Her most ambitious series, “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting,” took her 30,000 miles through Europe, the Middle East and the United States, to survey works ranging from prehistoric cave paintings in France to the masterpieces of Picasso and the Pop Art of Andy Warhol. Filmed in 100 days, the series was broadcast in Britain by the BBC in 1996 and in the United States by PBS in 1997.
Viewers were astonished and delighted, especially by some of her uninhibited expressions of rapture. Of a postcoital self-portrait by Sir Stanley Spencer with Patricia Preece, Sister Wendy confessed, “I love all those glistening strands of hair, and her pubic hair is so soft and fluffy.”
It was a sensation, widely quoted. Frank Bruni, in The Times, said, “The incongruity of such passionate and often sensuous statements coming from a hunched, bespectacled, 67-year-old nun is the secret to much of Sister Wendy’s charm and success.”
Wendy Mary Beckett was born in Johannesburg on Feb. 25, 1930, to Aubrey and Dorothy (Sheehan) Beckett. Her father was a physician. She is survived by a brother, Wendell.
From an early age she intended to become a nun, and at 16 she joined the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, a teaching order, as Sister Michael of St. Peter. She became Sister Wendy after Vatican reforms relaxed formalities.
She studied literature at Oxford in the early 1950s, living in a convent and observing its strict code of silence for four years. She graduated at the top of her class. Returning to South Africa, she taught for 15 years at a Cape Town convent and later lectured at Johannesburg’s University of Witwatersrand.
After suffering three grand mal seizures and learning that she had a form of epilepsy, she received Vatican consent to give up teaching for a life of solitude. In 1970, she returned to England and moved into the trailer at the Carmelite Monastery.