My Favourite Painting: Harry Christophers

The conductor chooses an image by Botticelli which captures his imagination and inspires his music.

Harry Christophers on Botticelli’s The Cestello Annunciation

‘Much of the music I perform is from the Renaissance and the best is written in praise of the Virgin Mary. The sumptuous nature of that music is reflected in the beauty of Botticelli’s Annunciation. The serenity he conveys as Gabriel appears to Mary is so humbling. Both figures display dance-like lines, the colours are vibrant, their posture exquisitely graceful and Mary’s face is beautiful.

‘It’s also the incidentals that capture my imagination: Gabriel holding the white lily of purity and the way Botticelli draws us into the room to witness this very special “announcement”. We used the relief of the Virgin Mary for our CD cover of Monteverdi’s Vespers. Every time I perform the work, this painting is in my mind.’

Harry Christophers is the founder and conductor of The Sixteen, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

John McEwen comments on The Cestello Annunciation

This picture’s drama is conveyed, but cannot be understood unless one knows what the Annunciation is. Nothing less than the birth of Christianity, the Annunciation is when the angel announces to the unmarried and virginal Mary – in her words, a ‘handmaiden’ of ‘low estate’ from the ‘city’ of Nazareth – that she had been divinely ordained to be the mother of Jesus, son of God.

The fullest account of this truly awesome moment is in Luke 1: 26–56, the account Botticelli illustrates, as the inscription from the Gospel on the frame of his picture shows: ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee’ and Mary’s reply: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it done to me according to thy word.’

The angel’s salutation forms the first words of the Hail Mary prayer known to all Catholics: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou amongst women.’

Little wonder Mary was frightened at first: ‘And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.’

In the picture, daily life proceeds unaware of the earth-shattering event. The new influence of Netherlandish painting on Italian artists is undeniable, with the turreted schloss and green and watery northern landscape.

The importance of the Annunciation is perhaps under-acknowledged, because its feast day is March 25, which falls either in Lent or at Easter.