I know we are already underway in Lent, but I want to share a devotional resource that might be helpful to you in this season. The Title is The Art of Lent by Sister Wendy Beckett. If you are not a secret art history fan such as myself, her name might not be familiar to you. But Sister Wendy became famous in the 1990s after producing a series of shows on art history for the BBC.
She would ultimately be described by The New York Times as “a sometime hermit who is fast on her way to becoming the most unlikely and famous art critic in the history of television.” One interesting connection: she studied under Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkein at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, and was asked by the great scholar and author to stay beyond her examinations, which she declined. Sister Wendy Beckett passed away just a few months ago, at age 88.
As an admirer of those now-dated BBC programs, I was excited to learn about this short Lenten devotional, one, to grasp a bit more of her theology, but perhaps more to see how she would interpret the great themes of Lent through the artwork that she spent a great deal of her life studying and teaching to the world.
Sister Wendy makes an interesting choice for Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Her art choice is the iconic The Great Wave by Katushika Hokusai. Her first words are poignant: “We cannot control our life…As Hokusai shows so memorably, the great wave is in waiting for any boat. It is unpredictable, as uncontrollable now as it was at the dawn of time…”
Such a choice demonstrates two surprising aspects of the devotional: Sister Wendy does not simply draw from the Western canon of masterworks, and she interprets Lenten themes through artwork that is not distinctly Christian. Sister Wendy begins with the classic Lenten themes of Repentance, Forgiveness, Humility, and Purification. From there, however, she organizes the remaining devotions into six categories that aren’t always associated with Lent: Silence, Contemplation, Peace, Joy, Confidence, and Love.
For the Silence theme, Sister Wendy chose the Craigie Atchison painting Holy Island from Lamlash.While I’m not familiar with Atchison’s work, the painting looks as one might imagine the artist Rothko would paint a landscape. The painting is minimalist, with long horizontal lines and large rectangular sections filled with one color a la Rothko.
The effect is a placid scene, with the subject staring at the holy island. There is a boat on the water, as Wendy states, there to “take us across, if we choose to ride in it.” Choosing silence, Wendy says, “is not something we fall into casually.” The choice must be made, if we are to fully experience the riches of the Lenten season.
In the Contemplation section, Sister Wendy highlights one of Jan Vermeer’s works, The Young Woman with a Water Jug. Vermeer was fascinated with light, how it illuminated its subjects. Wendy states, “no painter ever believed more totally in light than Vermeer-and hence the profoundly contemplative nature of his art.” Sister Wendy begins the devotion by connecting our experience of silence with light: “The gate that silence opens up within us leads us to light. Light exposes with an almost merciless radiance, and, in the exposure, reveals the beauty of the real.” Perhaps a follow up question to ask here is, “Where does God want to shine a light into your life in this season of Lent?”
All in all, I found The Art of Lent to be a thoroughly enjoyable work. My major complaint, however, is how little Jesus, or really the Trinity as a whole, are featured in Sister Wendy’s work. I have to acknowledge that I know little of her intended audience, if this was meant to be a work for seekers, but seeing as it is a Lenten devotion, where the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are meant to be primary focus, it seems odd that the Trinity do not make a larger appearance.
In one devotion covering the Piet Mondrian piece Composition in Red, Yellow, and Blue, Sister Wendy defines peace as “dependent on nothing external, and hence wholly steadfast, comes from an inner balance between desire and potential.” While I agree that peace is an inward state, it’s hard to not find fault with a definition of peace that does not include the Prince of Peace, or at least a description of shalom.
At this point, I’m sure I’ve lost some of you. If I were you, and were considering this devotion for the Lenten season, I would definitely accompany it with the reading of scripture. But if you love art, and desire to draw closer to God in this season of Lent, I would encourage you to consider this little work. It will in all likelihood increase your appreciation for the good and the beautiful.
Grace and Peace,
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