I’ve been thinking about art this week because I’ve been reading a wonderful book on the final letters of the late “art nun” Sister Wendy Beckett.
She burst on to our screens decades ago as the straight-talking Catholic nun who knew as much about Monet’s water lilies as she did about the inner workings of a religion 2,000 years in the making.
Dearest Sister Wendy, the letters of the last few years of her life with publisher Robert Ellsberg, is a revealing insight into the public figure who graced the screens of the BBC and PBS in the US, but who declined on many occasions to write about her own life.
I first came to hear about her when I was a child, in the 1990s, when her series, Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting, was on TV. RTÉ must have shown the series because I did not grow up with BBC channels. It was a wise purchase by the national broadcaster because it took us from the cave paintings of Lascaux right up to the present day.
She never wrote any notes and only ever did a single take. She spent time in silent contemplation before she did each piece to the camera.
I revisited that series over the last few weeks as some kind soul has uploaded it to YouTube. What permeates the show is Sister Wendy’s expert knowledge, but also her love of humanity and human stories.
Rather than be some prudish character as we might have expected, we find she is a wise and open person. She has a nature that understands all the problems that go with being human – the greed, the joy, the lust and the ecstasy.
All of these are there in the paintings she covered in her story of art, and her insights have reminded me of the great trips I have taken to see art around the world, from the Guggenheim to the Tate.
As her letters in the book go on, we begin to learn she has a terminal illness of the lungs. She embraces death much as she did with all the great art she saw in her life – with grace.
One of her lines struck me deeply: “We who live in the will of God can only greet each day with joy.”
That is a sentiment that is hard to live by. To greet each day with joy when of course the world can be far from joyful.
Imagine seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time or marvelling at the Sistine Chapel
Sister Wendy died in 2018, but her work lives on and we are the richer for it. Who would have thought a hermit living in a caravan on the grounds of a convent could start a great love affair for us all with the world of the image?
Art has been a great companion through my years of living globally, even though I do not see as much now because I live in a rural environment. Still, my house has become filled with pictures and objects of art. I find artists to be the bravest of people because they offer only themselves and their view of the world. Sometimes those images are insightful, at other times sad and breathtaking.
This week as I rambled about the house with a new baby in tow, I thought of all the art this child of mine has yet to see. Imagine seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time or marvelling at the Sistine Chapel. Of course, many of these events take a lifetime to complete, but I relish the prospect that this little person will get to see all this art and I will get to witness them seeing it.
Maybe my next trip should be to the National Gallery of Ireland to see the works of Caravaggio or Jack B Yeats.
We are part of the story of art, too, and have contributed so much throughout the centuries. Taking time to look at a painting or sculpture shouldn’t be a taxing effort. It should lift and free us. Sister Wendy taught me that.