The "American Collection," which the cloistered Sister Wendy says will be her last foray into television, is not about American art but about art in America. More exactly, it is about art in six "encyclopedic" American museums: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. From each, the English nun familiar to television audiences through her phenomenally successful "Sister Wendy's Story of Painting," selects a number of works for discussion. These are her "American collection," and her tour is an amiable combination of the connoisseur's expertise and the newcomer's joy at genuine discovery.
When Sister Wendy professes herself "amazed, on my travels around the country, to discover how relatively under-appreciated LACMA is," she also shows her spiritual bona fides. The museum's South Asian collections, too little known even today, were all but unknown in the early `80s, when I edited the first full catalogues of its Indian and Tibetan art. Wandering the silent, almost empty South Asian galleries and viewing objects intended for contemplation only by the spiritually adept--was a humbling and mysteriously calming experience.
A spiritual experience? Yes, but a qualification is in order, as only Sister Wendy can. "Of all the world's great faiths, only Hinduism has completely understood the sacred nature of the human body," she says about a nude sculpture of the fertility goddess Yakshi in Boston. "If you think the Yakshi is too exposed, you have not understood that she is carved as an act of worship. It is God who made the body-and made it beautiful."
In her taste, Sister Wendy is catholic in the little-c sense of the word, but her success as a teacher is also connected with the fact that she is Catholic in the big-C sense. The art monde is intimidatingly haute, and much of the time it is dazzlingly haute couture as well. Curators--at any rate those likely to be explaining their treasures on television--are commonly fluent in several languages and casually at home in the great capitals of Europe. In person, they tend to be, in poet Edward Arlington Robinson's phrase, "clean-favored and imperially slim."
By comparison, plump, plain Sister Wendy is decidedly unintimidating. No one is likely to feel silently snubbed by her wardrobe! But on a deeper level, she conducts herself as one who regards condescension not merely as gauche, but downright sinful--a venial instance of the sin of cruelty. In our day, a debonair lightness about learning is often an accessory worn on the costume of perfect sophistication. Sister Wendy's learning is light in another way. Her most learned, most penetrating remarks are released as delicately as one might release a dove. Your eye is drawn to the dove. You forget, as she intends you should, the hand that released it.
It's not that I don't enjoy satire--and nuns are a splendid target for it. But satire shouldn't completely supplant reality. At their best, Catholic nuns' style of teaching is distinctive and quite wonderful, and that style is immediately recognizable in Sister Wendy. She is, to be sure, a superior example of the type, but it is worth recalling that there is a type. She is not a fluke, in other words, but a paradigm. Her secret, as well as her achievement, is bringing the traditional pedagogy of Catholic religious women to bear on a subject not traditionally theirs.
Part of me refuses quite to believe the announcement that this PBS series will be Sister Wendy's last. If it proves to be so, however, I've already chosen my private memento of her television career. It is the 12th-century "Cloisters Cross" from the Cloisters, the Met's branch at the northern extreme of Manhattan Island. This ivory icon is, as she points out, a cross and not a crucifix: No corpse hangs on it. Instead, it is adorned with carvings that present the meaning of the cross cheerfully, to the point of laughter. At the crown of the cross, we see a carving of Christ--from the hips down. The Savior is ascending into heaven, having risen from the dead, and he has half-disappeared into the cloud described in Acts 1:6.