Wendy Beckett (born 25 February 1930), better known as Sister Wendy, is a British nun, hermit, consecrated virgin, and art historian who became well known internationally during the 1990s when she presented a series of documentaries for the BBC on the history of art. Her programmes, such as Sister Wendy's Odyssey and Sister Wendy's Grand Tour, often drew a 25 percent share of the British viewing audience. In 1997, Sister Wendy made her U.S. debut on public television and that same year The New York Times described her as "a sometime hermit who is fast on her way to becoming the most unlikely and famous art critic in the history of television." As of 2016, segments of these shows are still being aired on some PBS channels in the U.S.
Beckett was born in South Africa, and raised in Edinburgh, Scotland, where her father was studying medicine. In 1946, she entered the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a Roman Catholic congregation of Religious Sisters dedicated to education. She was sent to England where she completed her novitiate and then studied at St Anne's College, Oxford where she was awarded a congratulatory first class honours degree in English Literature.
Outside her academic work, she lived in a convent which maintained the strict code of silence typical in convents prior to the reforms following the Second Vatican Council (1962–65). After attending the Notre Dame College of Education (Liverpool) and earning a teaching diploma in 1954, she returned to South Africa to teach at Notre Dame Convent, a school for girls in Constantia, Cape Town, where she taught English and Latin. Later she moved to Johannesburg where she was appointed the superior of the local convent, while she also lectured at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Return to England
In 1970, health problems forced Beckett to abandon teaching and to return to England. She obtained papal permission to leave her congregation and to become a consecrated virgin and hermit. She began living in a caravan (towed trailer) on the grounds of a Carmelite monastery at Quidenham, Norfolk, and her caravan was later replaced by a mobile home. Besides receiving the Carmelite prioress and a nun who brings her provisions, she dedicates her life solely to solitude and prayer, but allotting two hours of work per day to earn her living.
Interest in art
Sister Wendy spent many years translating Medieval Latin scripts before deciding, in 1980, to pursue art. Her first book, Contemporary Women Artists, was published in 1988. Sister Wendy Contemplates Saint Paul in Art was published in 2008 to celebrate the Year of Saint Paul. In May 2009, Encounters with God: In Quest of the Ancient Icons of Mary was published, which follows Beckett's pilgrimage to see the earliest icons of Mary which had survived the Byzantine Iconoclasm. Beckett continued writing about her interest in icons in the second volume of her Sister Wendy Contemplates series, published in July 2011. This book, entitled The Iconic Jesus, takes the reader through scenes from the New Testament, accompanied by Sister Wendy's reflections. Her next book, published in 2011, The Christ Journey, consists of her commentaries on the artwork of Greg Tricker.
When Beckett required medical treatment as an outpatient at a local hospital, the television chef Delia Smith, a Roman Catholic convert, volunteered, through a mutual friend, to drive her there each week. Smith also drove her around the country to meet the artists when Beckett was writing her book about contemporary women artists. Through this the two became good friends.
Having overheard her commentary while attending an art exhibit, a film crew asked to videotape her. This brought her to the attention of a BBC producer and led, in 1992, to the debut Sister Wendy’s Odyssey.
In 2007 Beckett was asked, "You've spoken out about gay marriage. How do you balance what you believe with what you have sworn to uphold?" She replied:
I believe in loyalty. We should respect our church, but never believe that the church has the last word. The church is saying 'this', but I believe that sooner or later 'this' will change. 'This' is not the mind of our Lord. God is all love. It's a delicate balancing thing. The Church has changed its position over the years, and because the spirit is with the Church, in the end the Church will always get it right. But in the end. The spirit of the Church is the meaning of love, which hasn't yet, perhaps, been fully understood."
Television and media work
Beckett has narrated the following documentaries:
- Sister Wendy's Odyssey (1992)
- Sister Wendy's Grand Tour (1994)
- Sister Wendy's Pains of Glass (1995)
- Sister Wendy's Story of Painting (1996)
- Saints with Sister Wendy (1997)
- Sister Wendy's American Collection (2001)
- Sister Wendy at the Norton Simon Museum (2002)
and also an audio commentary for tourists to the Sistine Chapel:
- Sister Wendy's Sistine Chapel Artineraries Tour (2006)
Additionally she features in the following:
- Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers (1997)
- Three appearances on Charlie Rose (3 October 1997; 18 November 1997; 19 September 2000) are available on DVD.
- The Art of Dying (2009) (Dan Cruickshank interviewed Sister Wendy on the helpfulness of art in the face of death)
- Churches: How to Read Them (2010) (Richard Taylor and Sister Wendy discussed the intense medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary and its effect on Reformation)
- Treasures of Heaven (2011) (Andrew Graham-Dixon talked to Sister Wendy about relics and reliquaries)
- Desert Island Discs (December 2012)
- Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel (25 December 2012)
A musical, Postcards from God: The Sister Wendy Musical, was written by Marcus Reeves and Beccy Smith and performed at the Jermyn Street Theatre in the West End in 2007 and Hackney Empire Studio Theatre in 2008.
