The Riddle that won’t stop

In October our more advanced students read the story below and then tried to solve the riddle.  As a result of their answers, in November a mom and daughter who are regular readers of InterestEng. shared their thoughts. And your insights just kept coming! Here we share yet another viewpoint from one of our long time readers.


IN Rome, Italy, there is a palace that has some of the world’s most beautiful art. In the year 1509, a young man named Raphael was asked to paint large paintings on the walls of a very important room in the palace. It was a room where significant people would meet. Raphael was told to paint a painting on each wall to inspire the people who would meet in that room.    

On one wall he painted a painting to honor law. Another wall had a large painting to honor religion. The third wall had a large painting to honor literature. The last wall had the painting you see at the top. It was in honor of philosophy. In his painting he showed many great philosophers.      

But Raphael had a big problem. How would people know who was who? Finally, he decided to paint the painting like a philosopher. He wanted people to think about what was impor- tant: How people looked long ago? Or, how they thought? But then Raphael wondered, “Can you really have a new thought? Or do you have thoughts that grow out of other people's ideas who lived before you?”       

So Raphael did something very clever and funny. He painted several people who could be two people! He made Plato look a little like Leonardo Da Vinci, for example. And, at the bottom, left, is that Pythagoras or St. Matthew?       

Now look at the writer at the very center of the painting, blocking the way of people going up and down the stairs. That person was not in the original sketches for the painting. He was put in the painting at the very last moment. People who study art history think that Raphael did not plan to have that person in the painting. The person is a writer. And we know from the painting that he has stopped writing because he is thinking.  Some people say that man is Michelangelo; others say it is a Greek philosopher named Heraclitus.  

Heraclitus was best known for writing, “You cannot step in the same river twice”. He meant that the world is constantly changing. Rulers change, places change, clothes change, even languages change. But we have ideas that have never changed.      

Now look again at the writer. Do you see that little ink pot? It is very close to the edge of the stone table. It is very close to his arm.  It could fall off easily.  Art historians think that the ink pot is the meaning of the whole painting. If the ink spills, so the writer cannot write his ideas, that would be a greater loss for the world than remembering what famous people looked like.     

But now look one more time at the man! He is wearing big boots. Everyone else in the painting is barefoot except Alexander the Great. The writer’s boots are much bigger, stronger, and heavier than Alexander the Great’s and he painted them so we can’t but help notice them. So why is the writer wearing boots? What do you think?


    Sharing insights about something like this painting is a wonderful opportunity to learn together, a willingness to open up to intuition.  As I was reading the November comments on the painting, and just considering the painting not so much about the intended design but what might be a possible lesson, this struck me:  The fellow in the boots is not writing at the moment that we see captured in the painting.  His pen hand seems to be resting on the marble block not poised above the paper so he can write down something else.  In fact, he is not even looking at the paper with its half-finished message.  As was pointed out, his back is to the others.  And his back is even turned on the ink pot.  He is deep in thought.  What if the ink pot does fall off--maybe when he gets up quickly? Will that matter? Because, maybe he is asking himself, Are actions more important than words?

     I also found this quote on the website below:

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” ― Michelangelo

     And this quote might also throw fresh light on the Riddle: 

“Read the heart and not the letter for the pen cannot draw near the good intent.”
                                                                                                                                 ― Michelangelo

                                                                                 From our long time reader, Carolyn.

 ©InterestEng. July 2013 - November 2020 §  The stories in the magazine portion of the site are written by English language learners. Stories are corrected by a native English speaker.  § Photos are staff photos or used with permission.  §  To contact us: