Arena: Sister Wendy And The Art Of The Gospel

5:25pm Tuesday 25 December on BBC TWO

The arresting sight of Sister Wendy Beckett – all teeth and glasses – burst on to our screens in the 1990’s. An instant star, she glided around the world in her habit telling us the story of painting. But she revealed nothing of her own, extraordinary story.

Was she in fact a real nun? How did she know so much about art? And how could this consecrated virgin and hermit justify appearing on television and keep her rule of silence?

Arena goes in search of the ‘real’ Wendy, who, at 82, talks frankly and humourously about her life – and death (“not too long now, I hope!”) for the first time. The film’s director, Randall Wright, met Wendy over 20 years ago, living in a caravan in the middle of a wood, abiding by a strict timetable of nightly prayer. That meeting led to her hugely popular TV programmes, but while they told us a great deal about art they told us little about her. Now Wright revisits Sister Wendy to offer her the chance to make a film on her own terms.

Her Carmelite monastery gave Arena unprecedented access to their grounds in Quidenham, Norfolk, where Sister Wendy still follows her strict and eccentric regime: praying every night for six hours from midnight, then joining the other Sisters for mass via electric scooter. Sister Rachael is the former prioress at the monastery: “I would say if you expressed it in the old jargon, she could read souls.”

Typically, Sister Wendy set her own unusual ground rules for the programme: she would – albeit reluctantly – talk about her own life, but also wanted to share with us a carefully chosen selection of paintings by the greatest old masters – mostly in the National Gallery and Louvre – in an attempt to connect us to the big emotional insights in the Gospel stories they depict. These are the stories that are at the core of her faith and have formed her unique rebellious spirit. Yet these same stories – that were once universally familiar – and formed the moral template of Western civilisation – are now largely forgotten.

“I have noticed it in museums,” she says: “People looking at the kind of Christian stories that they would have been told in Sunday school in the past. Now they just don’t know.”

As we rediscover both the stories and the paintings, we also discover how Wendy found God, aged four, sitting under a table. How she left her parents aged 16 – without a backward glance – to become a nun. She tells us she has never experienced sexual feelings, and so felt being a nun was no real sacrifice. She reveals how her first job, as a teaching nun, led to a physical and nervous breakdown. And how living as a hermit ironically gave her the strength to face the outside world again, and encourage people towards the beauty of art.

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