The Riddle

This past month our more advanced students read the story below and then tried to solve the riddle.  (See their answers below the story.)  What do you think the answer is? 

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?


•  I think the man is wearing boots because it is a symbol that his writing will not just travel over continents, like Alexander, but will travel very far—over centuries. 
                                                                                                                     —Manizha (Tajikistan)

•  I think both his boots and his jacket say he is from another time, a later time than the other people in the painting. It is saying, maybe, that the ink pot was not spilled and the ideas of great people will be saved for people in the future. If we just have thoughts in our heads, they aren’t really clear until we speak or write them. I mean, sometimes I read something in a book and I already had a thought like that, but it only became clear when
I read it. —Polina (Russia)

•   I think both people’s clothes and their ideas are important. In the painting the writer has boots because that tells us he has something other people do not have. He can write some-thing and people in the future will learn from it. —Mashal (Afghanistan) 

•   We have looked carefully over this masterpiece and Rafael painted more than 2 people wearing some kind of footwear. To be specific, there are 7 people wearing footwear in a painting. Some experts in art believe that bare feet symbolizes innocence, good intentions, fragility, defenselessness, but having boots means readiness to fight, confidence, and security. The quality and condition of footwear could point to the social status of its owner. Sadly, we can’t talk with Rafael and ask him what he meant but, most likely, every detail in this piece of art has meaning.  Still, sometimes details are there just to make a scene more natural. —Alona and Andrei (Ukraine) 


 ©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: