Athena and Apollo, two Greek Gods, are featured in the painting. They are painted into the back wall niches as statues and watch over the debating men. This is significant because they are symbols of a pagan religion, and it is ironic to see them on the wall of the leading Catholic Church of the time. Apollo is the God of the sun, male beauty, athleticism, music, and harmony. He represents the renewed emphasis that the Renaissance put on individual human achievement and beauty. His posture also references Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Dying Slave. Offsetting Apollo, Athena is the goddess of strategy, wisdom, and the arts. She is a symbol for the powerful Julius II, nicknamed the Warrior Pope, who was the leading force behind the building of St. Peter’s.These symbols of the past represent the rebirth of the qualities of man that embody the Renaissance.
In the center of the painting are Plato and Aristotle arguing. Plato is holding his palm to the sky to represent that true knowledge comes from the heavens, and that humans cannot understand it. Aristotle holds his palm towards the earth, to emphasize the material world. Plato is depicted as Leonardo da Vinci, because Raphael thought of da Vinci as an innovative thinker and all around “renaissance man”. By depicting Plato in this way, he establishes Plato and da Vinci as equals, putting the greats of the past and present on the same plane. Many other Renaissance men are referenced in the likenesses of famous Greeks. Similarly he depicts Euclid as Bramante. Euclid was important in his time for his geometric principles and philosophical thoughts. Bramante was the right hand man of Pope Julius II, and was commissioned for the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica. Associating Euclid, a great mind of the past, with Bramante reiterates the humanist theme of “we are as they were”. Furthermore, Michelangelo is painted in as the brooding philosopher, Heraclitus. Heraclitus philosophized that an opportunity lost is an opportunity lost forever, to match the bitterness that Michelangelo knew, because he saw more perfection than he was able to create. Raphael painted himself in speaking Ptolemy, creator of the geocentric theory. Raphael is the only person in the painting who directly looks out of the painting, signifying that he is as important as all of the great minds of the past. This matchup of classical ancients with new Renaissance ideals completely encompasses the overarching philosophy of the time.
Humans are the measure of all things. Plato and Aristotle argue about the heavens and the earth, further exemplified in Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. The man stands inside a circle which fits perfectly inside a square. The circle represents the earth, all things that are secular and worldly and what we experience in our lifetimes; the square represents the heavens, the corporeal, and the dreams of the future.
These elements of symbolism, the blending of humanism, and the theme of “we are as they were” create a visual summary of the the ideas and movements of the Renaissance. Raphael parallels the minds of the past and innovators of the present to show that the Renaissance mirrors the past greatness while challenges to take perfection to a level above that reached by the minds of antiquity.