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 in the Vatican in Rome 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 Europe.
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, a Moslem and a Zoroastrian. 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 identities are 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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