Fundamentalist Bible college is host to high Catholic art

GREENVILLE — When an art historian from Furman University decided to give tours of Catholic art in March, she did not have to go far for original material.

“It’s amazing that it’s in Greenville. It’s an extraordinary collection, and many people don’t even know it’s here,” said Carolyn J. Watson, Ph.D., a Furman professor and a member of St. Mary Church.

The collection is held at the Museum and Gallery of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Bible college that has not always been amenable to Catholicism. The second president of the university, Bob Jones Jr., called Catholicism “a satanic counterfeit” and the church “the Mother of Harlots.”

Even so, his father, the founder of the school, began collecting the classic art of Italy in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when prices were deflated. Baroque works make up a generous portion of the school’s 400 pieces. Much of it was created by order of the Council of Trent in 1548,  which was the impetus for the Counter-Reformation to revive Catholicism.

The irony is not lost on those who know religious history, but Watson was more interested in the art Jones and his successors preserved than in religious politics.

“As a convert myself, I don’t take offense at the discontinuity,” Watson said. “It’s great that they have it and are taking care of it.”

Indeed, the gallery is opulent and the paintings, along with the Holy Land antiquities and period furniture, are beautifully displayed. Clean-cut students in blue blazers stand in each of the dozen rooms of the gallery, watching and assisting patrons, unfailingly polite. As Watson spoke quietly of the works of art, they appeared to be listening also.

“The collection spans five centuries, from the late Medieval to the Baroque, and even some works from later. You can see how styles changed over the centuries by walking through the rooms,” she said.

Watson suggested observing how halos were depicted by artists as the style moved from purely spiritual paintings to more natural ones. Halos were an abstraction, she said, which started as what appear to be gold dinner plates behind the heads of Jesus and the saints in a fourteenth century altar piece. They evolved into ethereal hints of holiness as the eras progressed. She noted the impact of the Crusader states in Palestine and surrounding areas.

“The Crusaders were a powerful force who exported cultures to Italy, yet they are a lost world today, almost forgotten,” Watson said.

She took art lovers on a tour from the Middle Ages through the Early Italian Renaissance and the High Renaissance to the Baroque periods of artistic history. She compared the brush strokes of Florentine painters such as Botticelli to those of the Venetians such as Tintoretto; spoke of the different uses of light and contrast in the Dutch Baroque masterpiece “The Holy Family in the Carpenter’s Shop” by Gherardo delle Notti; and noted that all were full of symbolism.

Each painting is bordered in a period frame, although frame is an inadequate description of the gilded, ornate woodwork or plaster that often rises to the level of interior architecture. The art is well lit and artfully arranged in hushed, high-ceilinged quarters.

The collection is worthy of any major city museum.

“The tour was really good, a place to take the family to see fine artwork. And Dr. Watson explained it all so well,” said Nancy McGrath, who took the tour. “I think it’s strange that all this beautiful Catholic art is at a fundamentalist college, but it’s here to enjoy.”

To take an online tour of the Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery or for more information, visit