This interview originally appeared at Barnes &

Who would ever have guessed that a shy, unassuming English nun would rise to become one of the world's most respected and widely-read art commentators? Sister Wendy Beckett has exhibited a special knack for unfolding the joys of art to an ever-growing readership, even those, as she has said, "for whom this is a world closed." I spoke with Sister Wendy on topics as varied as the Catholic Church's response to her work, her relationship with her readers, and her nascent interest in Eastern art.

—Brett Leveridge


An Interview with Sister Wendy Beckett

You hold what might be considered—by some within the Catholic Church, at least—fairly radical views on sexuality, the human body, and its role in art. What has the church's response been, if any, to your art-related work?

Well, since I hold the theological view about the body—that God made it, that sexuality is a holy thing and nothing to be ashamed of—they're very pleased with what I do. I'm very glad to dispell narrow views that misread the freedom that God gives us with the liberty that selfishness takes. The Church endorses the first and despises the second, and so do I.

Have you ever encountered, from those who do hold perhaps narrower views, resistance to your work?

Yes, but it's all come from worldly sophisticates [laughs] who think that nuns, by definition, ought not to think that the body is a sacred thing. Which is alarming. All the other nuns and priests are completely with me and very grateful for God's goodness, but, as I say, worldlings don't regard this as anybody's problem but their own.

So I was very taken aback. It never occurred to me that my innocent sharing in God's pleasure in the human body would be seen as something deviant or slightly sinister. You know, this idea that the body and sexuality is nasty, that it's really rather dirty—that's not Christian. That's really a deeply immoral view, which comes from, at some level, a contempt for the body.

What kind of fan mail do you receive?

I get a lot of very beautiful and encouraging letters. I'm sure there must be hundreds of people who think I'm awful, but they don't write to me. I just get the encouraging letters.

How nice for you!

Well, this may sound very rude, but although it is encouraging, it's a burden. Because I don't want ever to seem ungrateful, and so there's postage and the writing of "Thank you so much for your letter" and I've asked HarperCollins, if they get any letters for me, please would they answer them and thank the people for writing, but say that Sister Wendy doesn't really write letters.

It is a burden, and I feel dreadful saying that. My ideal is to get letters on which people haven't put their return address. [laughs] Then I'd just get the encouragement.

Well, perhaps this interview will serve to spread the word, and people will begin to correspond with you in that fashion.

People are very touching, and I get quite a lot of letters from academics and professors of art history and artists, which always encourages me even more, you know, that there are all levels, from simple people who didn't realize that art existed to lifetime professionals. They can use what I do.

Well, it's interesting. I have friends who are artists, and they were quite excited to hear that you and I would be chatting. That surprised me just a bit—not that I expected them not to admire your work, but I sort of expected that you might be a bit off their personal radars. These are knowledgeable, informed creatives who certainly know their art history, and I might have guessed that your work would speak primarily to those with less of a background in the fine arts.

You thought that your friends didn't really need what I do. I understand; that's just how I felt. I really thought I was speaking to those for whom this is a world closed, that I was opening windows. But it makes sense, in a way, because the more you know about art, the more you can learn from even the simplest, genuine response. So it speaks a lot about your friends' truthfulness in their profession that they can take what I say and see a relevance there, even though they know, possibly, so very much more than I do.

Do you ever draw or paint?

No, I've no gifts whatever. I'm almost an astonishingly ungifted woman. I can't cook, I can't sew, I can't garden, I can't sing, and I certainly can't paint or draw. I believe that they say everyone can draw, but I've never felt the slightest desire to create. I think that's part of what I do; you know, when an artist sees another artist's work, they often can't but think how they would have tackled the theme, what they would have done. Whereas, because I have no creative gifts, I'm able to look at it without any idea of a way of handling the theme. It's perhaps an advantage to me.

My gift is to react. It's a passive gift; it's a much lesser gift than the creative gift, but that's my gift and I have to make whatever use I can of it.

I don't mean to sound obsequious, but I certainly think you make the most of your gift. And isn't that what's important in life—that each of us use whatever gift we've been given to its fullest?

