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Sister Wendy Beckett is one of the United Kingdom’s foremost art experts. She is a member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and recognized by the Catholic Church as a consecrated virgin in addition to being a nun. Sister Wendy gained popularity in the 1990s and early 21st century with her series of books and public television shows on art and art history.
Born in South Africa in 1930, Wendy Beckett was raised in Scotland and began her training as a nun in England at the age of 16. She studied at the all-women’s college at Oxford University, and was awarded their highest degree, called a congratulatory first, in English Literature. While in the convent and away from her studies, the young nun maintained a strict vow of silence and lived a largely ascetic lifestyle.
After receiving her teaching degree in 1954, Sister Wendy worked as a lecturer in South Africa for many years. Upon returning to England in 1970, she began a hermetic and contemplative life. Most of her time was spent in contemplation and prayer, but she allowed herself a few hours a day to work on the translation of medieval manuscripts and study her growing passion for art history and art.
Sister Wendy came to the public eye in 1991, when she was featured in a short film about England’s National Gallery. With her gentle lisp and insightful lectures, she quickly gained a following among television viewers. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) quickly ordered several television series to feature the “art nun” as she traveled through Great Britain and much of the world, discussing important works of art.
Between 1996 and 2001, Sister Wendy made 11 television programs discussing art, history, and even her own life. These shows gained popularity throughout Britain and Europe, and eventually gained a large American following after being broadcast on public television. The television shows covered all manner of art subjects, from historically significant stained glass, to her final program on American artwork.
The art nun also has written a variety of books, covering many subjects. While some, including her most famous publication Sister Wendy’s 1000 Masterpieces, deal with her art expertise, she also has written extensively on religion, meditation and prayer. Her written work now consists of more than 25 books, as well as extensive contributions to art magazines.
Since ending her media career in 2001, the nun has returned to life of solitude and meditation. She is considered by many to be a model of intelligence, dedication and kindness. In 2007, a musical loosely based on her life called Postcards from God premiered in London with her blessings. Despite her refusal to return to the media world Sister Wendy’s extraordinary ability to explain the history and detail of art in a simply and accessible way has left a powerful legacy in the art world.
I used to love watching Sister Wendy on TV and have often wondered what happened to her. She was very informative on art and opened up a whole new world to me. Thank you for this article.