My favourite painting: Sir Alistair Spalding

The artistic director of Sadler's Wells chooses a painting created 'purely to aid reflection and contemplation'.

Sir Alistair Spalding on ‘Annunciation’ by Fra Angelico

‘I first saw the Fra Angelico frescos at the convent of San Marco in Florence in the summer of 1992. Among all the other great works of art in the city, these have stayed with me the most ever since. What makes them special is the setting. Each cell contains scenes from the life of Christ enlightened, the small window large enough to let in a flow of light, but too small to be aware of the world outside.

‘What is most touching is that these weren’t painted for a general public, but purely to aid the reflection and contemplation of the monks within. My favourite is the Annunciation, where the curves of the cell roof are repeated through the frame of the fresco and onwards into the painted room beyond.

‘There is also a certain modesty in all the scenes, unlike much other religious iconography. I often think that watching dance similarly allows space for contemplation and reflection as it leaves space for us as viewers to create our own narratives and meaning.’

Sir Alistair Spalding is artistic director and co-chief executive at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London EC1.

Charlotte Mullins comments on Annunciation

Fra Angelico was a Dominican friar who spent much of the 1440s painting the walls of the Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy, with tranquil Biblical scenes. The frescos appear above doorways, in the refectory and in the 41 cells where the monks slept. They were brushed directly onto wet plaster that absorbed the colours as it dried, locking the luminous paintings into the fabric of the building.

This large fresco of the Annunciation appears at the top of a staircase. The angel Gabriel bows towards the Virgin Mary, who sits on a wooden stool in a stone loggia that opens onto an enclosed garden. Although the setting is simple, Fra Angelico doesn’t stint when it comes to Gabriel’s wings. They arch from his back in stripes of lemon, white, peach, teal and burgundy feathers. He is perfectly framed in one half of the loggia, his soft red robe pooling around his feet and draping over his bent knee. Mary looks at him in quiet surprise, her arms echoing his, as he tells her she is pregnant with the Son of God.

Each painting in the convent offered the monks a window on to a spiritual world. They were visual aids for the monks’ devotion that they could contemplate as they ate, prayed and undressed. The powerful Medici family had paid to rehouse the monks at the convent and Cosimo de’ Medici had his own cell, where he could pray and reflect on Fra Angelico’s work in private.