An ‘Art Nun’ for the People
Her eyes danced around a corner of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, settling eagerly on a panel from 16th century Florence.
“Pesellino!” she all but shouted. “I love Pesellino!” It was the kind of ebullience normally reserved for a cherished acquaintance, not a 500-year-old painting last seen in some musty art encyclopedia. From behind her heavy black habit, she shook her head gently, and her voice took on a note of disappointment. “All these wonderful Internet things, or whatever they are,” she said, “they don’t know about Pesellino. What a shame, what a shame.”
This is Sister Wendy Beckett, public television’s witty, erudite and, most of all, irrepressible “art nun.” With the debut Sept. 7 of her five-part series on the history of painting, 67-year-old Sister Wendy informs many opinions about art and to transform most views about nuns. She is outspoken and playful, and her sense of humor often borders on the devilish. On a private tour of the Gardner, she went just short of bonkers over a set of sculptures from Bavaria representing little-known saints.
“I adore obscure saints!” she declared. It took curator Hillier Goldfarb, understandably a sensitive man when the subject is art theft, a moment to realize that she was kidding as she deadpanned, “What a pity that you know how many you’ve got of them.”
Sister Wendy’s infectious passion for art became apparent with her first BBC appearance in 1991. In the new series, “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting,” her lust has not cooled. Less fervent observers might see four-legged mammals on the walls of Lascaux. Sister Wendy looks at the bison created by prehistoric cave muralists and sees “great balls of male erotic fury, ready to explode on one another at any moment.”
This is hardly the kind of exuberance one expects from a cloistered nun, a consecrated virgin who for close to 30 years has lived in seclusion on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery in the British district of East Anglia. Yet her candor about sexuality and the human body has become one of Sister Wendy’s trademarks. One can only imagine the reaction inside the Vatican when, in “Sister Wendy’s Odyssey,” she expounded on the “lovely and fluffy” pubic hair in a nude by Stanley Spencer.
Over lunch, a hearty repast of crab cakes, she confessed that “Of course I really don’t know about male erotic fury. I only know from reading.” Then her face lit into a mischievous expression. “And from imagining.”
After all, Sister Wendy argued, “the body is God’s creation, like a tree, only better designed. And God looked at his creation, and said, ‘It is good.’ ” The same, added Sister Wendy, turning whimsical again, could be said of the chardonnay, fortuitously bearing a St. Francis label.
Part self-educated art authority, part Oxford-trained literary scholar, Sister Wendy is most of all a devoted servant of God. Born in South Africa, reared in Britain, she knew from age 6 that she would become a nun. “With incredible stupidity,” she says now, she entered a teaching order at 16. She loathed teaching from the beginning. After 15 years, health concerns moved her to petition the Vatican to reside with the Carmelites. There, in the small trailer she occupies alone, she rises each day at 3 a.m. to pray. She attends a morning Mass, then spends the day in study and contemplation.
For Sister Wendy, this regimen translates to a daily diet of reading, reading, more reading--and, in recent years, furious pounding out of her book manuscripts on a decrepit manual typewriter. Art had always mattered deeply to her before she took up this pattern, Sister Wendy said.
But by borrowing art books from the local library and by gradually acquiring an impressive collection, Sister Wendy attained the body of knowledge that allows her to note the absence from the Gardner of Rembrandt’s “Storm Over Sea of Galilee,” stolen in a still-unsolved heist seven years ago, and to opine of a Rembrandt self-portrait that the thieves left behind, “I’d rather they’d taken that, lovely though it is, because there are other self-portraits, and that, of course, was his only seascape.”
Some critics, meanwhile, such as Time magazine’s Robert Hughes, love to take swipes at Sister Wendy’s lack of formal art training. Until she went on location with the BBC, they point out, Sister Wendy had spent very little time with real artworks, confined instead to textbooks and to postcards from museum gift shops.
Unkind remarks about her protruding teeth do hurt, Sister Wendy said, and she does grow tired of detractors pointing out that her Rs come out as Ws or that her hands--translucent as fine porcelain though they may be--flap awkwardly as she speaks. But more-authoritative-than-thou criticism rolls right off her headpiece.
She began writing articles and, to date, more than a dozen books about art because “I suppose I felt distressed by the way art was written about,” Sister Wendy said. “It was as if there were the ‘real elite,’ people who knew all the big words and all the schools of art, and then, those who had the privilege of listening to them, us poor old duds at the bottom. It was ridiculous.” In her books, as in her television commentary, Sister Wendy vowed “to use as little scholarship as possible, so as not to alienate people, so they wouldn’t think ‘art is not for us, not for the ordinary people. It’s only for the scholars.’ In fact, you know, art is for everyone.”
She is equally aware that a woman of the cloth scares some people off. “They think a nun might have churchy designs on them,” she said.
Little do they know that when she is talking about art, “I’m doing exactly what one is doing when one talks about God.” Sister Wendy is the opposite of a conventional preacher; she thinks of herself as someone who talks, not even someone who teaches. But “when one is talking about beauty, it is another name for God,” Sister Wendy maintains. “A painting is like a way to God. But one doesn’t have to say that. Most people are afraid of God, and one doesn’t have to frighten anybody.”
Her well-cultivated silliness melted momentarily away. “I want to talk about art,” Sister Wendy said, “knowing that anyone who has been touched by its beauty has entered the area that is real to me.”
* “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.