What Sister Wendy Beckett, the Late Nun and Popular Art Historian, Taught Me About Being a Curator

She made me want to study art history.

Article written by Carmen Hermo, January 8, 2019 – ArtNet News

(Original Caption) British nun and art critic, Sister Wendy Beckett, is enjoying great popularity in the States with her series, ‘The Story of Painting’, broadcast on HBO. (Photo by Neville Elder/Corbis via Getty Images)

As a good Catholic teenager, I immediately fell for Sister Wendy Beckett, the nun and popular BBC art expert who died on December 26, 2018, at age 88. My high school humanities teacher, Mr. Kisch—who was already blowing my mind with introductions to the likes of CaravaggioLouise Bourgeois, and Keith Haring—turned over a few classes to old tapes of the 1996 classic Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting

An expressive, effusive champion for artworks and art history, Sister Wendy enraptured me with the unabashed love that emerged from the way she spoke about art—where so many things were “wonderful” and, while admitting Classical art could frequently be dull, she smiled through her description of the “virtuous Ingres” who basically “licked his paint adoringly over every part of” his anatomically impossible subjects. 

Media outlets reporting on Sister Wendy’s passing all agree she was a star—her hugely popular television shows reached millions of viewers and she published more than 30 books on art and religion. But posthumous tributes show little consensus as to her relationship to the art world, and some avoid identifying her as an art critic or art historian entirely. For me, she was not only both, but also a consummate educator with the unapologetic judgment of a curator. To trouble over labels for her brilliance is to miss the point of what she taught us—to understand both art and ourselves, we should look, see, and learn.

A Winding Path

Born in Johannesburg in 1930, Beckett knew she would dedicate her life to God even as a child. At 16, she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, upholding their code of silence as she studied English literature at Oxford University. Sister Wendy taught in convent schools in South Africa for 15 years, until she requested an allowance for quiet and solitude, partially as a way to better live with epilepsy.

From 1971 to her death, she lived as a hermit in an unheated trailer, supported by a Carmelite order of nuns in rural Norfolk, England, praying most of every day and enjoying the company of museum postcards and exhibition catalogues. When the convent badly needed money in the 1980s, Sister Wendy began to review exhibitions for British art journals, before proposing her first book, Contemporary Women Artists (1988), and catapulting to an uneasy fame with 1992’s Sister Wendy’s Odyssey BBC television show.

My access to her TV specials was limited in those pre-DVR days, and I primarily learned to love her through her massive and lavishly illustrated compendia, a sure bet as a birthday gift for me as I settled into my art history major. Sit with one in your lap, pore over its smartly devised medley of close details, historical perspectives, and illuminating storytelling, and you’ll close it with the sated exhaustion of someone who spent a marathon day at the museum.

Sister Wendy’s vast knowledge of art and its contexts was delivered in direct but lively language, her rigorous visual analysis peppered with saucier biographical information or personal reactions. (A comparison that rings in my ears while viewing Egyptian art is her witty reduction of age on women mourners’ bodies, a “pear of a breast” showing seniority over the other “firm little apples.”)

She always used the uniting we and us to bring the TV viewer or the book reader into an engagement with the artwork at hand. For Sister Wendy—who apparently wrote all of her books within daily two-hour prayer breaks—contemplation and time are paramount, lessons well remembered in today’s hyperactive art world.

Learning From Sister Wendy

Sister Wendy’s great success, in fact, contains further inspiration for those seeking to adapt and expand the art world for new audiences. She never shied away from empathy and emotion as appropriate responses to art. Her apparent horror and sorrow for some of the most violent yet tired tropes of art history, from patricide to rape to castration, can guide us to unflinchingly face the uglier truths of art history. As a young adult transitioning away from Catholicism, her nonchalant acceptance of nudity, sex, and queer themes encouraged me to move beyond my learned hang-ups and biases—Sister Wendy rejected what she called “pandering to narrow-mindedness.”

