Raphael, The School of Athens, Room of the Segnatura, Vatican

The secret of the rhythm which governs forms and the beauty that softens them…

The four rooms known as the Stanze of Raphael formed part of the apartment situated on the second floor of the Pontifical Palace that was chosen by Julius II della Rovere (pontiff from 1503 to 1513) as his own residence and used also by his successors. The pictorial decoration was executed by Raphael and his school between 1508 and 1524.

“Who was this boy who had only just turned twenty-five years old, whom Pope Julius II called upon to fresco his private apartment in the Apostolic Palaces, known today as the “Stanze”? In Rome, as in Florence everyone knew that this boy was a skilled prodigy and practically the wonder of the century. He grew in the circle of Pietro Perugino. From Pietro Perugino he learned, and never forgot, the secret of the rhythm which governs forms and the beauty that softens them…

There are certain dates in the history of art which remain unforgettable. One of these dates came in the year 1508, when Roman pontiff who seemingly loved politics and war more than painting, commissioned a twenty-five year old boy, Raffaello Sanzio of Urbino, to decorate the Rooms of the Apostolic Palaces, and a thirty-three old man, Michelangelo Buonarroti, to decorate the Sistine Chapel ceiling. These two great men had the fortune to work in the same place and at the same time, very close to each other and for the same patron. Their lives and their professional experiences converged and were occasionally pitted against each other as well as mirroring each other. The period of time during which the Rooms and the Sistine Chapel ceiling took shape marks the zenithal moment in the history of the arts over the entirety of the last millennium.

Whoever enters the apartment frescoed by Raphael and his pupils, knows they are entering the most majestic rooms in the world. The frescoes in the Room of the Signature represent a golden age in the Raphael’s life. They embody order, serenity and magnificence and they glorify knowledge, religion, justice and poetry in an intellectual and aesthetical dimension which evokes the Elysian Fields of the Gods.

The works in the Room of Heliodorus include the renowned “Liberation of St. Peter” – the moonlit night painted by Raphael for the Pope which came before Caravaggio, Rembrandt’s Night Watch and Goya’s Third of May. The fresco of The Fire in the Borgo in the Room of the Fire forms a sublime model for artists of generations to come such as Poussin, Guido Reni, Ingres and David. Finally, there is the Hall of Constantine – a masterpiece of the last and greatest age of the Renaissance…

After the crowds have gone, standing in the Octagonal Courtyard lit by the rays of the setting sun, with the great sculptures, the Laoconn, the Venus Pudica, around me…  Or being in the Stanze di Heliodoro, with the fresco of the Liberation of St Peter: it’s already Titian; it is Caravaggio before Caravaggio – Raphael really was the greatest painter of all time.”



The Golden Rule: Zoroaster


Rafhael, The School of Athens (Detail), 1509

There are many views on the timeline for Zoroaster’s life. Greek sources placed him as early as 6000 BC. The traditional Zoroastrian date for Zarathushtra’s birth and ministry is around 600 B.C. This is derived from a Greek source that places him “300 years before Alexander” which would give that date; other rationales for the 600 BC date identify the King Vishtaspa of Zarathushtra’s Gathas with the father of the Persian King Darius, who lived around that time. According to the Zend Avesta, the sacred book of Zoroastrianism, Zoroaster was born in Azerbaijan, in northern Persia.

Recent work by Martin Schwartz and Almut Hintze tends to discount this theory, as the linguists show that the Gathas are not the work of an academic writing in a dead language; they show all the signs of poetry composed and recited in an oral tradition, similar to the heroic poetry of Homer or the Rig-Vedas. These studies would confirm the earlier date for Zarathushtra.

In the Gathas, Zoroaster sees the human condition as the mental struggle between asa (truth) and druj (lie). The cardinal concept of asa – which is highly nuanced and only vaguely translatable – is at the foundation of all Zoroastrian doctrine, including that of Ahura Mazda (who is asa), creation (that is asa), existence (that is asa) and as the condition for Free Will, which is arguably Zoroaster’s greatest contribution to religious philosophy.

The purpose of humankind, like that of all other creation, is to sustain “asa”. For humankind, this occurs through active participation in life and the exercise of constructive thoughts, words and deeds. Elements of Zoroastrian philosophy entered the West through their influence on Judaism and Middle Platonism and have been identified as one of the key early events in the development of philosophy. Among the classic Greek philosophers, Heraclitus is often referred to as inspired by Zoroaster’s thinking. Contemporary Zoroastrians often point to the similarities between Zoroaster’s philosophy and the ideas of Baruch Spinoza.

Zoroaster teaches the Golden Rule: “That character is best that doesn’t do to another what isn’t good for itself” and “Don’t do to others what isn’t good for you.”

Image: School of Athens (Detail of Zoroaster, Ptolemy, Raphael and Perugino). Among the most famous of the European depictions of Zoroaster is that of the figure in Raphael’s 1509 “The School of Athens”. In it, Zoroaster and Ptolemy are having a discussion. Zoroaster is holding a star-studded globe.