Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-loved Paintings
compiled by Sr Wendy Beckett (SPCK, £25.00)
This is both the latest and the last book of the celebrated TV art critic, Sr Wendy Beckett, who died last Christmastide at the age of 88, on the feast of St Stephen.
She was not, as many seemed to think, a nun but a religious sister. By her vows she was bound to adminster to the needs of society; in her case through her work in telvsion and books she met those needs through exploring the relations of art with daily life and spirituality. She undoubtedly enlarged the lives of many people.
However, before she became a celebrity she had already lived a very full life, and it was that which in an extraordinary way fed her abilities as an art teacher.
Though born in South Africa, she was educated in England. In 1946 she became a Notre Dame nun, and after completing her noviciate she went to study at Oxford. There she came under the influence of J. R. R. Tolkien, who in fact wanted her to stay in the academic world in Britain. But she returned to South Africa, where she taught Latin and English in a Notre Dame school.
In 1970 she came to England due to health issues. She began her art studies and published her first book on contemporary female artists in 1988. By now she had changed her vocation. Having left her order by Papal permission, she became a recluse (a different thing from a hermit) and lived alone in a caravan in the grounds of a Carmelite convent.
By chance she was introduced to the BBC and the result in 1992 was a series of six programmes, Sister Wendy’s Odyssey. This was the first of 16 series over the following decades. That first book was the first of some 40 odd titles.
On television she was renowned for her delighted exposition of the naked human figure. This, in a secular society surprised many viewers, but she (well aware of what St Thomas says in the Summa), knew that it was all a matter of context. If God had created the human form she was prepared to accept as a matter of nature.
Though many of the books she wrote were of a very popular genre – which was intentional and part of her vocation to share what she knew – she also wrote many which dealt specifically with religious art. These ran from The Mystical Now: Art and the Sacred in 1993 to Sister Wendy Contemplates the Iconic Christ in 2011.
Icons were indeed a special interest, which she wrote about in Encounters with God: In Quest of the Ancient Icons of Mary.
The new book is a sort of summary or epitome of what she thought were the finest things in painted art. But it has to be emphasised that once embarked on reading her admirers have the whole realm of art, worldly and other-worldly, to explore back in her other books.
These days art criticism seems to very much the domain of younger critics, fresh from college. Some have little grasp of anything in this world or the next, bar art history in the academic mode. But Sr Wendy in her time had not only taught at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, but had been the superior of her local convent.
She is a reminder that art and religion and life are not in separate compartments, as we so often try to keep them”
This breadth of experience and engagement was what gave her her special talents, her special attraction to her audience. Also the sight of a religious sister in her full habit talking with warm enthusiasm on television was not for her a novelty, but necessity. In her time she fulfilled her vocation in many admirable ways.
She is a reminder that art and religion and life are not in separate compartments, as we so often try to keep them. For her the art was not a reflection of life, it was a part of life, for her (and through her for others) a life focused on the divine.