Her utterly unique characterizations of artworks argue for an openness divested from singular or authoritative readings. For instance, her first reflections on Michelangelo’s Pietà introduce the work as a landscape, a vast mountain with a river of flesh running through it. As an interlocutor—perhaps a natural extension of her work in spiritual intercession—her absolute joy and unfettered excitement was always palpable.

Sister Wendy’s self-guided study was first limited to reproductions, experienced in her cold and cramped trailer. This, for me, explains the enthusiasm and love that is the hallmark of her cultural work. Whenever she describes a work of art—and between the BBC and a few US projects, she traveled to more than 12 countries to do just that—it is always as though she is finally beholding an old friend, checking in on its details and symbolism while fondly remembering its life and history.

Often, her discussions would end with her turning away from the viewer and back to the art, the monolith of her self-designed habit cutting a black triangle into the scene. But this ritual was not merely for the joy of looking, of a sensual appreciation of a work; those were simply the first steps of a deeper understanding. “Great art offers more than pleasure,” Sister Wendy wrote. “It offers the pain of spiritual growth, drawing us into areas of ourselves that we may not wish to encounter. It will not leave us in our mental or moral laziness.”

I often think of Sister Wendy when I give a tour or speak to the public. I hope that her legacy of joy and of pushing past expectations to share one’s knowledge will not leave us. It certainly won’t leave me. 

Carmen Hermo is associate curator at the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum.

Renewed again for 2019 the cultural collaboration between the Vatican Museums and accredited tour operators

January – December 2019

The Directorate of the Museums, following the fruitful collaboration undertaken in recent years with a significant number of accredited tour operators, has developed further scientific and cultural projects for the year 2019 with some operators in the tourism sector.

Tour operators will participate in and support the projects via two levels of collaboration: Silver Leveland Bronze Level.

The tour operators who participated in collaborative projects at Silver Level, for 2019, are: Allyn Travel LLCContext Travel LLCDestination 2 Italia s.r.l.Gate 1 Travel LtdGreen Line Tour s.p.a.Imago Artis Travel s.r.l.Livitaly Tours LLCTuscanyall.com s.r.l.Walks of Italy LLC.

Instead, the tour operators who participated in collaborative projects, again for the current year, at Bronze Level are: Gids in RomeMagic Group s.r.l.ITC Italian Travel Consultant s.r.l.Massari Travel s.r.l.Miki Travel AgencyMissing Italia S.r.l., Nafasp s.r.l.Overome s.r.l.Rome Tours s.r.l.Vivicos International Travel s.r.l.

18, 19 and 21 December the Pontifical Villas will be closed to the public

December 2018

On Tuesday 18, Wednesday 19 and Friday 21 December the Pontifical Villas of Castel Gandolfo will be exceptionally closed to the public to enable the employees to be able to accept the invitation addressed by the Holy Father to all the workers of the Holy See to participate in the Christmas celebrations.

The Directorate apologizes to visitors for any inconvenience caused, and wishes them a Holy Christmas.

An Arnolfian bas-relief in Rome

Story of a restoration

Thursday 13 December 2018 | 04.00 p.m.
Conference Hall, Vatican Museums

As the Christmas festivities approach, an Arnolfian bas-relief of the Nativity, as yet unknown to critics, and the story of its recent restoration, will be at the centre of this year’s last Thursdays in the Museums, scheduled for 13 December in the Conference Hall of the Vatican Museums.
Introduced by Guido Cornini, the meeting will retrace some of the events in the history of the rare Gothic age marble fragment, from its rediscovery in the early 1900s, in an orchard near San Giorgio in Velabo, up to its situation in the cloister of the convent of the Santi Apostolic in Rome, where it continues to be conserved by the Franciscan Friars Minor Conventual.

