My Favourite Painting: Cecilia McDowall

Composer Cecilia McDowall chooses a 15th century masterpiece by Fra Angelico.

Cecilia McDowall on Annunciation by Fra Angelico

‘When I saw this exquisite altarpiece at the Prado Museum, shortly after it had been restored, I was so captivated by the freshly revealed detail and vivid colours that I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The intensity of the colours mesmerised me — just look at the blue!

‘Expensive, “beyond the sea” (ultramarine comes from the Latin ultramarinus, literally “beyond the sea”), symbolising both holiness and humility. Adam and Eve, to the left, look distinctly uncomfortable at being thrown out of the Garden of Eden; in contrast, the gracious Gabriel and Mary gently lean towards one another.’

Cecilia McDowall is a composer. On October 11, her latest piece will be performed by The Sixteen as part of A Garland for the Queen: a Tribute to the Life and Reign of Elizabeth II, at the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, Tower of London, EC3. Those not able to get there in person can catch the live stream here.

Charlotte Mullins on Fra Angelico

Fra Angelico, born Guido di Piero, initially trained in manuscript illumination in Florence, Italy. Before this work was commissioned, he had entered the Dominican monastery in nearby Fiesole, where he became Fra (friar) Giovanni. Art was a form of devotion and he became its high priest, running the most prestigious workshop in Florence by the 1430s. After his death, he was known as Fra Angelico, the Angelic Friar, on account of his artistry.

This Annunciation dates to about 1426 and was painted for the altar at the monastery where he lived, worked and prayed. It captures the moment when the Angel Gabriel appears before Mary, God’s will symbolised by the tiny dove (the Holy Spirit) riding a golden sunbeam to illuminate her Immaculate Conception.

It is a sumptuous painting that owes as much to Fra Angelico’s training in the International Gothic style as it does to the growing naturalism of the Renaissance (as seen in Fra Angelico’s attempt at architectural perspective). On the left, a carpet of flowers leads to the fallen Adam and Eve, who are being expelled from the Garden of Eden. What a contrast between their plain garments and those of Gabriel and Mary!

Recommended videos for you

In the portico on the right, Gabriel has descended on golden wings to deliver the news. Golden halos encircle the protagonists’ heads and a rich curtain hangs behind Mary. The Virgin sits under a vaulted ceiling painted in expensive ultramarine, the same colour as her cloak; no expense has been spared in this jewel of a painting.