Raphael Santi and his pupils decorated four rooms in the Papal palace. The Sala di Costantino, the Stanza di Eliodoro, the Stanza della Segnatura and the Stanza dell’incendio del Borgo. The most famous one is the Stanza della Segnatura, where you can find the School of Athens fresco. The fresco is depicted in almost every book that discusses Plato and Aristotle and since they’re some of the most influential philosophers, almost everyone learns about them. The scene is set in a basilica and all kinds of important ancient thinkers are present. On the bottom left with the big book for example, we see Pythagoras, whom we all know because of his Pythagorean theorem: a²+b²=c². And on the left of Plato, we see Socrates in green clothing, talking with others about his ideas, as he thought philosophy should be practised.
In the middle of the fresco, we see Plato on the left and Aristotle on the right.
They had fundamentally different ideas about the world. Plato thought that our world was just a reflection of a truer world and that we should focus on the spiritual world to find truth. Aristotle however, thought that we should trust our senses and that this world was the only one. That is why Plato is pointing upwards and Aristotle is gesturing downwards, to the earth.
On the left of this fresco, there’s another fresco of the Parnassus. This is a mountain in Greece and in Greek mythology, it was believed that this mountain was home to the muses, that provided inspiration for artists. On the fresco, we see Apollo in the middle, who was the god of amongst others poetry.Around him stand and sit the most famous poets, like Sappho on the bottom left and Dante, Homer and Vigil on the top left.
On the left of the Parnassus fresco, we have the fresco of the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament. This is the discussion about the Holy Eucharist turning into the body and blood of Christ. Not only the theologists on earth take part in this discussion; the scene takes place in both heaven and earth at the same time. In heaven, we see important Biblical figures like Moses and Jacob and in the middle we see the Holy Trinity: God the father, Christ and the Holy Spirit.
And finally on the left of this fresco, we see the fresco of the Cardinal and Theological Virtues. On the top part, we see three cupids that represent the theological virtues Charity, the one touching the branches, Hope, the one with the torch, and Faith, the one pointing to the sky. The women represent the cardinal virtues Fortitude, with the lion on her lap, Prudence, with the mirror, and Temperance with the reigns. Justice is depicted on the ceiling above this fresco. The bottom frescoes are about this justice. On the bottom left we see emperor Justinian I from the 6th century with the Roman Lawbook. On the bottom right we see pope Gregory IX approving decretals, which are part of ecclesiastical law.
The most interesting part of the room according to me is the ceiling, because the figures combine the themes of the frescoes. The four women point us to the central theme of each fresco. Above the School of Athens, we have Philosophy (left), above the Parnassus there’s Poetry (top), above the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament there’s Theology (right) and as mentioned before, above the fresco of the Cardinal and Theological Virtues, we have Justice (bottom). In between these small frescoes, there are scenes that combine the categories.
In between Philosophy and Justice, we have the judgment of Salomo. Two women came to him, both claiming to be the mother of a baby. Salomo then said that the baby should be cut in half, so that both women could have a piece. One of the women then started crying and said that she would rather see the other woman get the baby than see her child cut in half. And that’s how Salomo knew that she was the real mother. So this story is a combination of philosophical wisdom and justice.
Between Justice and Theology, we have the story of Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit. Afterwards they got banned from the paradise. This story combines justice and religion.
Between Theology and Poetry, we have the story of Apollo and Marsyas. Marsyas challenged Apollo to a musical duel, because he thought he was better than the god. The winner could do with the loser as he pleased. Apollo won and decided to skin Marsyas alive. This story combines the inspiration from the muses (in this case poetry and music) with religion.
And finally, between Poetry and Philosophy, we have astronomy. I know it looks like a lady with a huge blueberry in this picture, but it’s actually the muse Urania with the cosmos. So this one combines inspiration of the muses and philosophical wisdom about the universe.
It’s not completely sure what the function of this room was, but the most convincing theory is that it was a library. It would explain why all the frescoes are about knowledge. Maybe the books were even ordered by poetry books, philosophical books, theological books and lawbooks!
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