755: The Mystery of Love by Sister Wendy Beckett

by Gerard

755.62: Beckett, Sister Wendy. The Mystery of Love: Saints in Art Through the Centuries. United Kingdom: HarperCollins, 1996. ISBN 0-06-060679-7. 83 pp.

Works on painting and painters occupy the 750s. The problem, however, is that you can write about painting from many different angles. You can publish a biography of a painter, or the history of a particular painting, or the history of painting in general. What you can also do is track a particular object or theme throughout history in different paintings. When you track religious iconography or symbolism, the work is then classed in 755. And that’s where we are today.

Sister Wendy Beckett is a South African nun now living in Great Britain who hosted a series of art history specials for PBS in the 1990s. For those of you who haven’t seen her shows and are interested in religious art, I strongly urge you find some old episodes. It is both confusing and delightful to see a religious devotee talk about art with eloquence and pique. She has been writing books and shows about art history for the last 32 years.

The Mystery of Love is a quick trip through 40 pieces of art, all tied together by the theme of saints and prayer. The works are roughly in chronological order, starting with Duccio’s The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew from 1311 and ending with Jenny Franklin’s Winged Earth (1991). Each piece gets a two-page spread, with the work on right and a page-long explication and analysis on the left. Her explanations almost always come back to the subject of saintliness and prayer.

While I found the book as a whole interesting, there were a few times (especially when she talks about the more modern works) that I felt her appropriation of the work to help further her theme of prayer was a little thin. Franklin’s Winged Earth is a wonderful piece, but it’s a stretch to say it’s a work brimming with religiosity. Her need to relate everything back to God gets cumbersome sometimes. But, that said, you can definitely tell that she is a learned and deeply motivated writer with a love for the subject. If nothing else, the works will get you better acquainted with the lesser masters of the Renaissance.