By Nii B. Andrews.
The famous African born art critic and Roman Catholic nun – Sister Wendy Beckett passed on yesterday, Wednesday 26th December in England.
She was 88.
Sister Wendy achieved stardom in the 1990s for her highly acclaimed TV series where she utilized vivid, insightful and extemporaneous commentaries to explain art to a worldwide audience.
She brought the paintings of the masters alive – Picasso, Matisse, Cézanne, Leonardo, Monet etc to an audience that otherwise had no explanatory encounters with the often rarefied environs of museums and art galleries.
A fascinating diminutive figure in her own customized habit, large “coke bottle” glasses and striking facial features, Sister Wendy never shied away from using passionate and colorful language to convey her interpretation of the art pieces.
Even more fascinating was the Oxford educated nun’s renunciation of worldly comforts.
She lived as a hermit for over 50 years in a spartan trailer on the grounds of a Carmelite Monastery in East Anglia, praying seven hours daily, rarely speaking to anyone and subsisting on skim milk.
“Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting” was her magnum opus; she traveled throughout Europe, the Middle East and the US for a period of 100 days and a distance of over 30, 000 miles.
It was an encyclopedic series on art; it encompassed pre-historic art to contemporary art and was televised to great acclaim in 1996 and 1997.
Sister Wendy authored 25 books that included anthologies and meditations on the spiritual life.
She was born in Johannesburg and became a nun at 16 in the teaching order, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, in 1947.
At Oxford where she studied Literature in the 1950s, she graduated top of her class (with a first class) while still living in a convent and observing a vow of silence for four years.
In 1970, her teaching career in South Africa was truncated on account of a seizure disorder; this forced her to return to England.
On account of her religious vows, from 1945 till 1991 she never saw a movie or visited a museum but she read widely about art since it fascinated her.
It was in 1988 that her first book, “Contemporary Women Artists”, was published.
There is no doubt that her powerful intellect was the key to her success in making fine art accessible to an audience who otherwise would have remained apart from it.
In her typical humble fashion she had donated her earnings to the monastery towards her upkeep.
She explained that this was only fair as she had been forced by ill health to give up her work as a translator of medieval Latin manuscripts in the late 70s.