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A NARRATIVE OF IDEAS

 

Almost all works of narrative art tell stories that are either fiction or non-fiction: tales that the artists made up (or copied from literary sources) or accounts of actual events of great or mundane circumstances. There are some exceptions to this two-fold division: allegories, tales that may or may not have happened, etc. But they are all cast as events whose origin and pictorial representation are placed within the artists’ conception of physical reality.

Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura, however, is a narrative of ideas: intellectual, spiritual, and moral. They represent all those real but insubstantial forces that constitute the mental realm of the Pope as he considered and signed important documents and decrees, applying all those forces to the Catholic realm over which he held sway.

The frescoes picture four major realms of human achievement: Christian religion, Philosophy (including mathematics and science), Poetry (including music) and Virtue.

All these elements exist in one single room to present us with a complete mental picture of the spiritual and intellectual forces at the Pope’s command. Together, they summarize the totality of significant thought dominant in the world of ideas in the early sixteenth century.

Such narratives of idea are rare in art — though there are some significant examples: Thomas Cole’s The Course of Empire and Piet Mondrian’s Victory Boogie-Woogie, for example. But none shows the complex thoroughness of Raphael’s paintings in the Stanza.

Few other works show such a diversity and inclusion of beliefs: Christians and Jews, pagans, Avicenna and Zoroaster. Though the leading figures are almost all male, at least two women are included, not as personifications of an abstract idea, but as historical figures of high accomplishment (Sappho and Hypatia).

What follows in these web pages is a presentation and explication of the major themes in the Stanza della Segnatura. A complete explanation of their meanings would be impossible, given the fact that there are so many figures whose identity is problematic or even completely unknown. But what will become apparent is the range and depth of Raphael’s work, revealing as it does the texture of intellectual thought at the time the paintings were created for Pope Julius.

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"The Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signature) was the first to be decorated by Raphael's frescoes. It was the study housing the library of Julius II. The artist's concept brings into harmony the spirits of Antiquity and Christianity and reflects the contents of the pope's library with themes of theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, and the poetic arts, represented in tondi [circular paintings or reliefs] above the lunettes [half-moon shaped apertures or windows] of the walls. The theme of this room is worldly and spiritual wisdom and the harmony which Renaissance humanists perceived between Christian teaching and Greek philosophy. The theme of wisdom is appropriate as this room was the council chamber where most of the important papal documents were signed and sealed." -- Wikipedia (edited)

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The School of Athens

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