The painting depicts some of the outstanding thinkers of the ancient world, assembled in a magnificent architectural setting. These men were separated by centuries, but are brought together as colleagues in Raphael's timeless academy. The work is admired for its elegance of composition. The space is filled with figures, but they are arranged harmoniously so that the overall effect is one of dignity and calm. The poses and gestures adopted by each thinker lead the eye naturally from one group of figures to the next.
At the focal point of the composition are Plato and Aristotle, the towering figures of ancient philosophy. Plato, who was preoccupied with what lay beyond the realm of the senses, can be seen pointing upwards. While Aristotle, whose philosophy was immensely practical, can be seen gesturing towards the earth.
Surrounding these central figures is an illustrious company, a Who's Who of ancient philosophy, including Socrates, Epicurus, Heraclitus, Pythagoras and Zeno.
Raphael also paid tribute to some of the great men of his day. The figure of Plato bears a striking resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci, and the figure representing Heraclitus is a portrait of Michelangelo. Raphael himself can be seen at the far right of the painting, looking out towards us.