- The Christ Journey – the art of Greg Tricker
- Sister Wendy Contemplates the Iconic Jesus
- Encounters With God: In Quest of Ancient Icons of Mary
- Sister Wendy Contemplates Saint Paul in Art
- Bernard of Clairvaux: Sermons for Advent And the Christmas Season
- with John Leinenweber (Editor), Irene Edmonds (Translator), Wendy Mary Beckett (Translator), Conrad Greenia (Translator)
- Sister Wendy on Prayer
- Sister Wendy's Meditations on the Mysteries of Our Faith
- Speaking to the Heart: 100 Favorite Poems
- Sky-blue Is the Sapphire Crimson the Rose: Stillpoint of Desire in John of Forde by John, abbot of Forde, translated by Wendy Beckett
- Joy Lasts: On the Spiritual in Art
- Sister Wendy's Impressionist Masterpieces
- Sister Wendy's American Masterpieces
- Sister Wendy's American Collection
- In the Midst of Chaos, Peace (with Mary J. Dorcy and Dan Paulos)
- Sister Wendy's Book of Muses (with Justin Pumfrey)
- Sister Wendy's 1,000 Masterpieces (with Patricia Wright)
- My Favourite Things: 75 Works of Art from Around the World
- Sister Wendy's Nativity
- Inner Life: A Fellow Traveler's Guide to Prayer (by David Torkington; foreword by Sister Wendy)
- Sister Wendy's Odyssey: A Journey of Artistic Discovery
- Sister Wendy's Book of Meditations
- Sister Wendy's Book of Saints
- The Mystery of Love: Saints in Art Through the Ages
- Sister Wendy's Story of Christmas: Adventures in Art
- Sister Wendy in Conversation with Bill Moyers: The Complete Conversation (edited by Karen Johnson)
- The Wisdom of the Apostles (compiled by Philip Law; introduction by Sister Wendy)
- The Duke and the Peasant: Life in the Middle Ages (with Jean De Berry)
- Max Beckmann and the Self
- Sister Wendy's Grand Tour: Discovering Europe's Great Art
- Pains of Glass: The Story of the Passion from King's College Chapel, Cambridge (with George Pattison)
- Sister Wendy's Meditations: Meditations on Joy
- Sister Wendy's Meditations: Meditations on Love
- Sister Wendy's Meditations: Meditations on Peace
- Sister Wendy's Meditations: Meditations on Silence
- A Child's Book of Prayer in Art
- The Story of Painting
- The Gaze of Love: Meditations on Art and Spiritual Transformation
- The Mystical Now: Art and the Sacred
- NY Times
- Wintle, Angela (21 December 2010). "World of Sister Wendy Beckett, nun and art historian". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 26 May 2014.
- Goodwin, George M. (1998). "A New Jewish Elite: Curators, Directors, and Benefactors of American Art Museums". Modern Judaism. 18 (1): 47–79. JSTOR 1396532.
- Sella, Marshall (1997-01-26). "'You Have a Cold Heart, Degas!'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
- Bruni, Frank (1997-09-30). "Sister Wendy, Cloistered". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
- John Walsh Interview, The Independent 22 June 1996; retrieved 28 March 2013
- Interview with Clive Anderson, BBC Radio 2, 28 January 2007
- "Sister Wendy Beckett | British nun and art critic". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2016-03-05.
- Wendy Beckett (2011) The Christ journey: Sister Wendy Beckett reflects on the art of Greg Tricker, St Paul's Publishing, ISBN 978-0-8543-9822-5
- Brown, Mick (16 February 2008). "Delia Smith on How to Cheat at Cooking". The Daily Telegraph. London.
- Verena von Pfetten's interview with Sister Wendy Beckett, 2007, Huffington Post]
- The Art of Dying at BBC Programmes
- Churches: How to Read Them – episode 4 – Reformation: Chaos and Creation at BBC Programmes
- Treasures of Heaven at BBC Programmes
- Desert Island Discs – Sister Wendy Beckett at BBC Programmes
- Arena – Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel at BBC Programmes
- "Arena – Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel" on IMDb
- "Sister Wendy and the Art of the Gospel". CTVC. Retrieved 18 September 2016.
- Shenton, Mark (11 January 2007). "Reviews: Postcards from God". The Stage. Retrieved 25 June 2007.
- Harvey, Doug (19 June 2002). "Nun Dare Call It Criticism". LA Weekly.
- Riding, Alan (1 September 1997). "She May Not Get Out Much, but She Does Know a Lot About Art" – via www.nytimes.com.
- Sella, Marshall (18 September 1997). "'You Have a Cold Heart, Degas!'" – via www.nytimes.com.
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