Joy Lasts

Book Review by Willard Manus

Sister Wendy, whose filmed talks about the art she contemplates in museums around the world have made her famous, has issued a slender but insightful book, JOY LASTS--ON THE SPIRITUAL IN ART (Getty Publications).

"The terms religious and spiritual are often used indistinguishably," Sister Wendy notes. "But they have very different meanings. The confusion arises from the possibility that a work may be spiritual but not religious, or else religious but not spiritual: the higher honor is always accorded to spiritual, and to it all works of art aspire. It is what we have in mind when we call a work of art great: it is what makes the encounter with such a work a life-enhancing moment. To be religious, though, a work of art must depict religious images. If the artist is not particularly gifted, he (or she) may paint a scene of very well-intentioned religious significance--a Crucifixion, say, or a Madonna--but what he shows us on the canvas sits there, dull and inert. if we find religious inspiration in it, it will come from our own faith, not the artist's vision. The work has merely acted as a springboard. We have used it, but not entered into it, as we are drawn to do with a spiritual work of art."

Sister Wendy proceeds to deal with specific paintings and give reasons why she finds one spiritual, another merely religious. She loves Cezanne--especially his "Still Life With Apples"--because of "his beauty and integrity, his passion for truth, his sense of wonder," but a painting by Fra Bartolommeo ("The Rest On the Flight Into Egypt With Saint John the Baptist") leaves her cold.

Other color illustrations include El Greco's "Christ on the Cross," Masaccio's "Saint Andrew," Pier Francesco Mola's "The Vision of Saint Bruno" and Jean-Francis Millet's "Man With a Hoe." El Greco's work moves her the most deeply, she admits, thanks to the way he depicts the dying Jesus "as already triumphant over death." Joy lasts and grief passes: "That is what I see in Christ on the Cross."