Sister Wendy Brings the Saints to Life

As the millennium approaches some of the world's greatest libraries and museums, including the Vatican Art Museum, are celebrating with an unprecedented display. Many are mounting an exhibit of their most precious illuminated manuscripts, some are on public view for the first time.

PBS will broadcast a sneak preview of this art, featuring some of the holiest men and woman in Christendom. The Saints with Sister Wendy will be seen as part of the PBS seasonal pledge drive in early December (check your local listings).

Who better to introduce these religious treasures than the world's most beloved-if not most peculiar-art critic, Sister Wendy Beckett. The great celebrity of this cloistered nun is a paradox that even she admits is bizarre.

“It's the kind of thing that only God would do,” she informed a slightly dumbfounded Bill Moyers, in a recent interview.

Sister Wendy was seen on PBS this fall with the beautifully produced, five-part series, Sister Wendy's Story of Painting. Her great popularity in England earned her the most coveted of PBS time slots, Masterpiece Theatre's Sunday evening.

It was actually six years ago, however, that she made her television debut after a BBC producer overheard her critiquing a painting at the National Gallery and brought a camera over to give her a screen test. Criticizing art on television is a deceptively difficult trick that has eluded many a fine art critic in recent years. In fact Sister Wendy has become the only successful TV art critic since Kenneth Clark's Civilization in the late 1960s.

Who would have thought that an English nun with a lisp and a severe over-bite would become such a pop star? Ironically, art was far from her mind when she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame at age 16. She was sent to Oxford to study English and graduated with an honorary first, which is given to a single student in any given department only once a year. She taught in South Africa for a number of years and became prioress of her community.

Epilepsy forced her back to England in 1970 here she was granted papal permission to live a cloistered life under the protection of the Carmelite nuns in Norfolk. She obtained a small, leaky trailer for 45 British pounds. In the damp East Anglican winter, Sister Wendy covers up for bed the best she can with three pairs of socks, a chunky sweater, and lots of head gear.

Rising at 3:00 a.m., her day consists of two hours of work and seven hours of prayer-or “basking in the blissful sunshine of God's love,” as she calls it. Her daily requirements are a pint-and-a-half of skim milk, a couple of crackers and, at lunch, exactly two potato chips. She seems to be pulling her weight though. Her BBC salary, which is given directly to her Carmelite hosts, is rumored to be well into the six digits.

In The Saints with Sister Wendy, a one-hour special, she brings her spirituality and insightful criticism together to offer a look into both the art of medieval illuminated manuscripts as well as the lives of their pious subjects.

“Often we don't know who painted them, but we know why,” she twinkles.

Sister Wendy takes us on a journey starting on the Appian Way.

“St. Peter fleeing his persecutors in Rome, encounters Christ carrying his cross.” Standing on the cobbled path, she tells us, “Peter cries out, 'Lord, where are you going? (Quo vadis?). And Jesus says 'I am going to Rome to be crucified.'”

Sister Wendy looks to Rome, and in a dramatic hush, tells us, “And Peter turned and went back.”

In one manuscript, we see the profoundly human Peter faltering on the water as Christ offers a saving hand. With her own, seemingly-detached thin hands darting against the black abyss of her habit, she tells us, “Frailty and commitment are the two qualities shared by all the saints.”

Flanked by a host of saints in St. Peter's Square, she explains, “There is nothing special about the raw material of sainthood. It's not what you are that matters, but that you offer that you, with all its flaws, to God.”

Within the arch of grand, ivy-clad letters, Sister Wendy shows us some of her favorite saints in their most critical moments, including a troubled Mary Magdalene begging Christ not to leave her, St. Paul collapsed upon his fallen horse, and the wayward St. Augustine discovering God in his studies.

“All of these rag-tag band of characters became saints,” Sister Wendy says, “because they took Christ as their center.”

Sister Wendy never shies away from the graphic details, like the roasting of St. Lawrence. With a horrific relish she quotes the martyr's great line, “I think I'm done on this side, why not turn me over.” She calls it his great “encounter with the realities of life.”

While there is perhaps less formal art criticism here, her spiritual reflections are more open and her subjects more personal. Indeed, there is an intimate, family-album feel to the special. In the case of Thomas á Beckett, that is not far of f.

“After all,” Sister Wendy tells us, “This is my cousin Tom. Cold-hearted like all us Becketts, and bossy, and a bit of a show-off, but he tried so hard to love God. And he did. So, I'm one of the lucky ones to have, if in imagination only, a saint in the family.”

Will success spoil Sister Wendy? Well, she has obtained a decadent new trailer.

“I do miss my old caravan,” she pines, “so romantic it was. But in the new one there's a small bath I can kneel in, which means I can go to sleep with warm feet!”

Stephen Hopkins is based in New York.