plato, as a gray-haired old man, and Aristotle, a younger man who is obviously Plato's student. Other philosophers are less identifiable because no historical images of them exist. Figures whose identities historians are fairly certain include Socrates, Euclid, Ptolemy, Pythagoras and Zoroaster. Though these philosophers lived at different times, Rafael assembled them to encompass his overall theme of philosophical knowledge. Rafael also painted himself into the picture as one of the 21 philosophers.