That Raphael should make a last-minute allusion to Heraclitus, forever frozen in the act of composing his works, is telling and crucial to the coherence of his otherwise confounding fresco. Heraclitus is best known for his musings on the constant flux of the universe, famously crystallised in the assertion “you cannot step in the same river twice”. His certainty in the fleetingness of all things would be cruelly corroborated by the mists of time; not a single work of his has survived. By rewinding history to a moment when the very ink that memorialised the words of Heraclitus, who was known as ‘The Obscure’, was still wet, still un-nibbed, still unlost by time, Raphael imaginatively captures the ebb and flow of being.
As a symbol that oversees the enactment of official papal decrees in the Stanza Della Segnatura, Heraclitus’s ink pot (from which notions of the fleetingness of all authority would pour forth), is a courageously subversive symbol. It denies power by declaiming the futility of any attempt to inscribe oneself indelibly into the world. It and it alone sanctions the fluidity of identity that Raphael ingeniously constructs (and deconstructs) across the surface of his painting. Remove the ink pot from the epicentre of Raphael’s fresco, and the work dissolves into a fiasco of confused and confusing forms. Heraclitus’s profound, if overlooked, ink pot is the very well-spring from which the elastic energy of Raphael’s masterpiece endlessly emanates.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.