The American South is full of obscure oddities, unexpected eccentricities and disconcerting delights. Here the farmhouse of an eccentric peacock loving novelist, there the country home of a homespun poet. Here a church of hootin’ and hollerin’ snake handlers, there a gothic cathedral in a genteel Southern city. Who knows what you will find as you roam the Christ-haunted south? One of the most remarkable finds in the midst of BBQ joints, Baptist churches and ante-bellum mansions is the existence of the finest private collection of sacred art in North America. It is situated in Greenville, South Carolina on the campus of the fortress of fundamentalism—Bob Jones University.
If BJU is famous for being the “buckle on the Bible Belt” then the museum and gallery is the jewel in the buckle. I was first introduced to the art gallery as an undergraduate student at Bob Jones in the 1970s. Coming from high school in Pennsylvania I thought the art gallery would be perhaps a small and preachy collection of kitsch Evangelical art: pictures of the rapture taking place, memorabilia of the Jones family or stilted illustrations of Bible stories. I was wrong. The Bob Jones gallery houses an astounding array of old master paintings, icons, antiques, sculpture and Biblical antiquities.
What makes the collection even more unexpected is its founder. Born in 1911, Bob Jones Jr. was the son of an itinerant Methodist evangelist who preached to huge crowds throughout the teens and twenties of the last century. In 1927 he founded Bob Jones College in the face of the liberal advance in denominational schools, and twenty years later the school moved from Tennessee to Greenville, South Carolina and became Bob Jones University. By that time Bob Jones Jr. had taken over the presidency of the school and a year later, at the advice of a friend, he began to collect paintings.
Bob Jones Jr. was a remarkable character. Despite being a home schooled son of a backwoods preacher, he achieved fame as a Shakespearean actor, founded a classical theater group at the school, established a cinema school (at a time when most fundamentalist Christians thought it was sinful to go to movies). He bought the backstage fittings from a Broadway theater and shipped them to the campus where he built a first rate theater. He developed an excellent fine arts department boasting performances of two Shakespeare plays a year and grand opera. He was a poet, hymnodist, novelist, film actor, and hot gospel, anti-Catholic controversialist. He was also smart enough to start shopping for artistic masterpieces in post-war Europe when the prices were rock bottom.
Because Baroque art was unpopular in the 1950s, “Dr Bob” got started with twenty-five paintings including works by Botticelli, Botticini, Ghirlandaio, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Ribera. By 1954 his collection had grown to 40 paintings, then within ten years the owned 211 old masters, and by 1991 the Bob Jones Gallery had over four hundred works on permanent display including works by Rubens, Dore, Rembrandt, Murillo and van Honthorst. They added seven large Benjamin West paintings and also began acquiring valuable antiques, vestments and a glittering collection of Russian icons.
On entering the Bob Jones gallery one is entranced by the austere beauty of altarpieces from the early Sienese school, then as one progresses through the galleries the history of European sacred art opens up through the late medieval Flemish and Italian masters through the Renaissance and Baroque to the nineteenth century. The paintings in the Bob Jones collection are arranged chronologically and by geographical regions in galleries that are lavishly decorated and professionally lit. The artwork is displayed with salvaged architectural features, complementary wall hangings, tapestries, sculpture, church fittings and period furniture.
The visitor to Bob Jones University campus who knows only of the school’s unfortunate reputation will be bemused and bewildered. “How is it that a school once known for being racist, rabidly fundamentalist and virulently anti-Catholic could have acquired such an outstanding collection of Catholic art?” The questions continue: “What do the fundamentalist students make of the art collection? How do the anti-Catholic supporters of Bob Jones University feel about the overtly Catholic artwork?
The answers remain with the eccentric and unique flair of Bob Jones Jr. who died in 1997. On the event of the museum’s opening in 1951 he explained to the students, “Bob Jones University believes that nothing is too good for God, and here on these walls we see great talent employed in His service. We want you to enjoy these pictures as well as be blessed by them. Come back again and again to look at the pictures. After you have formed a general acquaintance with them all, concentrate on them one by one. Your appreciation and understanding of art will grow, your life will be enriched, and your culture increased as great masters, long gone to dust, speak to you of their faith and their dreams—reveal to you something of their own personalities. You will realize more and more how universal is the message of the Word of God in its appeal to human hearts in every generation.”
In spite of his irascible personality, his eccentric talents and narrow minded religion, Bob Jones Jr. was a man of shrewd foresight, artistic talent and faultless taste. A true connoisseur, he not only collected paintings, but took an avid interest in their history, preservation, restoration and exhibition.
When you’re passing through America’s Bible Belt, take time to stop and pay a visit to this jewel on its buckle.
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