Raphael’s Room: the Renaissance debate on religion and reason

A cognitive view on The School of Athens and La Disputa

In 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned the Italian painter Raphael (1483-1520) to decorate a room called the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican. The Stanza della Segnatura was the first of four Rooms within the Vatican to be decorated by Raphael. In it, the highest authority in the Catholic Church gathered to discuss and sign papal documents. In the following three years, Raphael painted the four walls and the ceiling. Especially The School of Athens and The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (situated opposite of each other) are noticeable. [1]

It is easily understood why the God-favouring fresco The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (also known as La Disputa) is in this Catholic room in the Vatican. Why the philosophy and reasoning-favouring fresco The School of Athens was allowed to be created, can be traced back to one of the biggest dilemmas of the Renaissance. [2,3]

In the Renaissance, ancient texts were rediscovered and science and reason became very important again.[4] This meant that the Catholic Church was challenged to find a way to embrace this new idea of science, while still stressing the importance of God. Pope Julius II found a creative way of solving this problem: he commissioned Raphael to decorate the Stanza della Segnatura and send out a clear message. A message of Renaissance humanism: the power of debate is important, but it is all in favour of God’s glory.[5]

Viewing these two frescoes as a continuum allows for a humanistic interpretation of the value of the human mind in the Renaissance debate on religion and reason.

1. Renaissance Humanism and Raphael’s Room
1.1 Renaissance humanism and the Stanza della Segnatura
1.2 The School of Athens and La Disputa as a continuum
1.3 The outcome of the Renaissance debate on religion and reason
2. Social and historical context
2.1 The Renaissance
2.1.1 A break from the middle ages
2.1.2 The influence of Renaissance on human history
2.1.3 Method of study
2.2 Renaissance Humanism
2.2.1 Secularism and classical writers
2.2.2 Humanism and Christianity
2.2.3 Two conflicting worlds
2.2.4 Renaissance humanism and modern day humanism
3. Raphael’s Room: the Stanza della Segnatura
4. The School of Athens
4.1 The central figures
4.1.1 Plato
4.1.2 Aristotle
4.2 Other important figures
4.2.1 Socrates
4.2.2 Diogenes
4.2.3 Pythagoras
4.2.4 Astronomers and Raphael
4.3 No clear order
4.4 A Renaissance painting
5. The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (La Disputa)
5.1 The Holy Trinity
5.2 The altar
5.3 Debating on Transubstantiation
5.4 Noticeable figures
6. Raphael’s life
6.1 Life and death
6.2 Raphael’s position in the debate on faith en reason

Renaissance Humanism and Raphael’s Room

The Stanza della Signatura represents one of the ways of how the Renaissance debate on religion and reason is solved. This question can be formulated when looking at both The School of Athens and La Disputa, but also at the ceiling and the other walls. The answer can finally be found in La Disputa; that religion, in the ends, conquers all. The School of Athens, representing the human potential to think scientifically and gain knowledge, marks a contrast to La Disputa. Together, the two frescoes explain the value of the human mind in the Renaissance debate on religion and reason, which lies in the idea of humanism. Comparing these very different orders that the two frescoes convey, humanism gives the answer on how they relate. The introduction of a humanist mind-set starting with the Renaissance brought along a shift in the status of the church. The status of the church, which was before the Renaissance seen as the ultimate and unquestioned truth-saying institution, was crumbled down.

Renaissance humanism and the Stanza della Segnatura

Renaissance humanists looked to the ancient past and its great written works. This stimulated the philosophy of secularism[7]; the appreciation of worldly pleasures. The humanists welcomed classical writers who revealed similar social values and secular attitudes. Renaissance humanism holds that humans have the capability to study the world by reason. This allows the humans to acquire their own sense of control, and leaves behind the idea that god is the sole guidance in the human’s life. Nevertheless, humanism includes the idea of humans being part of God’s divine plan[6], which is represented by the humanist School of Athens together with the strictly religious La Disputa as one whole work. It is therefore essential to view The School of Athens and La Disputa as a continuum, whereby the answer to the question of the value of the human mind in the Renaissance debate on religion and reason is given.

