The pictures placed by Raphael on the ceiling of that most glorious saloon in the world, whose walls are adorned by
the Disputa and the School of Athens, form the noblest ornamental system which has perhaps ever existed, occupying,
therefore, the culminating point of this class of art. Athough they may be considered as independent historical paintings,
they are yet destined to form here the framework by which the four great compositions of that room are surrounded.
The relation which exists between the Dispute of the Sacrament, the School of Athens, the Parnassus, and the Practical
Virtues, is a most intimate one ; but all these eight episodical representations are so closely connected with one another, that
they form a series full of deep significance, even when considered independently of the cychis of the larger fresco paintings
which adorn the walls of this " Stanza della Segnaturathe name of the apartment on the walls of which Raphael unfolded,
for the first time, the wide-spreading wings of his immortal genius.
The first great historical composition which he executed for Pope Julius II., when recommended, as a young man, by his
uncle Bramante, was the so-called Disputa, which is better called the Theology. The meaning of this composition is clearly
shown by the two paintings placed over it. The first represents the fall of man, alluding to the actual cause of the existence
of theological controversy. To the appetite for false and forbidden wisdom, is opposed the right but modest knowledge of the
higher world. In a medallion surrounded by a framework of flowers, appears a heavenly virgin with the Gospel in her hand,
whom the inscriptions, held up by two angels, characterize as the Study of divine things (Divinarum rerum Notitia).
Opposite to the Disputa is placed the School of Athens, a subject which is intended to show what degree of truth the
human mind is able to attain, independently of the assistance of Heavenly grace. Philosophy is here represented in all her
glory, but as the pagan sister of Christian Theology. The representations of the ceiling, in connection with this wonderful
composition, allude to the immediate relation, in which this kind of inquiry after truth, stands to Nature. We see an angel
holding the celestial globe, as the symbol of the root of all scientific knowledge; and the female figure seated upon a throne
(adorned by the image of Diana of Ephesus, who is characterized as the great mother of Nature), appears as the representative
of philosophy. The inscription which alludes to her vocation points out, as her last and highest aim, the Knowledge of
Causes (Causarum Cognitio).
Between these two large mural paintings, which describe the two hemispheres of the province of human mind, Raphael
has placed above the windows two other compositions; which form a corresponding pair, and of which the first represents
Parnassus. The greatest poets of Greece are here assembled with those of the artist's own country ; under the protection
of Apollo and the Muses. Poetry occupies that neutral ground situated at a happy distance between theology and
philosophy ; but in order to show what description of harmony the artist had in view when he praised so highly this gift of
heaven, he has introduced the catastrophe of Apollo and Marsyas; where the latter pays the penalty of his vanity ; and
appears as the representative of that lower Art, which degrades man instead of elevating him above himself. Genuine high
Art is represented with wings, the book of wisdom in one hand, and the lyre in the other. Her divine origin is indicated
by the expressive words, Numine afflatur (She is inspired by the Divinity).
Over the lunette, where Raphael has represented the practical virtues, we see the Goddess of Justice; holding in one hand
the balance, and in the other the sword. The inscription which characterizes her mode of acting, expresses the universal law
of righteousness; "To every one his own" (Suum cuique). But to show that equity, and not literal lawfulness is meant
by it, he has placed in the corner beside her, the Judgment of Solomon ; as a bright example of a wise decision, in a case
where common law could only have done harm.
These four groups of episodical subjects are linked together in so subtle a manner, that they form a decorative system;
the nerves of which communicate freely in every direction through its whole body. Even without regard to the moral meaning
of these representations, the arrangement in itself is so full of symmetry, that this distribution may be considered as the
most happy of the kind. Our admiration, however, of the artist's skill is considerably increased, when we remember that
Raphael found the ground already occupied by the frescoes of G. A. Razzi, whose work was respected by him, as far as it
was possible to enable him to carry out the ideas necessary for the accomplishment of the system of representations already
displayed on the lower walls. Such a mode of acting characterizes the man of genius, who endeavours, not only generously
but economically, to preserve, rather than to destroy, the works of others.
If we look at the symmetrical arrangement of the pictures thus introduced, we discover many irregularities; which,
however, do not offend the eye. It seems that the impression of spontaneity is even increased by this kind of graceful
negligence. The different compartments are blended together (by those blue bands which surround some of the smaller
pictures belonging to Razzi; and which form the triangles in the corners) with the oak, alluding to the arms of the Pope,
who was, as is well known, of the family Delia Rovere.
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TlTMJli AND SOUS, PBINTEKS, 74-5, GBXAT QUEEN STREET, LONDON.