The speakers will discuss the identity of the Roman sculptor – most likely a follower of Arnolfo di Cambio – who depicted the Nativity, the Annunciation to the shepherds and the washing of the child Jesus, vertically on a single rectangular panel. Attention will be focused on the important restoration work carried out by the CBC cooperative, with the scientific consultation of the Vatican Museums and the generous support of the US charity Ligamina.
There will be several speakers at the presentation: Rev. Br. Agnello Stoia, OFM, Marina Righetti, Anna Maria D’Achille, Barbara Forti, Guy Devreux, Giovanna Martellotti and Graziano Curri.

Collections in dialogue

A masterpiece from the Museo Egizio in Turin recounted by the Vatican Museums

4 December 2018 – 30 June 2019
Room I, Gregorian Egyptian Museum

A new exhibition project is underway with the inaugural event of 3 December: Collections in dialogue”, organized by the Vatican Museums in tandem with the most important national and international museum institutions, with the intention of creating valuable reciprocal opportunities for dialogue, exchange, research and scientific growth. It could be none other than the Museo Egizio in Turin – which has already been in “dialogue” with the Pope’s Museums for more than four years – in the role of first authoritative partner in this new initiative, focusing on the exceptional loan of one of the key masterpieces of the Piedmontese museum: the statue of Amenhotep II.

For six months, until 30 June next year, the renowned pink granite sculpture – which has never before left the magnificent Gallery of the Kings – will welcome visitors at the entry of the Gregorian Egyptian Museum in the Vatican Museums. The handsome sovereign, portrayed kneeling in the ritual act of offering two globular vases to the deity, will be the centre of a site-specific museum arrangement, presenting to the public the founding principle of Egyptian culture: the compensation for the transience of man through legitimized royalty.

Collections in dialogue” thus celebrates the museum space itself as the ideal place for dialogue. With this presupposition, the Vatican Museums and the Museo Egizio intend to respond to the mission that every cultural institution, by its very nature, is called to perform: to tell its own story and to recount the past it represents.


Press Release

Amenhotep II – Technical Notes 

A pharaoh to arrive at the Vatican Museums 


We open late on Friday 21 – but for a special reason!

21 December 2018

On Friday 21 December the doors of the Vatican Museums will be opened at 1.30 p.m., to enable all staff to accept the Holy Father’s invitation to all employees of the Holy See to attend a special audience dedicated to them.

The Directorate would like to apologise to visitors for any resulting inconvenience, and wishes a Holy Christmas to all.

Pilgrimage of Russian Art – From Dionysius to Malevich

20 November 2018 – 16 February 2019
Braccio di Carlo Magno

An exhibition event that, after two years, once again brings two museum institutions together: the Tretyakov National Gallery in Moscow and the Vatican Museums.
Open to the public from Tuesday 20 November, and arranged in Bernini’s Braccio di Carlo Magno in Saint Peter’s Square, “Pilgrimage of Russian Art. From Dionysius to Malevich” closes the cycle that was opened by the exhibition “Roma Aeterna”, which from 2016 to 2017 hosted in the Russian gallery 42 works from the permanent collection of the Vatican Pinacoteca. If at the time it was an exceptional loan without precedent, today, in line with and continuing that successfully launched dialogue, the Muscovite gallery is responding with equal generosity by sending to the Vatican 54 works from the renowned Gallery and other Russian museums, many of which have never before left their usual locations.

The exhibition project is curated by Arkadi Ippolitov, Tatiana Udenkova and Tatiana Samoilova, with the ambitious aim of presenting the cultural and spiritual message of Russian art in the heart of the western Christian world because, as confirmed also by the director of the Vatican Museums, Barbara Jatta, “Beauty creates bridges, brings different cultures together and makes us all brothers. The successful artistic collaboration between the Vatican and Russia continues today with another exchange – a bridge, in fact – that will enable many visitors to the Vatican to appreciate great Russian painting spanning over six centuries”.
The promoters of the exhibition, aside from the Vatican Museums and the Tretyakov Gallery, are the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, with the generous support of Alisher Usmanov’s Art, Science and Sport foundation.

