The Madonna of the Meadow, by Raphael.

One of my favorite artists is the Italian Renaissance great Raphael (1483-1520). He is usually ranked with Leonardo and Michelangelo as one of the three great artists of the Italian High Renaissance. For centuries his works were considered the apex of all artistic perfection, and became the models for many of the formal schools of academic art. In the Nineteenth century, however, especially with the Pre-Raphaelite movement in Britain, a reaction arose against his style of art. Since then he has generally been held in lower esteem than Leonardo and Michelangelo. These artistic trends are all subjective of course, but I still enjoy his art nevertheless.

There is a calm classicism to his art. I especially like this piece, The Madonna of the Meadow, with the Madonna and Child and St. John the Baptist configured in a triangular form, which was something he learned from Leonardo. The triangle form is often used in art, especially Renaissance art, to convey a sort of Neo-Platonic harmony of body and form and spirit. As religious art, the calm and serenity of such a scene reflects my own desire for a calm spirituality, rather than the more frenetic type found among certain religious groups. No snake tossing or speaking in tongues for me.

I also like his colors: lots of blues and reds, yellows and golds and creamy whites which are happy and uplifting, at least for me. The hazy background of hills and water is also reminiscent of Leonardo’s landscapes. It hints at an expansive mystery and wonder. All and all, it is a nice piece: calm, relaxing, yet still joyful, beautiful, and, for those believe in the religion, ultimately meaningful in a spiritual way.

One of the things I enjoy about Renaissance art is the perfect blending of spirituality, sensuality, and Classicism, all wound up in beautiful representations, and done so without apology. It was a unique period in art and one of great beauty. If you study the art and period, you get a sense of how much the artists and the consumers of such art loved beauty for the sake of beauty.

And yet they were still men. Raphael enjoyed women and, according to Vasari, who wrote a life of Raphael at the time,  is said to have died after a night of excessive sex with one of his lovers. No one knows if this is really true, but I would like to think it is.

The period has always fascinated me: the love of beauty, sex, religion, spirituality, intellectual growth and discovery, new learning created and old rediscovered, the New World still a freshly found mystery, all these things fomented to create a new society. Art such as Raphael’s reflect this quite well.