The nun who came out of isolation to have a second career that endeared her to millions

Image: AP Photo/Victoria Arocho
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Even in the midst of frenzied TV production, Sister Wendy Beckett was able to gather herself in what one of her collaborators once described as utter stillness.

Becket was a famous television personality, yes, but first and foremost, she was a devoted nun. As her co-author David Willcock put it in his introduction to her book about prayer: “Beyond [the] glowing pool of activity, Sister Wendy sits hunched on a low-slung bench. Although she is seated in a direct line of sight to the painting or a sculpture, she is utterly still. Her eyes are shut tight. It is as though she is creating a personal mini-hermitage within the echoing vaults of the gallery as she concentrates, motionless, until everything is ready for her to step into the light and deliver her piece to camera.”

It was moments like these that helped Beckett navigate between a life of complete isolation and religious devotion and her second career as a beloved TV art critic and historian. Described by the New York Times (subscription) as “one of the most improbable art critics in television history,” Beckett died this week in England at age 88.

Born in South Africa in 1930, Beckett spent her childhood in Scotland and studied literature at Oxford. Until the age of 61, barring 15 years spent teaching back in South Africa, she lived a secluded life in a trailer on the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery in East Anglia. She loved art, and wrote her first book on the topic, called Contemporary Women Artists, in 1988. Three years later, she was persuaded to make an appearance in a BBC documentary about Britain’s National Gallery. “Give that nun a series,” was the response from the BBC after the show was televised.

Within a few years, she had made three television series and published 15 books. The series saw her travel through Britain, Europe, the Middle East, and Europe to comment on a range of works. She donated her earnings to her order.

“Aside from the sheer novelty of having a nun on mainstream television…Sister Wendy’s success rested largely on her formidable intellect,” Peter Stanford wrote in an obituary in the Guardian, “and her sure-footed ability to bridge the gulf between fine art and a popular audience.”

Perhaps one of the most delightful things about Beckett was her ability to talk about the human body without shame or embarrassment. Speaking about one portrait, she made a comment that would go on to be viral for its time: “I love all those glistening strands of hair, and her pubic hair is so soft and fluffy.” In describing the Sistine Chapel, she remarked: “Adam’s sprawled there in his naked male glory, but he’s not alive,” she told viewers in 1996. “All he can do is lift up a flaccid finger, and out of the clouds whirls down the God of Power.”

“She defends her orthodoxy to the hilt,” Willcock explains. “If God created the body, there is no part of it which is dirty, sinful, or unclean. It is only human attitudes and human minds that make it so.”

While her two careers might seem, to some, to be quite far apart, Beckett’s intense spirituality is what united them, writes Willcock. ”It perhaps shows that one cannot define any vocation with a brand; lives are lived as a whole, not within the confines of any one job description.”