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Sister Wendy

The experiential test of whether this art is great or good, or minor or abysmal, is the effect it has on your own sense of the world and of yourself. Great art changes you. – Sister Wendy Beckett

Story of PaintingThe inspiration for this blog entry came from a discussion in the comments over at SandraC’s blog that made me want to introduce Sister Wendy to anyone who hasn't "met" her yet! “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting” is a BBC series that I watched on PBS when it was first shown in the 1990’s and then I bought the videotapes so I could watch it again and again. It's such an awesome series. Sister Wendy is one of my heroes because she talks about art from her heart and from the perspective of the bigger picture (why art is important, how art can enrich our lives). She's such a fascinating woman and a great teacher.

But what an unlikely TV personality she is! Sister Wendy lives a “contemplative life” of complete seclusion and prayer in a little trailer on the grounds of a monastery in the U.K. She became a nun at age 16, went to university and taught for a while, and then in 1970 at age 40, she went into seclusion. A contemplative life includes two hours of work a day, and Sister Wendy’s work for several decades was studying art on her own. She published a few articles and somehow was discovered by the BBC who took her on the road all over Europe (and later, America) to make these wonderful shows.

She’s an amazingly free thinker (for a nun!), a great storyteller, and she can be very funny and surprising. One thing that makes the series so powerful, I think, is the fact that she’s such an art lover and when they were filming her, she was seeing many of her favorite paintings for the first time in person, and you can tell that she’s very moved at times.

One of the things I've learned from her is how to really look at art. She doesn’t call it “Slow Art” but that’s what she means. Here’s her advice:

…go to a museum and look at no more than two or three works, perhaps even two or three taken at random. Look at them. Walk backwards and forwards between them. Go and have a cup of coffee. Come back again. Wander around the museum. Come back again. Go to the shop. Buy postcards of them. Look again, and go home. At home, look at the postcards. Borrow from the library books on these artists. Go back again.

Eventually you will find they open up like one of those Japanese paper flowers in water. You have to expend time and energy. If you don't want to do that, you can still get a lot of enlightenment and entertainment by just wandering around, but you'll never get the deep spiritual nourishment.

It’s such great advice and it’s one reason why I like to look at art in churches more than in museums - when there’s less to choose from, it’s easier to focus on one or two paintings. I try to visit my favorite paintings more than once, and I always buy the postcards so I can keep in touch with the paintings I love when I get home.

“Story of Painting” is five-hours long, divided into ten 30-minute episodes. It begins in ancient times with the paintings in the Caves of Lascaux in France and moves all the way up to modern times. You can buy or download it on Amazon, or rent it from Netflix. It’s part of a set called "Sister Wendy: The Complete Collection” which includes a few other shows she made with the BBC:

Sister Wendy’s Odyssey (she visits museums all over the U.K.)
Sister Wendy’s Grand Tour (she goes to Venice, Florence, and Rome and other places in Europe)
Sister Wendy’s Pains of Glass (the stained glass in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge)

I also have the DVDs of her series “Sister Wendy’s American Collection.” This is six episodes, one hour each, and in each one, she visits a different museum in the U.S.:

The Art Institute in Chicago
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Kimbell Art Museum (Fort Worth Texas)
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC)
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)

This series is interesting because she doesn’t just focus on paintings, she talks about Native American pottery, Oriental and Egyptian sculpture, and even a silver bowl made by Paul Revere.

She’s written a bunch of books and the companion book to “Story of Painting” is a great reference. I also like “Sister Wendy’s 1,000 Masterpieces” - a big glossy coffee table book with beautiful reproductions; in this one, she selected two paintings from each of 500 artists and writes about them. It’s fun to read and interesting to see what two paintings she chose for some of the more famous and prolific painters. She’s able to go into more depth in her books but really, I prefer the TV shows because I like to see her standing in front of the actual painting while she’s talking (and I like to hear her talk!).

All great art is a visual form of prayer. - Sister Wendy

Here’s a photo of her outside her home (she calls it a caravan). I scanned this in from one of her books.

Sister Wendy

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Comments (19)

I never heard of Sister Wendy until you mentioned it on Sandra's blog. I immediately searched Netflix and added the Grand tour DVD to my queue. I saw a preview and loved her enthusiasm and her passion for art.

Thank you for this introduction to Sister Wendy. She’s one cool nun! And she lives in a caravan, wow.


Annie, this is a great post! I love the photo of the Sister Wendy and her caravan (I didn't know nuns were allowed to live in little holiday trailers!)

I'm enjoying the DVD series immensely. To date, I've only watched the Grand Tour episodes (in preparation for my Italy trip) but I look forward to viewing the rest of the collection (this DVD set is a great investment!)