I just wish I could feel I do it well. Every time I've spoken about a work of art, I end feeling...disappointed. I can never quite manage to convey the wonder. But I try and that's, as you say, really all we can do—to use what we've got.

You must also learn to take all those letters to heart. All those people who are moved to write you to tell you how much your work has meant to them—you must accept that they are telling the truth.

I think you're right. I think I tend too much to disparage what I've achieved and think "Oh, it's so infinitely less than should have been achieved." And this is wrong. It's a kind of pride in reverse, really.

It's like the beautiful woman or handsome man who somehow can't see themselves as attractive, despite the fact that they're told so every day.

They can't accept a compliment.

They may accept them with a certain outward grace, but they have to begin to believe them at some point. It's something we all struggle with, I think.

Yes, but I'm 70. I should gotten through it by now. [laughs]

Well, we all must keep learning and growing until the very end.

I will certainly have to grow till the very end. I've still a lot of growing to do.

Do you have a favorite artist?

Yes, I've been asked this question often.

I had a feeling you'd likely answered this one before!

But I run through my favorites, you know, in hopes that I'll come up with a different answer, but it always comes out as Cézanne. But then my heart sinks, because the next question is often "Why? Why is it Cézanne?" And that's a very difficult question to answer. It's just that I think he's so radiantly beautiful—not only visually but at a profound moral level. Cézanne's passion for personal truth. His response to the reality of what he saw, which is not a static reality because we're in a world that moves. The impossibility of painting something that is continually changing with the day and the artist's inner self as the day goes on. And to always aim at that—to know you won't succeed but to go on trying. That's an extraordinary attitude.

Cézanne moves me at a level that no other artist does, as well as pleasing me visually at a very high level.

Is there a universally acclaimed artist for whom you have no use?

I'll make a general remark here, Brett, and that's that I'm in this business to share my enthusiasms. So, since I think that there isn't enough pleasure in life, if somebody's getting pleasure from an artist I think is an absolute dud, I don't want to spoil their pleasure, to come trumpeting in and say "Look, this is a wretched artist!" If they like them, let them like them. I have never, as far as I possibly could, spoken about dislikes. So, having said that, I will now make a general comment and say that I find very much contemporary art distasteful, but I am quite prepared to believe that this is a lack in me. There are hundreds of contemporary artists I warm to, but they're not the big names. They're not the ones getting what you refer to as acclaim. But I don't want to go into specifics. Perhaps, though, I could give you one. This is not a contemporary artist; it's a school and they're all dead so I'm not going to hurt anybody's feelings: I don't care for the Pre-Raphaelites.

But if anybody does, you see, I applaud them on. They should take no notice of me; I've got a blind spot. Try and understand your Pre-Raphaelites even better so that you can triumph over me in your mind! Think "Poor Sister Wendy; she just can't see it!"

Is there an artist that you think might actually have done harm? Can any art do harm?

A powerful artist whose style is very impressive but is not imitable can do harm. I think Michelangelo did a lot of harm—innocently. He so impressed his time, you know; he was acknowledged by all as the greatest. But those large, muscular figures were not really up for imitation. So, however great an artist you are, if somebody's going to imitate you ignorantly, you're going to do harm.

But if you take somebody like Caravaggio, everybody who imitated him seemed to have gained by it. He was very imitable. And you can't really tell which genius is going to be one that people can pick up the ball and run with or one whose ball is so great that if you try to run with it, you just get squashed under the weight. I think Duchamp did a lot of harm. I think his insights and conceptual art were brilliant, but they were one-offs. To take that as a format makes nonsense of it.

There was little to be added to what he had done?

No, he'd done it. It was something that could be done just once. But it was so enticing and so witty, you see, that we've been living in his shadow ever since?

Is that a danger with conceptual art, in particular?

Yes. I think there's a place for conceptual art, as there's a place for newspapers as well as books. Newspapers are going to make a point or two and you'll read them and then throw them away. Books you'll keep, perhaps forever. Well, most conceptual art is making a point. When you've seen it, that's it; there's nothing to stay with.

