While this is probably one of those paintings where it’s actually handy to have a guide (as each of the characters depicted represents a famous philosopher from history), one can still enjoy the general presentation and “posing” of the scene as if all characters presented were simply actors in a scene from a movie. Study of this painting will reveal not only presentations of philosophers from history based on busts and other portraits that Raphael studied (for their actual likenesses), but also how he incorporated some of the leading artists of his day into his painting (including Michelangelo).
Aside from having any knowledge of what’s going on… if we were to come to this image “cold,” its almost cinematic presentation would still evoke a mood of thought and learning. The steps that lead into a great hall, its magnificent arches, and finally its domed ceilings with clouds floating on a blue sky — along with the fact that this image employs a centered point of perspective… all combine to give us a sense of lofty ascendency.
The arrangement of the characters is also evocative of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” The prime difference in Raphael’s painting is that while the general lay out of both paintings are designed to cause feelings of reverence in the viewer, Raphael goes far to highlight the grandeur of philosophy with all its pomp and circumstance whereas da Vinci highlights the drama of the situation.