The wall painting, the School of Athens, was commissioned by Pope Julius II from Raphael in the first part of the 16th century at the height, if you’ll forgive the pun, of High Renaissance. It is considered by some as his greatest work and is part of a whole series of frescoes that decorate the wall of what were Julius’s private rooms in the papal palace at the Vatican. It shows all the greats of Classical Greek philosophy.
This painting also highlights the point that for the Christian the bible is not the only source of knowledge on matters spiritual. We can get an understanding, even of God, by reason based upon information mediated from the senses. We cannot know all things this way – some things are known only because God revealed them to us through scripture, such as the existence of the Trinity. The truths that cannot be deduced by natural philosophy are called the ‘mysteries’ of the faith.
The two central figures in the painting are the giants of Greek philosophy: Plato, who is pointing upwards to his non- material world of ideals; and Aristotle, who points downwards and was so interested in the material world and information discerned by the senses.
In my book, the Way of Beauty, I focused on one figure in particular, who is front left: Pythagoras. Many know his name today because of his theorem that enables us to calculate the length of the third side of a right angled triangle given the length of the other two. However, he was better known in ancient Greece and by Christians up to the Enlightenment for his discernment of the spiritual significance of numerical relationships in the cosmos. Pythagoras suggested that once they are known they can become guiding principles by which the culture can manifest this cosmic beauty too, and by which a pattern of living and worship is ordered. This beautiful pattern of life is for the good of man and in harmony with the rhythms and patterns of the cosmos. Although Pythagoras’s fame is great, very little is known about him directly and what we do know is handed down to us by later figures who wrote about him, such as Plato.
It may surprise many moderns that not only is the passage of the Catholic liturgy through the seasons of sacred time built on these patterns of cosmic beauty, but even today in (Read More)