In 1505 Raphael painted one of the most beautiful religious images in all of art history. "The Madonna of the Meadow" is replete with devotional allusion, rich in symbolic theology and represents the highest level of aesthetic and creative genius in the service of the Christian story.
Though the dominant figure is the Madonna, the central foreground image is of Jesus and John, apparently playing a game with the cross - but John is kneeling and holds the cross steady as Jesus holds both the cross and his mother's arm.
The pyramid structure is repeated in several places. The Madonna is seated, indeed anchored as the supporting presence for Jesus and gazing downward at both infants. The two children make a second pyramid, and the city in the background a third. Whether or not this is a trinitarian allusion, it gives the painting a powerful sense of rootedness in earth. Raphael by this time was experimenting with a more realistically portrayed, earthed, this worldly approach. The Madonna is not in a holy building but of the world, the city, the rural landscape the sea. Various commentators note that her smile is enigmatic, hesitant, somewhere between smile and frown, uncertainty suggesting contentment threatened by foreboding. Her head is framed against the sky and is above land and sea, a compositional statement that more than hints at transcendence.
The colours blue and red are painted with startling vivid boldness, redemption and eternity, sacrifice and heaven, enwrapped in the form of the Virgin. The contrasting greens, and they are multi-toned, again brings together the fertile and fruitful life of earth with the redemptive intentions of heaven. The two red poppies answer to the two children, both of whom will die in the outworking of the Gospel story and the redemptive purposes of heaven.
Once again beauty is in the service of theology, and theology shows itself fit subject for art. There are passages of sublime theology that bear repeated reading, analysis, contemplation, intellectual wrestling and spiritual surrender. Likewise those paintings which reveal what George Herbert prayed about his poems, "utmost art". Advent is a time for such richly provoked engagement, as beauty and truth combine.