The School of Athens and La Disputa as a continuum

The Stanza della Signatura should be viewed as one whole piece, visually as well as thematically[6], as Raphael had planned it this way. La Disputa represents the revelation of God, whereas The School of Athens represents the human potential to obtain and expand knowledge, a demarcation from the medieval religious views[9].

The outcome of the Renaissance debate on religion and reason

Examining The School of Athens, one can see how Plato is depicted pointing upwards, which represents a direct link to the Neo-Platonism, a Renaissance humanist movement. Neo-Platonism attempts to reconcile Plato’s philosophy with Christianity, which is an important element in establishing a binding link between the La Disputa and The School of Athens forming a continuum. Pope Pius I was the first to translate Plato and was a humanist himself.

It is difficult to make out an order in The School of Athens, as the characters are all looking in different directions. The fresco is lacking the clear structure that can be found in La Disputa. In La Disputa the discussion about Transubstantiation is depicted, whereas in The School of Athens the debate is of a more scientific nature.

In the centre of both frescoes, the key figures are depicted. These are Plato and Aristotle in The School of Athens. In La Disputa it is God who is depicted in the vanishing point. In this way the frescoes give opposite answers to the question of life, but combining them gives the conclusion held by Renaissance humanism. They acknowledge the power of the debate and the human mind, but put it into perspective: it is all in favour of God who gives the final answer.

Social and historical context

The Renaissance

A break from the middle ages

The Renaissance began in Florence in the Late Middle Ages. The Italian Renaissance was the earliest manifestation of the general European Renaissance; a period of great cultural change and achievement that roughly spanned the period from the 14th to the 17th century. It marked a transition between Medieval and early modern Europe. A break from the Middle Ages was established, creating a modern understanding of humanity and its place in the world.The word renaissance means "rebirth" in French, and the era is best known for the renewed interest in the culture of classical antiquity after the medieval times. Intellectuals of the period looked to the ancient past and its great written works to reform the education and culture of their own time. Platonism, for example, underwent a revival.[10]

The influence of Renaissance on human history

The Renaissance was not a period of great social or economic change, but one of cultural and ideological development. The movement affected European intellectual life. Its influence was felt in literature, philosophy, art, music, politics, science, religion, and other aspects of intellectual inquiry. It should be noted that these changes, while significant, were mainly limited to the elite, and for the vast majority of the population life changed little from that in the Middle Ages. In modern times, this fact causes that many historians reduce the importance of the Renaissance in human history.[11]

Method of study

In their new focus on literary and historical texts, Renaissance scholars differed markedly from the medieval scholars of the 12th century, who had focused on studying Greek and Arabic works of natural sciences, philosophy and mathematics, rather than studying cultural texts. Renaissance scholars employed the humanist method in study.[12]

Renaissance Humanism

Secularism and classical writers

Renaissance humanism involves a study of Greek and Roman teachings, undertaken by scholars, writers, and civic leaders who are now known as Renaissance humanists. The movement was a response to the challenge of medieval scholastic education.[12]

Renaissance humanists looked to the ancient past and its great written works. This stimulated the philosophy of secularism; the appreciation of worldly pleasures. As the grip of medieval supernaturalism began to diminish, secular and human interests became more prominent. The individual experience in the here and now became more interesting than the shadowy afterlife. The intellectuals of antiquity were, in contrast to the Christians, relatively unconcerned about the supernatural world and the eternal destiny of the soul. They were primarily interested in a happy, adequate, and efficient life on earth.[10] Expansion of trade, growth of prosperity and widening social contacts generated interest in worldly pleasures. Personal independence and individual expression became more important. The humanists welcomed classical writers who revealed similar social values and secular attitudes.[11] These attitudes had been lost for about one thousand years.

Renaissance humanists sought to create a citizenry (including women), who were able to speak and write with eloquence and clarity and thus capable of engaging in the civic life of their communities. This was to be accomplished through the study of the studia humanitatis, today known as the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy.[13]

Humanism and Christianity

Even though secular and human interests became more prominent, these new ideals developed against a Christian background. Renaissance Neoplatonists attempted to reconcile Platonism with Christianity. The humanists saw pagan classical works, such as the philosophy of Epicurus, as being in harmony with Christianity, when properly interpreted. In addition, many Greek Christian works, including the Greek New Testament, were brought back from Byzantium to Western Europe and engaged Western scholars for the first time since late antiquity.[14]

Many humanists worked for the organized Church and followed holy orders. Much humanist effort went into improving the understanding and translations of Biblical and early Christian texts. Renaissance humanists did not reject Christianity; many of the Renaissance's greatest works were devoted to it, and the Church patronized many works of Renaissance art. However, a subtle shift took place in the way that intellectuals approached religion. The discovery of classical philosophy and science challenged old beliefs.[15]

Two conflicting worlds

The humanist mentality stood at a point midway between medieval supernaturalism and the modern scientific and critical attitude. The man of the Renaissance lived, as it were, between two worlds. The world of the Christian medieval times, in which the significance of every phenomenon was ultimately determined through uniform points of view, no longer existed for him. On the other hand, he had not yet found stability and security in a system of scientific concepts and social principles. In other words, Renaissance man may indeed have found himself suspended between faith and reason.[11]

Renaissance humanism and modern day humanism

Today’s sense of the word humanism may contribute to the notion that humanism and Christianity don’t go together. It should be noted however that there is no direct linkage between Renaissance humanism and modern uses of the term. Renaissance humanism must be kept free from any hint of either ‘humanitarianism’ or ‘humanism’ in its modern sense of a rational, non-religious approach to life. The word ‘humanism’ will mislead if it is seen in opposition to Christianity. Its students wished to supplement, not contradict Christianity.[10]

Raphael’s Room: the Stanza della Segnatura

In 1508, Pope Julius II commissioned Raphael to decorate the Stanza della Segnatura. It was the first of four Rooms within the Vatican to be decorated by Raphael. The Stanza della Segnatura was the library of Julius II in which the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Catholic Church, met and where most of the papal documents were signed. [1]

In 1508, Raphael started working on The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (La Disputa). In 1509, The School of Athens was the second fresco to be created in the Stanza della Segnatura. When studying the The School of Athens, it is indispensable to collaterally study La Disputa, since the two frescoes together form a continuum of two different ideologies joining together: the reasoning in The School of Athens and the religion in La Disputa.

The third fresco finished by Raphael is called Parnassus, and the fourth The Cardinal Virtues. The main messages can also be found when looking to the ceiling. On it, there are four circles in which the four faculties of human knowledge are represented: philosophy, theology, jurisprudence and poetry.[3,17]

In total, Raphael worked three years on the Stanza della Segnatura.

The School of Athens

On The School of Athens, the most influential philosophers and mathematicians of ancient Greece are depicted. The figures in the painting did not live at the same time, nevertheless they are all displayed together. There is a theme of wisdom which can be linked to the function of the Stanza della Segnatura;[1] the Apostolic Signatura met there to discuss the signing of papal documents.

Since Raphael did not include a description of his painting, the identity of many of the persons depicted remains unknown. Still some can be identified with some certainty, such as Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid and Diogenes.[2]

The central figures

The School of Athens expresses what the High Renaissance represents: a rediscovery of ancient texts and the revival of science and reason in everyday life. On the fresco, the greatest minds of ancient Greece are depicted as in a humanist dream. The figures can be divided between two schools of thought of the classical world[8], starting with the portrayal of Plato and Aristotle in the centre of the painting, both holding their writings, respectively ‘Timaeus’ and ‘Ethics’. Interestingly, it is not God who is the central figure (as in La Disputa), but these two great minds. This illustrates Europe’s change in vision at this point in time, from religion governing humans towards knowledge allowing humans their own sense of control. [2,20,21]


The side of Plato represents the philosophers whose ideas are unconnected to the physical and actual, but rather to the spiritual. Plato is dressed in red and grey, pointing upwards, which illustrates this connection to spirituality and the divine. The red color represents fire and grey represents the “ether”, which at the time was thought to be a material filling the region of the universe above the earth’s sphere. In line with the book “Timaeus” that he wrote and is holding, Plato becomes a representative of the theoretical and the cosmos.

