Sr Wendy on the art of Christmas, Mary and the Saints

Sr Wendy Beckett

Art opens doors that argument, logic, preaching and speculation cannot: Sr Wendy Beckett, an art critic who lives the life of a hermit, has three new books on Christian art out for Christmas.

Sister Wendy on the Art of Christmas, Sister Wendy on the Art of Mary and Sister Wendy on the Art of Saints (Franciscan Media).

- Review by Michael Swan for The Catholic Register

The first thing the Bible tells us about being human is that humans are an image: 'Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness." We are a picture of God made by God.'

Nothing has been more important or more argued over in the history of Christianity than pictures. Iconoclasts went about smashing images in the eighth and ninth centuries. Protestants stripped their churches of imagery as they sought an identity separate from Rome. The Council of Trent spent as much time arguing about art as it did figuring out the seven sacraments. Nothing has been so hard to take for contemporary Christians as the ways in which modern artists have reinterpreted Christian imagery.

When Christians start to think about how to be human in relationship with God they quickly run into the limitations of philosophy and abstract theology. In the end, we are people of the book who know ourselves by knowing our story — by looking at who we have become and how we became.

Art, in other words, opens doors that argument, logic, preaching and speculation cannot.

Sr Wendy Beckett, the British hermit and consecrated virgin who enjoyed a season of stardom in the 1990s explaining art history on the BBC, has made it her life’s work to teach Christians how to read a painting. Without some knowledge of our heritage of painting, sculpture and architecture we Christians are orphans, cut off from our heritage.

Whatever else Beckett may have to say about art and artists, underneath it all she’s teaching us how to be aware of what we see.

'Looking closely and letting the work reveal itself to us is a paradigm of all looking. How are we to seek God if we do not look?' Beckett asks in the introduction to three new books about Christian art. 'Once we have learned the deep joy of looking at art — which can also be an alarming challenge, when we see things in ourselves that we would rather not see — we are emboldened in our looking at the life in which we are embedded.'

These three thin, attractive, soft cover books, out in time for Christmas, are Sister Wendy on the Art of Christmas, Sister Wendy on the Art of Mary and Sister Wendy on the Art of Saints, from Franciscan Media. All three books consist of 14 important, well-known works of Christian art accompanied by a short essay.

The essays are very pleasantly deceptive. Beckett isn’t really all that interested in the biographies of painters, or the various cultural, social and economic influences that contributed to different periods of art history. She cares about the content of paintings. She chooses paintings with something to say about Christ, or Christian life, or faith, hope and charity.

'It is not enough to know our religion intellectually, to be able to write articles or even books about it,' she writes in her discussion of Benvenuto Tisi Garofalo’s 16th century painting of St Catherine of Alexandria. 'What matters is to live it.'

FULL REVIEW: Christian art opens door to our heritage (The Catholic Register)


Letters, art appreciation show Sr Wendy's surrender to God's love (Catholic News Service/The Catholic Herald)

LISTEN: Sister Wendy Beckett Interview - Desert Island Discs BBC Radio 4 (YouTube)

WATCH: Sister Wendy Beckett on the true icons of Christmas (BBC)

Buy the books: (Garrat Publishing) 

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