The Main Themes of Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura and their Unification
Raphael must have started with the decoration of the ceiling around 1508, right after he moved from Florence to Rome. The Stanze are a group of four rooms at the Vatican Palace, of which the Stanza della Segnatura is the second, although it is known that it was the first of the rooms being decorated.
The purpose of the room is controversial. The name of the Stanza suggests that it was the room where the pope signed important documents. Julius II, however, died shortly after the completion and so art historians believe that this usage dates back to post-Julian times and that the room was originally designed as library. On closer examination, this assumption is practically undeniable in regard to the overall unification of the room. The aim of this essay is to examine the main themes of the frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura and to explain how Raphael combines them into a unified cycle.
The Disputa, often translated as ‘Dispute over the Sacrament’, is located on the west wall of the chamber. A distinct streak of blue sky divides the semicircular fresco into two parts. The lower part is clearly recognizable as the earthly one. On top of the stairs in the lower centre, an altar with golden ornaments is positioned, in whose middle stands a monstrance, which concurrently serves as vanishing point. A crowd of people clusters around both sides of the altar, most of them cannot be unequivocally identified, although Hersey describes them as all being authors of theological writings. Most important are the four Church Fathers who are located next to the altar: St. Gregory and St. Jerome on the left, and Augustine and Ambrose on the right side. The half-round upper part of the fresco is dominated by the portrayal of Jesus Christ, located straight above the monstrance, sitting on a cloud, his whole body surrounded by a golden halo. Mary is sitting to his right, dressed in blue. On his left is depicted John the Baptist, identifiable by his pointing gesture on Jesus and the long-stemmed cross. Above Jesus stands the Godfather, holding a globe in his hand. Beneath him flies a white dove in a golden halo, accompanied by cupids holding books. This completes the representation of the Trinity of God, Son and Holy Ghost, right in the centre above the consecrated host. On both sides of the centre group a row of people is sitting on clouds, all of them engrossed in conversation, apparently discussing the dogma of transubstantiation, which, as Hersey remarks, was a current issue: Martin Luther was on the brink of his reformation. Some of the heavenly representatives can be identified by their attribute, for example St.Peter and St.Paul on the most left and right. Furthermore, assembled are patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament, as well as apostles and confessors of the New Testament and saints of the Early Church, most of them known for being the authors of important writings, for example the gospels. The vault of clouds which separates the heavenly part from the earth creates a depth effect which makes the flat wall look like an apse, whose dome is formed by angels and rays.
The Parnassus fresco encloses a window on the northern wall of the chamber. At the centre, in front of trees and looking up towards the sky, sits the god of light and knowledge, Apollo, playing his lyre. He is surrounded by muses and other Greek, Roman or contemporary poets who are either observing the violin-player, gazing in abstraction or talking to each other.
The man on the mid-left side is the blind Homer, his face nobly raised towards heaven. Traditionally, each epic started with an invocation of the muses. It was a common belief that the muses (as divine authority) seize hold of the poet and speak through him as unconscious medium, who then merely serves as ‘divine mouthpiece’. Hence, the narrative instance in antique epics is a divine one: through those epic poems divine knowledge comes into the human world.
The School of Athens is located on the east wall of the Stanza, across from the Disputa. The crowd of people is located within a spacious, vaulted hall, which is opened at its back. On the two walls that point towards the viewer, two larger than life-sized statues strike the eye; they represent the antique Greek god of light and knowledge, Apollo, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom. The imaginary architecture entails a strong geometrization of the fresco, consisting of circles and vertical lines, intersected through the horizontals of the stairs. Through the continuation of the semi-circular arches emerge four circles of decreasing size, which intersect each other, whereas the smallest of them centres in the two philosophers standing in the middle, who can be recognised as Plato and Aristotle.
Plato, wearing a red scarf, is holding a book with the inscription “Timeo”, one of his famous dialogues dealing with the “creation and the nature of the Universe”. With his right hand Plato is pointing upwards. He represents divine and geometric harmony of natural philosophy.
Plato’s younger student Aristotle on his right, dressed in blue, is holding an exemplar of his “Ethics”. He is holding his hand in a horizontal parallel to the floor, as if he would try to appease the arguments of his teacher. In fact, the gesture can be interpreted as description of “the earth and the wide dominion of moral teaching”.
The two are surrounded by their pupils, the Platonists on the left, the Aristotelians on the right side. Furthermore the individual schools of thought are grouped together, for example the mathematics around Pythagoras and his real-sciences. As in the previous frescoes, Raphael included various portraits of contemporaries in the School. An example is Bramante on the right margin, who plays the role of philosopher Euclid.
 cf. JOOST-GAUGIER, Christiane L., Raphael's Stanza della Segnatura : meaning and invention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 6).
 cf. HERSEY, George L., High Renaissance art in St. Peter's and the Vatican : an interpretive guide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993, p. 130).
 cf Hersey 1993, p. 136.
 cf Dussler, Luitpold, Raphael: a critical catalogue of his pictures, wall-paintings and tapestries (London: Phaidon, 1971, p. 72).
 cf Hersey 1993, p. 136.
 Gombrich, Ernst H., Gombrich on the Renaissance : Volume 2: Symbolic images (London: Phaidon, 1985, p. 91).
 Hersey 1993, p. 132.
 cf Hersey 1993, p. 132.