If Sir Kenneth Clark captured the nascent medium of television to awaken viewers to art in the late 1960s, Sister Wendy Beckett used images to direct people to God. While the aristocratic ladies’ man Clark would appear to have nothing in common with the simple, cloistered Sister Wendy, the two catapulted art out of the salons of the elite and into everyday homes through their shared deep, personal, and infectious love of art.
Sister Wendy, however, went a step further, using her stardom to unite art and faith and bear witness to the joy of religious life to millions of viewers.
Born in South Africa and raised in Scotland, Sister Wendy answered the call to religious life at age 16, when she entered the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur. Her education continued and she so excelled at her Oxford studies that J.R.R. Tolkien asked her to remain at the university. She chose to stay her religious course and spent the next 15 years teaching Latin and English to school girls in Cape Town.
Illness brought her back to England with a special dispensation to live alone in a trailer on Carmelite property, even though she did not belong to that order. Her days were devoted to contemplation and prayer, but in the few hours she had for other activities, she started looking at art. The rest is history.
That Sister Wendy was destined to be an unconventional instrument of art history was clear from the start. Her first book, “Contemporary Women Artists,” analyzed the work of 52 women, including early Cindy Sherman, unflinchingly looking at visual creativity in the post-Christian age.
Unlike art students of today with study-abroad programs and high resolution digital photographs, Sister Wendy studied painting through postcards and old books with pre-restored photographs, a far cry from the bright bold images of the contemporary works that first caught her eye.
But despite seeing Rubens, Turner, Raphael, and Bernini through a glass darkly, as it were, she developed a love for them that would change her life.
The BBC had established itself as the world leader in cultural programming, including the coup of exploiting the first color televisions to produce Kenneth Clark’s “Civilization” series on art.
BBC producer Nicholas Rossiter had read the artistic commentary of the little nun swathed in a black habit, and intrigued by the freshness of the eyes that had never seen the world, realized what the next generation of great arts television could look like.
His idea was to take Sister Wendy to British museums and film her looking at images she had studied but never seen in person, “and then capture her experiencing them for the first time.” Viewers would share in her wonder as the cloistered sister was immersed in the big, sensuous world of art.
This might even sound like a Monty Python prank, to put a consecrated virgin in front of images of sexuality and desire and then watch the ensuing awkwardness, but Sister Wendy did something that I doubt even Rossiter expected: She spoke about the paintings with an easy familiarity as if they were old friends or at times naughty schoolchildren.
She addressed her viewers with affection, knowledge, and undaunted candor — and the audience was hooked.
The real focus of Sister Wendy’s life was God, and her work was an apostolate, yet her genius lay in her unconventional method of evangelization. In every episode, she overturned the stereotypes of the modern world toward religion and consecrated life.
Her first series, “Sister Wendy’s Odyssey,” produced in 1992, traveled through Britain’s greatest art collections. At first, she described secular works, often walking past a religious piece to pause at a mythological love story.
She spoke frankly and sympathetically about the often-chaotic personal lives of the artists, from Fra Filippo Lippi’s illicit relationship with a nun to Stanley Spencer’s rather irregular pair of marriages.
She claimed to prefer El Greco’s secular works to his sacred art, saying that he makes one feel “pressured towards admiration and I get a little restless.”
Once she had earned the trust of a secular following, Sister Wendy went to work. The common denominator in virtually every episode was love — a love story, a love of painting, a love of nature, self-love, unrequited love — transmitted to canvas, fresco, or panel.
She gazed at David Hockney’s portrait of his young male lover rising nude from a pool and explained that the artist had discovered that “art only works if it only comes from love” — and Hockney loved “water just gently moving, sunlight pouring over a simplicity of a Californian landscape and a beautiful young man.”
She often did not love the artwork, but she judged art for what it was, not by a standard that she expected it to be.
As her fame grew, so did her spiritual analyses. Her discussion of Titian’s “Entombment,” where she spoke of the fear of death and the need for prayer, is a moving mélange of art history, personal anecdote, and theology.
Gradually her stories grew from secular passions to reveal the deep transformative love of God that had shaped and changed her own life. The Renaissance delighted viewers with the amorous stories of Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” but used them as a foil for Christ’s true love for humanity.
Sister Wendy brought about a new renaissance in Christological humanism: She met her viewers where they were and unashamedly spoke of the passions that drove them, but at the same time she offered a glimpse of pure, lasting, all-consuming love.
Her 1997 interview with Bill Moyers, where she spoke of prayer and her desire to be with God, painted a picture of religious life that was as beautiful as any of the masterpieces she had presented on film.
“One of the ways for me of looking at God is by looking at art,” Sister Wendy said at the beginning of each episode, and one might think that she in turn helped others to see God in all his beauty.
Sister Wendy was tireless, producing seven documentaries, some 30 books, and several feature-length interviews before she died on Dec. 26, 2018, at age 88.
She spoke of beauty, nature, saints, medieval life, prayer, muses, and joy. She loved the art of antiquity but gave a Jackson Pollock work the same respectful contemplation — nothing was beneath her notice and careful consideration regardless of whether or not she enjoyed the piece.
Sister Wendy was a truly Catholic art historian, looking at a universe of artistic expressions but always with the eyes of faith, hope, and especially charity.
She leaves behind her own legacy of loveliness and grace: a beautiful life.
Elizabeth Lev is an American-born art historian, teacher, and author who lives and works in Rome.
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