Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, December 9, 2016


Sister Wendy's Odyssey:  A Journey of Artistic Discovery by Sister Wendy Beckett (1993)

Perhaps one of the most cogent art critics of the day, Sister Wendy Beckett lives the quiet contemplative life of a hermit under the protection of a Carmelite monastery in Norfolk, England -- a somewhat incongruous background for one who has gained world-wide popularity by way of a number of television shows.  Sister Wendy's Odyssey is a companion volume to a BBC series that recorded her brief emergence in 1992 to visit a few art collections in six British series.  In the book she details her impressions on 33 paintings and one sculpture she encounter on this "odyssey."  The pieces range from the Fourteenth to the Twentieth centuries and cover a variety of topics.  One of the paintings, from 1966, does not excite her, arousing her intellect, but "not my heart."And another, by Stanley Spencer ("hailed as the greatest religious artist in Britain") is not a religious painting, rather it portrays the artist looking looking at a sensuous nude, his disinterested lover who talked him into marrying her and spent just one night with him and milked him for his possessions.  Sister Wendy cuts to the core of this powerful, sad painting.

Someone unfamiliar with the author might expect strong Catholic (capital C) leanings in her essays.  They are there, of course, but the thrust of the book is a catholic (lower case c) viewpoint, emphasizing a universal humanity and dignity.  The very first painting discussed is Simone Martini's Christ Discovered in the Temple (1342) which depicts the astonishment and hurt of Mary and Joseph when Jesus left for three days without a word.  Mary is pictured on the left, clearly trying to understand the actions of her son, who is pictured on the right.  Joseph stands in the middle and we can see how how he is trying to broker peace between his wife and his child.  Sister Wendy describes Jesus as "daringly truculent" (I would have said, "pissed').  She lovingly details the intricacies of the painting and concludes, "This is such a witty picture, despite its seriousness, with the man who matters least in the story given the central position, lost in the drama, earnestly trying to reconcile what cannot be reconciled:  two different ways of looking at the world, which remain individual no matter how much they share the same principles."

I look at that picture again and I realize it is witty and there is a dimension that I have never noticed before.  This is the genius of the book.  Time after time, Sister Wendy provides a depth of understanding that heightens our experience and allows us to look at things with both a universal and intensely personal point of view.

Each of the works of art discussed is gloriously reprinted in color.  This is an absolutely beautiful, affirming book.

Highly recommended.


  1. I read a Sister Wendy book long ago and thought it was an entertaining read. She also had a PBS series. Clearly, her love of ART shown through her writings!

  2. She is an excellent host for her documentaries, beyond the surface incongruities of her calling. I've read a bit of her prose, but not yet this.