Literature

Book Review: Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-loved Paintings

Alexandra Kiely 9 November 2019 min Read

Late last year, the art world mourned the death of Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018), the quirky British nun who became a world-wide sensation as a television art commentator. Little did we know that the good sister had one last treat in store for us. SPCK recently published Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-loved Paintings, a book she was working on just before her death.

One can be walking around a museum and be stopped dead in one’s tracks with a shock of joy.

Beckett, Wendy. Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-loved Paintings. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2019. p. 86.

Sister Wendy's 100 Best-loved Paintings
Photo courtesy of Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

As the title implies, the book includes Sister Wendy’s commentary on one hundred paintings, dating from the 6th century CE through 1988. All are from the western world, but there is a nice variety of genres and styles, from Byzantine icons and medieval manuscript illustrations through avant-garde nudes and abstract paintings. (Sister Wendy was neither prudish nor discriminatory when it came to art.) Lesser-known painters appear alongside household names, and the selection includes several female artists. There are some nice surprises, since not all of the paintings are well known.

Art is our legacy, our means of sharing in the spiritual greatness of other men and women […] Art represents a continuum of human experience across all parts of the world and all periods of history.

Beckett, Wendy. Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-loved Paintings. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2019. p. XVI (“Introduction”).

Sister Wendy's 100 Best-loved Paintings spread 210-211
Inside the book. Photo courtesy of Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

As always, Sister Wendy’s commentary is engaging and enjoyable. She had a unique gift for humanizing art and making it accessible to everyone. I particularly appreciate her excellent treatment of the abstract paintings towards the end of the book. She was skilled at putting into words all sorts of visual details. Her interpretations of the artwork reveal her to have been a sharp and perceptive lady. She was very knowledgeable about her subject matter and surprisingly insightful about human nature despite her secluded lifestyle. She brought each of these one hundred paintings to life in a way that few other art writers could have.

A work of art is great to the extent that to encounter it is to be changed.

Beckett, Wendy. Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-loved Paintings. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2019. p. 200.

Sister Wendy’s 100 Best-loved Paintings is a delightful book and a perfect swan song for this much-loved icon. It is available through SPCK’s website, as well as major retailers like Amazon. Many thanks to SPCK for sending me a copy to review.

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