Sister Wendy Beckett became a nun at the age of 16, went on to live for nearly 20 years as a hermit, and then was introduced to the world in a successful career as the "art nun." In her television series, she offered fresh, entertaining, and often soul-stirring comments on paintings from all eras.
Beckett's enthusiasm for both art and spirituality is contagious. She is the author of more than 20 books. In this one, Beckett sets out to share her enthusiasm for eight ancient icons of Mary that she has tracked down in Rome, the Ukraine, and in a remote monastery in Sinai.
As the author points out, for the first 200 years of Christian history, there seems to have been no Christian art at all. There are actually no surviving icons of either Jesus or Mary from the first six centuries. Then for around 300 more years, icons were destroyed until they were reinstated by the Orthodox Church which took control of them and deemed them as visual keys to the mysteries of theology. As Beckett notes: "They are painted in prayer and their intention is to take us into a state of prayer."
Of the eight icons of Mary in this book, the author exudes: "They are icons of such overwhelming power and freshness, and of such beauty and holiness, that to encounter them is to encounter a numinous reality which I have found nowhere else." She takes her time with each icon and comments on the appearance of Mary and of the infant Jesus. Several of these works vividly convey the nurturing Madonna whereas others allude to her spiritual beauty and humility. In her assessment of the Virgin of Santa Francesca Romana, Beckett states:
"The sweet pallor of her complexion, with the delicacy of its flushed cheek bones, the large compelling eyes, the small bright, resolute mouth: all somehow add up to a portrait of exceptional beauty and intimacy. The Virgin seems lost in the bliss of her being. She lives in a state of tranquil joy that is unique and comes solely from her closeness to her God. This is an icon almost impossible to describe. It leaves me breathless with wonder."