Press Release 

Introduction to the Exhibition Catalogue by Zelfira Tregulova, Director of the Tretyakov National Gallery

Presentation to the Exhibition Catalogue by Barbara Jatta, Director of the Vatican Museums 


Useful info

Exhibition: Pilgrimage of Russian Art. From Dionysius to Malevich
Location: Braccio di Carlo Magno, St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City
Duration: 20 November 2018 – 16 February 2019
Opening hours: Monday-Tuesday-Thursday-Friday 09.30 a.m. – 05.30 p.m. (last entry at 05.00 p.m.); Wednesday 01.30 p.m. – 05.30 p.m. (last entry at 05.00 p.m.); Saturday 10.00 a.m. – 05.00 p.m. (last entry at 05.00 p.m.). Closed: Sunday and religious holidays
Ticket: free


Thursday 6 December 2018 | 04.00 p.m.
Conference Hall, Vatican Museums

Thursdays in the Museums this 6 December is an unmissable appointment for scholars and for all the public interested in the Etruscans and their world. The focus of the meeting is indeed the presentation of “Etruscology”, the volume in English edited by Alessandro Naso for the De Gruyter publishing house and dedicated to current knowledge of Etruscan civilization: culture, history, religion, society, language and economics, without neglecting topography and relations in the Italic peninsula and in the Mediterranean. The work has the dual aim of presenting an up-to-date overview of this ancient people and of constituting an international point of reference for etruscological studies.

The speakers at the meeting will be Professor Giovanni Colonna, former ordinary professor of Etruscology at the “La Sapienza” University of Rome and member of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, and Professor Christopher J. Smith, professor of ancient history at the Scottish University of Saint Andrews and former director of the British School at Rome in the years 2009-2017.
The interventions will be introduced by the Director of the Vatican Museums, Barbara Jatta, and by Maurizio Sannibale, curator of the Department of Etrusco-Italic Antiquities. The meeting will also be attended by Alessandro Naso, editor of the volume, and Serena Pirrotta, editorial director for Studies in Classics and Philosophy of the De Gruyter publishing house.

Introduction by Alessandro Naso

Alessandro Naso – Biographical Notes 


On Saturday November 10, Italian & International Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums visited the Casa dei Cavalieri di Rodi, in Rome.
In the eleventh century various Basilian monks created a monastery in the Forum of Augustus, using the temple for worship and dedicating it to St. Basil.

On the left Sabrina Zappia, Chapter Leader of the Italian & International Patrons Chapter

In 1230 the entire building was incorporated into a property of the Knights of the Hospital Order of St. John of Jerusalem, also named “of Rhodes” and “of Malta“. In 1466, under prior Roman of the Order, Cardinal Marco Barbo, nephew of Paul II, the property underwent major renovations. It was on this occasion that the façade was built overlooking Piazza del Grillo with a large arch surmounted by a cross-shaped window and a beautiful five-arched loggia richly decorated, and from which, in the 15th century, the pontiff faced the crowd during blessing.
The building preserves the church of San Giovanni Battista, obtained from the atrium of a Roman house. The Group visited the Palatine Chapel, built between the remains of ancient Roman structures and large halls with antique wooden ceilings, precious frescoes, sculptures, paintings of various eras and furnishings.
In addition, two special rooms were opened to the Group by spercial permit: the Antiquarium of the Church of San Giovanni Battista, Patron
Saint of Knights, in the atrium of a Roman residence, and the Sala Bizantina.
At the end of the visit, Patrons visited the eight-arched loggia overlooking the Roman Forum, decorated with frescoes, that are unfortunately very deteriorated due to exposure to atmospheric agents. These depict medallions with emperors and landscapes populated by plants and animals of different species attributed to artists of the circle of Andrea Mantegna.
Sabrina Zappia & Amy Gallant Sullivan
Chapter Leaders
Italian and International Chapter
Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums