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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Two Pictures by Raphael
GA 284

5 May 1909, Berlin

Translated by Rick Mansell

A study of two of the most significant pictures in the world can help us to see the way in which the Theosophist should make his life's ideal into the very content of his soul. By means of these two pictures Raphael was able, in an age of great artistic development, to give utterance to the impressions and feelings which passed through his soul concerning the evolution of mankind through many centuries. The picture called “The School of Athens” (so-called in Baedeker, but it would be better if this name were allowed to disappear), and the picture called the “Disputa”—what do these, pictures represent when we study them in order to discover the great thoughts that underlie them, as well as the artistic impression they make upon us?

I have had the opportunity of seeing these pictures several times; as you know, they are in Rome, at the Vatican, in the famous Raphael Room ... You can always see people standing there with their guide-books and reading: This is Socrates, that is Plato, that other is Aristotle, and so on. They are immensely pleased when Baedeker enables them to discover whom this or the other figure represents, whether this one here is a bishop or an early Father of the Church, whether another is Paul or Peter or Moses … But how little has all this to do with the artistic value of the pictures! I should like to suggest by rather a grotesque supposition how one can approach such pictures in an artistic way. In this case the artistic and theosophical methods of approach are one and the same.

We know that there are inhabitants of Mars, although they are of course very different in appearance from the inhabitants of Earth. For us however they are very real beings. To be sure, we do not interest ourselves in that wild idea of some modern visionaries as to whether it might not be possible to draw the theorem of Pythagoras in lines of electric light over a great tract of Siberia and in this way set up communication with the inhabitants of Mars. We will leave such dreaming to the materialistic visionaries of our day. Anyone who takes his stand on the ground of reality knows that the inhabitants of Mars are of quite a different nature from those of Earth. But now let us suppose that one of these Mars inhabitants were to descend to Earth and let us imagine that he visited the Vatican picture-galleries and saw there these two pictures by Raphael. We could not expect that he should at once study the whole history of Greek philosophy and the whole spiritual development of the Middle Ages, in order that we might be able to converse with him in our own way. For it would, you know, seem quite ridiculous to him if we were to begin explaining, “Here is Augustine, there is Ambrose,” and so on. If he could speak an earthly language at all, he would probably reply, “I do not know these gentlemen!” We have a general acquaintance with them, having assimilated certain ideas about them—whether right or wrong need not concern us now. The artistic impression produced upon one by these pictures is not altered in the least because the beholder happens to be an inhabitant of Mars, who knows nothing of Mr. Aristotle or Mr. Plato or Mr. Socrates; for the artistic impression depends solely and entirely upon what confronts us in the picture, and makes itself best felt when we pay no attention at all to anything but what speaks from the picture itself. The inhabitant of Mars would therefore really be the best observer from a purely artistic point of view.

Let us try to enter into the feelings of such a one on his first descent to Earth, who has not been given a handbook of Greek and Mediaeval philosophy. He would say to himself: “I see figures, human figures, in these pictures—but I see no figures like them among the men of to-day.” For indeed it is hardly likely that among the people standing there with him and looking at the pictures he should recognise any as being persons of like dignity and importance.

He would however become aware in the pictures of something that must have grown out of the life of Earth itself. He would read in them that the inhabitants of Earth desire to say something which is not connected with any particular moment of time, but with the whole of Earth. He could contemplate the one picture and say “Here I see very remarkable forms,—two figures in the centre, and on their right and left other figures. I notice a certain expression—the uplifted hand of the one, the hand of the other pointing to the ground,”—and so on. (He would see all this without having any knowledge of Plato or Aristotle.) “There are also persons doing something or other in various parts of the picture. And around all these human beings is nothing but quite simple architectural forms. It can however also be seen that in the hearts and souls of these people something is living. That can quite clearly be noticed!”

Now suppose the inhabitant of Mars turns his attention to the other picture. It has quite a different appearance. There he sees, down below, a world which looks much the same as our external world to-day. Up above, he finds a scene that could only be represented by bringing together things which do not belong together in the external world. For there we behold human forms among the clouds—and yet in such a way as to recall something quite real and true. And higher up still, above this interweaving of the forms of clouds and men, figures are to be seen on a golden background which have little left to remind one of the human form. What would the visitor from Mars say,—who knows nothing of the spiritual life of Earth, and only judges the pictures by what they themselves tell him?

He would be compelled to say: “These men have the Earth around them; but there are times when they feel the need to express a world the physical eyes do not see, a world completely remote from the senses, and which they can only represent by clouds and human forms interwoven together, and by forms on a golden background that bear no resemblance to man. There must therefore be something by means of which these men are able to raise themselves; they must have inner forces, stronger than all, they meet with in the world of sense. That other world must have come into some relation with them.” And he would ask himself the question: “How did these men come into touch with that other world?”

He would then see the wonderful group which we call “God the Father,” “God the Son,” and “The Dove” as the expression of the Spirit; and, below, an Altar, and upon it the Host, the symbol of the Lord's Supper. Since the evolution of Mars is not yet so far advanced as the evolution of Earth, there is nothing on Mars like what we have on Earth in the two thousand years' tradition of Christianity. The visitor from Mars would accordingly not know what this picture represents. But from the relation of the groups on the right and left to the central group he could see that through the power of the symbol something is being given to the souls which opens to them the higher worlds.