It often seems to be very much of its time.

Yes, and gets very trite and show-offish, you know. It's often just downright silly. I'm not going to say it's not art, but it's art of a quality that I think is often not worth cherishing. And I think its predominance today is a saddening thing. It's as if we only had newspapers, and no books at all.

You've traveled extensively and seen many of the world's greatest collections—are there any key works that you have yet to see, or places you wish to see that you've not yet managed to visit?

Brett, I really don't like travel. You know, the trailer and the solitude and the silence is where I'm happiest, so that, in actual practice, no, there's nowhere I want to go.

In fantasy—if I could go somewhere without going, if you follow me—then it's the Far East that attracts me: China and Japan and Korea. But if you said to me, "That's very interesting; I know a millionaire who will take you there," I would say, well, no, thank you.

I didn't know very much about Eastern art, and I was always rather frightened of it. But doing this new book and going to these great museums, where there's so much great Eastern art, I became more and more entranced by it and thought I was getting more and more to understand it. And I think now, if I could go back 40 years, it would be Eastern art that I would specialize in.

But I've still got a few years left, and that's where I will be devoting my time. Particularly to ceramics, but also to religious sculpture.

Will you likely do a book on Eastern art?

I don't know whether I know enough to write a book, but when I meet Oriental scholars, I will suggest to them the kind of book I think needs to be written.

Even a middling guitar player has something to teach a beginner, you know. And having done so, he can then pass his student on to someone more knowledgeable. So it may be that, because it would be a Sister Wendy book and because you have a readership who trust and are intrigued by your insights, even an introductory volume would serve to open your readers' eyes to the joys of Eastern art.

That's true. I think, though, that I'll ask some Oriental scholars I know what they think of the entries in the new book; there's quite a lot in the book on Eastern art—Korean and Indian, Japanese, Chinese. And if they think that what I've written there is helpful, then it's a possibility.

On the other hand, dear Brett, I'm tired. I don't know if I've got the energy for another book. I might have, but at the moment I feel weary and I can't sort of see anything ahead of me but just happy retirement. But who knows—I might rebound.

If you were to put together a exhibition of your favorite works, what would it include?

The Velasquez Las Meninas at the Prado. When art historians were sent a questionnaire some years ago as to what they thought was the greatest picture in the world, apparently about 90% said that one—and I would agree. It really is extraordinary.

The Bellini St. Francis in Prayer at the Frick. Poussain's Rebecca at the Well. The Egyptian head of a queen at the Met—they thought it was Queen Tiy, but they're not certain now. It's just a head, almost a mask. There'd be the African king's head at the Kimball. There'd be Goya's Royal Family at the Prado. There are so many.

What one work would you choose to wake up to every morning, if given the choice?

I would choose, and I should have placed this in the other list of works I really love, Piero Della Francesco's Resurrection.

Do you think there can be truth without beauty, or beauty without truth?

I think the truth is always beautiful, but it may be a beauty that is ugly. I think there are kinds of beauty. For example, if you think of Picasso, some of his work is not beautiful nor is some of Goya's work—beautiful in the conventional sense. But it's profoundly true, and that truth makes it beautiful.

So it's always truth that the artist must seek, but the beauty of that truth may be in such an unconventional form that it strikes the beholder with fear and dismay and perhaps, at first, repulsion, rather than with attraction.

I'm interested in hearing what you think of American artists and their contributions to the world of art.

Oh, you've got a lot of great American artists.

Who is your favorite American artist?

I like Hopper very much; he's a very great artist. I always warmed to Innes, George Innes. I don't think he's a great artist, but I always love his work.

It's possible, isn't it, to rank an artist among one's personal favorites, even as you acknowledge that he or she should not be included in a list of the greats.

Yes, I think that is true. Some of my favorite artists are not among the first ten. I'll tell you a contemporary artist I really like, who I don't think has got his due recognition, and that's Robert Natkin. He's an abstract artist, and his work is profoundly beautiful. Apparently, most great museums have his work, but they've got it in storage because it's not the kind of work that is popular. But I think his day will come.