Sister Wendy will always attract condescending smiles from those who can’t get used to the notion of a nun as an art museum guide, much less take her seriously. But here she is again, delivering her personal gospel of art history as she glides through the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Commissioned by the Norton Simon Art Foundation and produced by Spire Films, the tour is packed with passion, opinion and visual delight. “I chose some of the works that move me most,” she says upon entering the galleries of early Italian and Renaissance paintings. The “Branchini Madonna,” a gilded altarpiece by Sienese artist Giovanni di Paolo, is “perhaps my favorite work in the museum,” she says, but she would rather grapple with Raphael’s “Madonna and Child With Book.” “We like gritty, nitty, mud, blood, all the ordinariness of life, and he’s so perfect,” she says of Raphael. But there’s more to this “miracle of a painting” than beauty. Zeroing in on the hefty baby, she offers a pearl of Sister Wendy-esque insight: “Don’t think fat little bloke. Think young sumo wrestler.” The infant is destined to be “an all-powerful God,” and he’s “pure muscle.” Moving on to the Impressionist galleries, she speculates that Norton Simon bought more than 100 works by Edgar Degas because he was attracted by the artist’s “certainty” and “strange detachment” from his subjects. “It seems to me that there was never a less romantic artist than Degas,” she concludes. But it isn’t easy to define Simon’s artistic taste. The man who bought Degas in bulk also chose Vincent van Gogh’s “Mulberry Tree,” a vibrant painting that “explodes onto the canvas,” and Antoine Watteau’s “Reclining Nude,” in which a young woman with luminously pallid skin portrays “the defenselessness of being naked,” she says. The breadth and depth of Simon’s collection becomes even more apparent when she goes downstairs to the galleries of South Asian art. Walking through the temple-like space and perusing sculptures from a broad sweep of geography, she stops at a 13th century gilt bronze statue of the god Indra, made in Nepal. As the camera closes in, nothing escapes Sister Wendy’s gaze. A subtly incised “third eye” in the figure’s forehead signifies that he “violated a married woman,” she says. That brief morality tale is balanced by a view of marital bliss in “Vishnu and Lakshmi With Avatars,” an 11th century Hindu bronze. The divine couple is surrounded by symbols of Vishnu’s avatars, or incarnations, but as Sister Wendy points out, he has one arm around his wife and is fondling her breast. Such observations add spice to the rapturous tour, but they are also part of the message. Religious or not, art is about life in all of its manifestations. As Sister Wendy wafts through the museum and presents whimsically eccentric interpretations of this or that piece, she conveys an important idea: There’s much to be seen and learned and loved by those who take time to get to know works of art. “Sister Wendy at the Norton Simon Museum” will air Sunday at 10 p.m. on KCET.
Sister Wendy Adds Spice, Passion to Tour
TIMES STAFF WRITER