Our visitor would then examine the pictures more closely and discover that in the first picture there are all manner of figures, but among them in particular two female figures, one on the right hand and one on the left. And remarkable figures they are! As one looks at them it is evident that they differ totally in their expression and even in their dress. Let us study them a little.

Looking at the one on the left (we are standing in front of the so-called “School of Athens”), we see in the whole expression something indicative of the Earthly kingdom of sense here below, and of what the senses directly give us. Male figures stand all around; and one dimly feels that what dwells in the heads of these men belongs to the world of sense. What presents itself to us in the female figure? Her expression conveys to us that which is living in the heads and souls of the men, until we come to her white garment, the garment of innocence, showing us that the force which comes from the mere working of the things of sense has not yet been active in her. We understand the countenances of the men when we understand what this female figure expresses.

And now let us pass to the other female figure on the right-hand side of the same picture. She is quite different, and already begins to notice what the men are doing. Whereas the left-hand figure indicates only the physical environment, the right-hand figure is following what the men have done, her gaze follows what the human spirit has brought forth. Even if we know nothing of Greek Philosophy, we can quite clearly see that there is an advance from the left to the right side of the picture. On the right hand we see what the men have made of their environment. (It really goes much further; it is expressed also in the colour.)

Now these two women appear also in the other picture, which is called the “Disputa.” Here again we see the figure first on the left, where people are standing, contemplating with rapture the symbol in the centre. We are looking into early times when the Christian religion was still entirely a religion of feeling, when Wisdom itself was still nothing but feeling. On every countenance we can see a kind of enthusiasm for Christianity, and all hearts are filled with warm feeling. This is reflected too in the female figure. And now when we pass to the other side of the picture we see again a progress. Here we have the Christian philosophers who have brought their knowledge to bear on the whole content of the Christian Wisdom.

There is St. Augustine dictating, and the woman writing it down. We could really reconstruct a great part of the history of man from the whole way in which Raphael has worked out this motif, with his great knowledge and understanding and his wonderful artistic powers. All that is living in the souls of the men is brought to expression in this woman figure, which we find four times repeated in the pictures.

The above is no more than a first rough sketch for a consideration of these pictures. The two paintings have to be studied together one after the other. They are an expression of what happened from the pre-Christian age down to the later part of the Middle Ages, and they express it in artistic form. Just imagine how great and mighty must have been the impression made upon a really sensitive soul who saw these pictures, first one and then the other, and said to himself:—“I am myself inter woven into this onward path of Wisdom, which mankind follows in the course of evolution; I am part of it, I belong to the march of events as it is shown in these pictures.” For the man who understood the sense of evolution in those days really felt this. He looked back to the pre-Christian age when men were surrounded only by the world of sense, just as the architecture surrounds the people in the picture; and he beheld too a time when through the entrance of Christ Jesus into human evolution the spiritual was revealed to mankind. He felt that he belonged to all this; he felt how his own existence takes part in the life of thousands and thousands of years. What lived in men's souls was borne along the flow of fantasy and streamed into the hand of the painter, who painted these pictures in order that men should meet in the outer world that which dwells in the inner world. For the Theosophist these pictures can he an earnest call and summons to inscribe the great ideal into his soul.

Let us look with the eye of the spirit at the “Disputa.” In the centre we see “God the Father,” then “God the Son” or Christ, and below, the Dove or the Holy Spirit. And now let us recall many other pictures that are to be found in various galleries. Whenever you have opportunity to visit picture galleries, you will find pictures of this kind, created out of good and great traditions. You will often meet with the following motif,—Christ coming forth from a figure like a bird, Christ being born as it were from a winged being. For the whole mystery of Christ, His whole descent from the higher worlds was formerly felt as a kind of breaking loose from a nature which had itself been born as a higher world,—higher even in the spatial sense. Hence the descent out of a birdlike form. Christ born from the bird,—let us hold the motif before our soul, and with that study the “Disputa.”

Here we find another “bird-being,”—the. Dove of the Spirit. The Dove of the Spirit, what a great riddle that is among all the Christian symbols! Much, very much is contained within it. The painters of the future will have to paint what comes to birth from out of this Dove of the Spirit. This Dove of the Spirit is a transitory symbol; something else will take its place in the Trinity. The day will come when from the Dove of the Spirit will be born, as it were, the human soul that is liberated by the wisdom of Theosophy. Every human soul that has the will to receive the spirit of Theosophy will be born again at a higher stage—spiritually, in a new form. This Dove of the Spirit will break its form, and from it will come forth the human soul which will have for its life-blood the spiritual conception of the world which meets us to-day in its first form as Theosophy. Other figures, new figures, will be around the symbol. And these liberated ones will show in their countenances what is living in their souls,—how through the events of the spiritual world as they reveal themselves to one who can rise above the world of sense, the soul is set free, and how then these liberated souls can each confront every other with real brotherly love.

And so it seems to me good that we should sometimes have these pictures before us, inasmuch as they are at the same time a prophetic foreshadowing of a third picture, A pre-Christian conception of the world is expressed in the first picture; the second expresses what has come about through Christ in the world of form; and what will come about through the Spirit, which has been sent by Christ and will divest itself of its coverings, will be expressed in the third picture that can stand before the soul of every Theosophist as a great and mighty ideal. This picture cannot be painted yet, for the models are not yet here; but in our own souls the two pictures must already be finding their completion in the third …