In The School of Athens, Plato represents a movement within Renaissance Humanism, called Neo-Platonism. This movement is concerned with the revival of the ideas of Plato in the Renaissance: Renaissance Neoplatonists attempted to reconcile Platonism with Christianity. Therefore, Plato can be considered as the link between The School of Athens and La Disputa. [20,21]


On the other side we have Aristotle, who represents the school of thought of the scientists, namely the world through sense experiences and how we can thereby understand human knowledge and human beings. When looking at the different periods of time in which the figures on the fresco, it is worthwhile noting that Aristotle, who was born around 60 years after Plato, is depicted as a younger man standing next to Plato, who notably looks older. Aristotle points his hands down to the observable earth and is wearing blue and brown, which represent water and earth. He holds is book “Ethics” in his hand, a practical work, which supports the notion of the observable. [20,21]

Other important figures


Close to Plato and Aristotle, Socrates is situated in his own circle of listeners. Socrates is plying his questions and counting off on his fingers each point as it is made. This great thinker emphases knowledge as a guiding element in the message Raphael wanted the fresco to convey. [20,21]


Diogenes lies on the steps as a beggar who makes himself comfortable. Diogenes, who is often called the cynic philosopher, lived a frugal life to demonstrate that he did not need luxury or anything else besides the essentials to live his life. In this way, Diogenes tried to fight against the corruption in society and its distorted values. [20,21]


An elderly man, who may be Pythagoras, writes something down, while he holds a tablet inscribed with the harmonic scale in front of him. The harmonic scale represents music as an academic field, which is a contrast with the message carried out by the other figures. On the same time, it also represents a comprehensive scope of intellect to the system of proportions that Pythagoras invented and stands for. Pythagoras furthermore studies the celestial globe, thereby embodying intelligence and education. [20,21]

Astronomers and Raphael

The historical content of the picture is completed by the addition of the astronomers Ptolemy and Zoroaster and Euclid the geometer. Raphael depicted himself in the fresco on the very right, almost hidden, but he is the only character who directly looks the audience of the fresco in the eye. [20,21]

No clear order

The two schools of thought of Plato and Aristotle are joined underneath one big overwhelming ceiling. In this way, Raphael united the world as we experience it and the world as being connected to the divine and the spiritual. This harmony is another theme of the painting.

At the same time, Raphael stresses the non-existence of an order within this painting. While La Disputa has a clear order that contributes to its message (God is the final answer), in The School of Athens, there is no clear lining of the figures. Next to Plato and Aristotle, who form the centre and carry out a rather clear message, the other figures are not lined in a specific order. Furthermore, there is no clear pointing within the picture or multiple people looking at a specific other character. Thus, the viewer cannot find a clear order within The School of Athens. [21]

A Renaissance painting

Raphael’s School of Athens demarks the start of a secular era, segregating itself from the medieval religious views. It embodies the values of the Renaissance by portraying all the great minds of ancient Greece and it corroborates the idea of humanism being the underlying exemplification of the interaction of the The School of Athens and La Disputa.

The words “Causum Cognitio” inscribed above the fresco portray the great potential that humans have through the acquisition of new knowledge. This ultimately leads to the idea that they are not blindly guided by god, but that they can consciously and voluntarily evaluate their belief in light of new discoveries made, while still remaining in favor of god. The natural world, symbolized by the inscription, becomes a central focus and starting position to all new thought generated by the characters in the fresco, throughout the Renaissance. [2,21]

The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (La Disputa)

On the opposite side of The School of Athens is another painting by Raphael, called The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament (La Disputa). This was the first fresco finished by Raphael, in the year 1509. While The School of Athens carries out a message of reason, philosophy and science, La Disputa does quite the opposite. What message it does convey, can remarkably also be solved by looking at the ceiling of the Stanza della Segnatura.[16,18] On it, there are four circles in which the four faculties of human knowledge are represented: philosophy, theology, jurisprudence and poetry. Of course, directly below the theology-circle, La Disputa is situated.[16,17]

The Holy Trinity

On this fresco, Jesus Christ is centred and surrounded by the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and many more biblical figures. In the golden light of heaven, God the father is watching over Jesus, his son. The dove below Jesus completes the Holy Trinity, as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.[3]