I love the quote that you've attached: "All great art is a visual form of prayer." It feels so true!

Thanks again, Annie, for turning me on to Sister Wendy. She has a lovely dry wit but also a kind of innocence and sense of wonder in her presentation that is wonderful!

Ahh! Good, I am glad you wrote about her, I haven't seen her for years.

But now you have me interested again!

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Annie, I've never heard of Sister Wendy. Now that I have netflix, I'm going to rent the Grand tour DVD too. She seems very passionate about art and her tips are interesting. And no wonder you have such a great eye for detail. I'm going to have to practice this technique and implement it on my trip to Spain. Sometimes I tend to look at the Forest and not the trees and I feel like I really miss a lot because of this.

Thanks so much.

Annie, what a great post! I also have never heard of Sister Wendy. I love her advice! I think I am that way about buildings and the intricate carvings. I will have to try this with paintings.

I wonder what the white things are in her caravan? Looks like possibly white towels or sheets? It is a big pile either way.

I think I am going to have to sign up for Netflix. I am missing too much!

Thanks everyone!

Maria, let me know what you think after you watch her. She IS a cool nun and the caravan thing cracks me up too!

Sandra, I'm so glad that you're enjoying it! You are right about her wit and also her sense of innocence. It's just funny to think about her living in silence and solitude for all those years because she speaks so well and has so much to say.

Leslie, glad to re-acquaint you with her!

Kathy, she goes to the Prado on the Grand Tour DVD, so it will be perfect to watch before your trip! I know what you mean about the forest and the trees, especially in big museums that are packed with so much stuff. Sometimes I try to take in too much at one time myself.

Girasoli, you can tell better in the photo in the book - the stuff piled in the window is paper, books etc. Maybe that's her writing corner? That place doesn't look very big, for sure! And yes, I only joined netflix this year and I've really enjoyed it - it's not that expensive and it is so convenient. I think you'd like it.

Wow what a fascinating post! I had never heard of her but now I really want to see the Story of Painting. Thanks for yet another awesome post, Annie!

Chiocciola, thanks so much. I think you'd really like her. She has such a unique perspective and it's just fun to hear her take on famous paintings like the Mona Lisa. Oh, and one thing I forgot to put in the post....you would think that a nun's favorite painter would be one of the great Italian Renaissance painters, right? Well, Sister Wendy says that her favorite artist of all time is Cezanne. Go figure!

Very cool photo of Obama!!

Girasoli, thanks! It was hanging on the wall at the fundraiser I attended. I like it too. :)

That is funny! Yes, it is almost like I'd think she'd be mandated to prefer those kinds of painters.

I like your new profile picture - but Annie, why are your ears so big? :)

Ha ha! I guess I cut my hair too short. :)

Oh so that's why! Now I see. You really pull off that almost-shaved look, I have to say.

I watched the DVD titled Sister Wendy's Grand Tour and I LOVE Sister Wendy! She’s evocative, interesting and captivating. At times she says the most amusing things, sometimes showing a mischievous side that makes her look so innocent and endearing.

Thank you for getting me acquainted with Sister Wendy. I’m looking into buying the entire series but Amazon doesn't have it. Maybe it will show up at Amazon or Costco during the holiday season.


I'd love to have this series. What profound words she speaks about art, it really does change you. I have an entirely different appreciation of Italian history and culture having fallen in love with a few pieces myself.

Kathy (Trekcapri):

Hi Annie, I wanted to tell you that I had the chance to view Sister Wendy's Grand Tour DVD this weekend. And I loved it! So much so that I'm going to wait a few more days before returning it (thank god for no late fee penalties on Netflix), so I can see it again.

Her attention and personal interpretation and just her way with words is brilliant! I now have a much more deeper understanding of what I will get to see at the Prado Museum. In fact, I feel so inspired, I want to also buy her series!

Thanks so much for writing this post and sharing Sister Wendy with us!

Hi Kathy,

Thank you so much for letting me know that you watched Sister Wendy's Grand Tour! I'm so glad that you enjoyed it. She has really helped me with art appreciation and I'm so glad that you were able to see her before your visit the Prado. I can't wait to read about your impressions of the Prado, it's supposed to be such an amazing museum.

Sister Wendy is one cool nun, isn't she? I love her!

Thanks so much and hope that you have a great week!


I adore Sister Wendy. My Grandma gave me her book of 1000 painting and I use it as a reference all the time. I have learned more from her then I have in Art class. I can't wait to watch her series. I think I'll start tonight!

Hi DeeDee, I love that 1000 Masterpieces book too. I bet you are going to love the series! Thanks for your comment.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on September 2, 2008 2:58 PM.

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