Brief Book Review: The Art of Holy Week and Easter

The Art of Holy Week and Easter:
Meditations on the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus
By Sister Wendy Beckett

The Art of Holy Week and Easter

Why should you read this? Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018) has an eye for artistic detail and a remarkable voice for reflecting on its meaning in the life of faith. In this lovely little book of meditations, she presents images both familiar and those less known, occasionally providing background information on artists, but mostly focusing on how aspects of each painting draw the viewer deeper into the transforming moments of the Christian story.

What will you like the most? The art is beautiful, engaging in its own right. But Sr. Wendy’s way with language is pure delight. In describing El Greco’s Christ on the Cross, we read, “His body spirals upwards like a white flame, radiating out as he spreads his arms to share the light with the defeated shadows.” Capturing Giotto’s The Lamentation of Christ, she comments that the angels are “fizzing and swooping in an acrobatic crescendo of heavenly sorrow.” Who writes like this? She paints with words.

Why is this book useful? While this slim volume promises to be a quick read, the images and powerful meditations will slow you down and invite you to reflect more deeply on the different moments of Holy Week and Easter.

What intrigued me the most? I particularly enjoyed the reflection on The Prediction of Peter’s Denial, an anonymous illumination from a Florentine Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Peter and the servant girl are depicted on either side of a fire pot, with a large rooster crowing between them in the background. I’ve never really considered the person of the young woman who accused Peter of being a disciple of Jesus, but here the image and Sr. Wendy’s commentary express her humanity in a way that adds depth to our understanding of the encounter: “The artist depicts the servant as essentially unmalicious, merely a sceptical young woman who knows a liar when she sees one.” Moreover, “it is this moment of shame, at the faint threat of a slender young woman, both charming and harmless, that finally and forever alerts Peter to the truth of his own weakness.”

What will get you thinking? The reflection on Guercino’s The Dead Christ Mourned by Two Angels brings to light a moment we don’t usually ponder during the Triduum: the instant right before Christ’s resurrection. Guercino “shows us not the dead Christ, nor the risen Christ, but Christ at a moment in between, a moment on the brink of transformation.” What a gift that Sr. Wendy selects this relatively unknown image for commentary.

Quibbles. While Beckett is a respected authority on all kinds of religious art, I get the impression that she is relatively unfamiliar with icons. She does include several in this book, including a 16th-century Christ the True Vine, which bears a strong but unnoted likeness to icons of the root of Jesse. Her commentary on Christ Before Pilate tends to center around a possible meaning of “the solidity of the architectural background.” While her spiritual point is interesting, the architectural details themselves are relatively unremarkable for iconographic usage. Less forgivable is an instance regarding a icon from the school of Dionysius of The Descent into Hell, in which she describes what should be identified as Christ’s mandorla (a whole-body halo used for particularly special moments) as a “blue globe of the world.”

Suggestions. The book includes a range of interesting images connected with Holy Week and the resurrection. Most, however, are European works from the periods of late Byzantine art, the proto-Renaissance and the Renaissance. Yet in the middle, she includes one contemporary piece from 1987, Albert Herbert’s Jesus is Stripped of His Garments. It is a profoundly moving image originally intended for the stations of the cross for a London church, though it was rejected. If I were to make recommendations for a hypothetical future version of the book, I would recommend including more modern artworks, perhaps from a wider geographical range, or else strictly focusing on works from the earlier periods.

Kudos. Overall, this little book is a beautiful invitation to go more deeply into the moments of Holy Week and Easter. The reflections are fresh and personal, and they make the art accessible. It is a devotional work, not a dry museum guide. For those tired of the same old reflections, this work sheds light on things from new angles.

Beckett, Sister Wendy. The Art of Holy Week and Easter: Meditations on the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus. Westmont, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2021. 69 pages. $17.00. ISBN: 9781514004272.

REVIEWER: Sister Jeana Visel, O.S.B.

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