Sister Wendy Beckett, the art historian, writer and hermit, made a rare personal appearance at St Paul's Bookshop in London last week for the launch of two new books: 'The Iconic Jesus' published by St Paul's and the 'Art of Saints' (Redemptorist Press).
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor and Archbishop Vincent Nichols were among the guests who came to meet her. A small frail-looking figure at 80, Sr Wendy has a disarming luminous smile, and a cheerful manner. On entering the bookshop she put her hands up and said: "This is all going to my head. I am bowled over by books and icons."
She later sat and chatted with guests who queued up to ask her to sign copies of her books. Archbishop Nichols commented that she was a 'hot property' with two publishers holding a launch for her at the same time.
'The Art of Saints' is the fourth book in the series, taken from articles first published in Redemptorist Publications Sunday Bulletin. The earlier ones in the series are: 'The Art of Faith', 'The Art of Christmas' and 'The Art of Mary'. "The nice thing about doing it that way is that people had already liked what I had done," she said.
Sr Wendy said art was a fundamental part of being human: "Jesus told us that He had come so that we might have life and live it to the full. That 'full' includes responding to the wonders of our world, experiencing them to as to be wholly alive. Friendship, the natural world, music, books, film, the list is very long. High on it, it seems to me, comes art," she said.
And at times, art is prayer she said, speaking of the icon painters who fasted and prayed before they painted. "The icon painters share in God's creative gift. It's a language that we have to learn to understand the pictures"
Her favourite picture in 'The Iconic Jesus' is the 6th century Christ Pantocrator."There has never been a more powerful image of the beauty and holiness of Our Lord" she writes. "We are held by the searching look in His eyes and comforted by the grace of His countenance and of His blessing."
Sr Wendy said she has recently begun a new book on Chinese art. "They look at landscapes as a form of prayer," she said. "In my book I'm not using very spiritual language. I don't want to put people off especially if there are Buddhist or Hindu."
"When we were making the BBC Arena programme I said 'the Gospel images are not just stories, but I can't be preaching'. I told them 'if I start preaching - edit it out'."
In her book The Art of Saints, Sr Wendy said her favourite image was that of the young St Therese of Lisieux. "Of all the saints I feel St Therese teaches us what it is to love."
During a short address Sr Wendy encouraged people to visit an exhibition by modern artist Greg Tricher which begins at Westminster Cathedral on 26 September.
Sr Wendy became a nun at 16. She gained the highest honours at Oxford and taught in South Africa for 20 years before she realised she wanted to live a fully contemplative life. She spends more than seven hours each night in solitary prayer. After living for 35 years as a hermit in the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham, Norfolk, she became world famous overnight in 1992 with her first series of BBC programmes on art. She has made several more since. Learned, insightful and funny - she has reached an audience of millions, many of whom would never have watched a programme on religion. While she says in her commentary she avoided any words that demanded a particular faith, she writes: "since most world art is in fact religious, this has never been completely possible."
ICN will be reviewing 'The Iconic Jesus' published by St Paul's and 'The Art of Saints', Redemptorist Press within the next few days.
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