Sister Wendy's Grand Tour by Sr Wendy Beckett, BBC Books, £19.99.
IF WENDY BECKETT DID not exist even the BBC could not have invented her. She is a marvel. In a world full of cynical, jaundiced and vain critics, she is not afraid to display a rare quality: enthusiasm.
But whereas in some this might rise up in spume or run over into gush, Wendy Beckett gives us genuinely fresh perceptions which she expresses with verve and clarity.
The book of Sr Wendy's Grand Tour is even better than the TV series on which It is based.
You have time to linger over the pictures and absorb her insights.
She has visited Europe's great art collections, in Madrid, Florence, Rome, Venice, Petersburg, Berlin, Paris, Antwerp, Amsterdam and The Hague, choosing a few pictures each to view and reflect on.
Her choice is not one would obviously expect. She goes in for a good number of late Renaissance and Baroque paintings, for mythological subjects, fleshy nudes and portraits, the vast majority without any obvious religious content.
I suspect that her heart, like mine, is really in early Italian painting and that in due course she will give us another wonderful tour. But this one is very good indeed. You can look at one of the
pictures she has chosen, think about it and then read what she herself has written. What she writes shows again and again aspects of the picture that I, at any rate, had not fully appreciated and which, even rarer, makes one muse, "Yes, I think she is right it is like that."
Sometimes she illuminates a picture from psychological point of view, at other times from a spiritual or a straightforwardly human standpoint. But all the time you feel she is actually responding to what is there, rather than imposing an amdety-ridden ego. And this, I suspect, is what contemplation is about, whether in art or prayer.