The theme of circles, a geometrical shape considered as divine (no beginning nor end), is continued within La Disputa.[17] God the Father is the centre of an enormous circle in the top region of the fresco, Christ is the centre of a smaller one below and the Holy Spirit is situated in the smallest circle, one below Christ. Moreover, these forms are all in pure gold: the colour of the divine.[17]

The altar

The Holy Trinity together form the central axis of the fresco and illustrate the descent of the divine to earth. Directly below this central axis, an altar is placed. With this, Raphael illustrates the divinity which is present in the church. On the altar, a rectangular antependium is present: a geometrical shape reserved for the earthly. Its four parts correspond with the four seasons, the four elements and the four temperaments. The antependium illustrates the mortality of man and forms a perfect balance with the divine circle. Together, they illustrate the dual nature of man; his mortal body with his immortal soul.[9][10] Another interpretation of the peculiar combination is by seeing it as the incarnation of God as Christ; the mortal flesh of God.[17]

Debating on Transubstantiation

A similarity between The School of Athens and La Disputa is the presence of debating figures. On La Disputa, theologians are debating on the topic of Transubstantiation. Transubstantiation questions the idea of the bread and wine used in the sacrament and wonders whether these substances are not in reality the Body and the Blood of Jesus.[19] The power of the debate is thus in favour of a Christian dilemma; how to depict Jesus Christ.

Although the power of the debate is also a central theme in La Disputa, it is very clearly presented that in the end, God is the final answer. The debate is centred around a Christian theme; the blood of Jesus Christ is depicted both as the wine in the carafe and as the blood running through the veins of Jesus Christ. But still, the only person watching over the mortals discussing and above Jesus Christ, is God.[17,19]

Noticeable figures

In La Disputa, Jesus Christ is portrayed as part of the Eucharist, also known as the Holy Communion.[3,19] This portrayal is the foundation of the discussion on Transubstantiation in which the original four Doctors of the Latin Church participate (Pope Gregory I, Jerome, Augustine and Ambrose).[3] Other main figures on the fresco are Pope Julius II, who commission the Stanza della Signatura, Pope Sixtus IV, Savonarola and Danta Alighieri. Dante is immediately recognized by his red outfit and laurel wreath, which symbolizes his greatness as a writer.

A striking fact is the presence of both Raphael and his mentor in The Stanza. While Raphael portrayed himself on The School of Athens, he portrayed his mentor Bramante on La Disputa.[3]

Raphael’s life

Life and death

Raffaelo Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael) son of the painter Giovanni Santi Ciarla was born on the 28th March or the 6th April 1483. His father Giovanni Santi was a competent painter and was highly regarded in Urbino. Raphael was provided with quite a privileged upbringing. He grew up to be well mannered and a favourite of the papal regime. At the age of 25 he found a patron, Pope Julius II, and was given the task of decorating rooms in the pope's private apartments. The Stanza also known as the Raphael rooms, are located on the upper floor of the Vatican palace. The amount of work produced by Raphael is remarkable when you consider his untimely death at the age of 37. He produced a wealth of paintings including several Madonna’s, portraits and altarpieces, all in addition to his Vatican efforts.

His early death on the 6th of April 1520 is said to be due to a night of sexual encounters with his mistress Margherita Luti, after which he contracted an acute illness lasting fifteen days.[22]

Raphael’s position in the debate on faith en reason

In the School of Athens, Raphael has portrayed himself in the right down corner. All the figures depicted in the fresco are involved in some type of activity. They are either part of a debate, working on their materials or looking at something. By hand movements and eye focus, they direct the viewer’s attention to a certain point. Strikingly, Raphael himself is the only person looking directly towards the viewer. What we can tell from this is unclear. One way of explaining this is Raphael as the middleman between the two frescoes, conveying his humanist position to the audience. One could also look at it from the position that Raphael is directly starring at La Disputa, meaning that he is not ignorant towards religion, but viewing it from the humanist position of the rational thinking mind.

Another way of interpreting is that he sets himself aside from the other figures, not being a part of the story that’s being told. This way of positioning may suggest that even though Raphael has found himself among the humanist intellectuals of his time, he does not get involved in the scientific and philosophic debates.


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  18. http://www.learn.columbia.edu/ - Visited 20-09-13
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