The Art of Lent: Series Launch

This series on The Art of Lent has been a year in the making. When I first came across this little book (literally – it is 14cm by 16cm) when it was newly released just before Lent began last year, I immediately wanted to publish a reflection on it in Transpositions. Due to a particularly full publishing schedule at that time of the Candlemas term, I refrained from doing a Good Friday/Holy Saturday reflection with it. One of the benefits of waiting is that we can give this little gem its full due and spend the entire Lenten season with it. Another benefit, which is also bittersweet, is this series now serves as a kind of memorial to Sister Wendy Beckett – the author/curator of this book – who died the day after Christmas just a few months ago. In addition to sending a link to this series to the publisher (SPCK), I envisioned sending it to Sr Wendy as well, via the Carmelite monastery where she lived a cloistered life of prayer on the grounds in her caravan. Sadly, I will now simply send it in her honour. We hope she would be happy to see what her work has inspired.

Sister Wendy

Many will be familiar with Sister Wendy and her book-turned-BBC-series, The Story of Painting, or perhaps her other books or television appearances. [1] She was known as an inimitable contemplative nun/author/television series narrator who brought her love of art, spirituality, history, and theology together to provide down-to-earth commentary that made art accessible to everyone.

Perhaps to best appreciate Sister Wendy is indeed to see her in action in her BBC and PBS series. Through these television broadcasts, Sister Wendy hoped ‘that everybody who watches . . . will realise what art has for them; that this is their heritage’. She wished to encourage all her viewers (especially ‘those humbler than myself’, she clarified) to ‘realise that if you look and if you think, your reaction is as good as anybody’s. There is no one way to look at paintings’. [2] 

The Guardian gave this tribute to her after her death:

‘Aside from the sheer novelty of having a nun on mainstream television . . . Sister Wendy’s success rested largely on her formidable intellect . . . and her sure-footed ability to bridge the gulf between fine art and a popular audience. Her insights into the artists she encountered on screen struck a chord with many who had previously lacked the vocabulary and the confidence to feel at home in art galleries’. [3]

The Art of Lent

Regarding The Art of Lent– what appears to be Sister Wendy’s last publication – one should not be fooled by the size of this book. Sister Wendy packs a full spiritual punch on every page with the compelling and at times unexpected paintings and associated reflections. She offers a painting a day and a brief reflection as she guides us through the Lenten season chronologically, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending with Easter Sunday. She provides broad themes for each full week of Lent—Silence, Contemplation, Peace, Joy, Confidence, Love—and more specific motifs for each day within the weekly theme.

Like her television series broadcasts, one quickly gets a sense that she can convey a great deal in very few words, and her expertise shines through in her selection of these themes, the paintings, and her reflections.

Each week in this series, a contributor will reflect on the theme and selected paintings for that week, along with Sister Wendy’s comments, and choose one or more paintings to highlight. We encourage you to do the same, along with our artists and theologians, and even to find your own copy of this book to use during this Lenten season and beyond. We believe you will find it a spiritual resource that ‘keeps on giving’. 

You might be wondering how to go about studying such art. Sister Wendy herself provides simple instruction. During a PBS interview, Sister Wendy was asked by David Wilcock, ‘If someone were to ask you how they could train now to see the art the way you do, what would you tell them?’ She replied:

‘I would tell them to 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.’ [4]

Sister Wendy leaves plenty up to us – plenty for us to do with the one or two or three works that we may choose to consider more deeply. We believe you can do the same with this little book (so do consider purchasing your own copy!). The beauty of The Art of Lent is that you can keep going back to it. . . each year in preparation for Lent, or any time you choose to connect with how a particular theme or painting inspires you.

Image Credits: All images of paintings come from Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Cf. Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting, Enhanced edition (New York: Non Basic Stock Line, 2000); John Shewbrook, Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting 01 of 10, accessed February 09, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EZ8VMLmWde8.

[2] ‘Sister Wendy’s American Collection | Meet Sister Wendy | An Interview’, accessed February 10, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sisterwendy/meet/interview.html.

[3] Peter Stanford, ‘Sister Wendy Beckett Obituary’, The Guardian, December 26, 2018, sec. Art and design, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2018/dec/26/sister-wendy-beckett-obituary.

[4] ‘Sister Wendy’s American Collection | Meet Sister Wendy | An Interview’, accessed February 10, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sisterwendy/meet/interview.html.

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