For some time, my friends Jeff and Rebecca Calcutt (a pair of Southern patriots sans pareil), had urged me to pay a visit to Bob Jones University in Greenville. I have no interest in driving to Greenville, I told them. I don’t like mountains, not even little ones. I don’t like Clemson fans, with those ridiculous tiger paws plastered all over their windshields. Besides, I don’t know anyone in Greenville, so I’d be forced to hole up in some sterile, soul-sucking Comfort Inn and drink my Wild Turkey out of a plastic cup. But they insisted. They hounded me for months. You must! Why must I? Because Bob Jones, it seems, has an art museum—and not just any art museum, but one of the best collections of Old Masters in the country. I was astonished. I was skeptical. I was tempted with a brochure. According to the brochure, the Bob Jones Museum houses, among other notable works, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Salome With the Head of John the Baptist, a painting I’d always found amusing. “Besides,” said Rebecca, “you can get a Chronicles article out of the trip. Think of it, a museum at the most notoriously fundamentalist university in America crammed with mostly Catholic art! Surely, Chronicles will pay you enough to cover the cost of a night at the Comfort Inn?” “Almost,” I replied.
So, I packed a bag and left Charleston on a Saturday morning in my wheezing Ford Ranger to see John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Halfway to Orangeburg, I set fire to my road map in a failed attempt to light up a Camel. Smoke poured out of my window as I veered into a Quick-Stop, flung the burning map onto the pavement, and stamped it out. There was now a large, charred hole where Greenville used to be. This was going to be a memorable journey. Indeed, the day—in early October—was glorious: sunny, clear, and crisp. Somewhere on the roads, no doubt, there were maniacal Clemson fans, burning rubber in their frenzy to demolish Virginia Tech, but not on Highway 178, which led me all the way to Abbeville County. I made for Abbeville, the county seat, in hopes of an early bite of lunch. But everyone in Abbeville had evidently gone to the Clemson game. I stumbled upon some signs of life outside a café just off the town square, where I ordered a cheeseburger and lemonade, then seated myself at a sidewalk table. The cheeseburger was delicious. The autumn sunshine was lovely. But I couldn’t, alas, linger. I asked two elderly ladies whether either of them knew the best route to Greenville. One of the ladies, who appeared to have had one too many Botox treatments, asked, “Don’t you have a road map, young man?” So much for Southern hospitality.
Somehow, I found Greenville, birthplace of Jesse Jackson. That blemish on its reputation aside, Greenville is an attractive city in the Appalachian foothills. Known in South Carolina as the Upcountry’s cultural center, it boasts a number of fine performing-arts venues and a symphony orchestra. On the other hand, it is also home to no fewer than six Bible colleges, universities, and seminaries of the sort that (unfairly, perhaps) one would not normally associate with an avid interest in the arts. Among these is Bob Jones University, established in 1947 and dubbed by Foreign Policy as one of the “World’s 10 Most Controversial Religious Sites.” Situated on the northeastern fringe of the city, the university is surrounded by the sort of dismal, strip-mall bric-a-brac that seems to proliferate along the perimeters of American cities these days like some hideous neon kudzu. As if to ward off any influence that might emanate from the outer world, much of the 225-acre campus is encircled by high wrought-iron fencing and tall, densely packed hedge trees. The main entrance, however, affords a view of cascading fountains against the backdrop of one of the university’s most notable edifices, the Rodeheaver Auditorium. In the midst of the fountains, the remains of the founder, Bob Jones, Sr., lie interred on a small memorial island.
BJU has often been criticized for the “repressive” behavioral restrictions it imposes on students. On this October afternoon, the young men were invariably attired in dress shirts and ties; the young women, in dresses or skirts well below the knees. None of them displayed any obvious signs of cult-like conditioning, though, of course, the prohibitions against facial piercings, tattoos, and gratuitous public fondling are no doubt deeply traumatizing and will probably result in all manner of antisocial behavior in later life. Nonetheless, I was favorably impressed. One well-mannered student politely directed me toward the BJU Museum & Gallery, which proved to be a nondescript structure hidden away behind the Administration Building.
I paid the modest entrance fee and added another five dollars for the self-guided audio tour. With my usual technophobic fumbling, I brought myself into digital alignment and proceeded into the first of dozens of beautifully designed galleries. Immediately, it became apparent that my insistent friends back in Charleston had been right. Not only is the museum’s collection magnificent, but it is aggressively, gloriously Catholic! At every turn, I found myself confronted with resplendent Madonnas, with Coronations of the Virgin, with mitered bishops and gushing stigmata, with Catholic saints by the bushel, with tonsured medieval monks, with Saint Peter clutching the Keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, with painted crucifixes, chasubles, rosaries, and communion chalices. I was, to say the least, nonplussed. Here I was on the campus where papist “idolatry” has been ritually vilified for several generations, where the words Christian and fundamentalist are virtually synonymous—and what do I find? I find myself surrounded by a veritable treasure hoard of idolatrous images.
To be fair, the collection is not exclusively Catholic or, for that matter, exclusively Italian. It spans some six centuries of sacred art, from the 14th through the 19th centuries, and includes works from virtually every major European school, many of them by major Old Masters such as Peter Paul Reubens, the Cranachs, Il Tintoretto, Van Dyck, Tiepolo, Botticelli, Reni, Donatello, Titian, and David. But the heart of the collection is the Italian Baroque of the 17th century. Most of these, it must be noted, are the works of minor Old Masters, such as Baglione’s The Body of Christ Prepared for Burial, but several Baroque painters of the first rank are included as well. Guido Reni’s paintings of the four evangelists, including the powerful St. Matthew, are luminous examples of the Council of Trent’s mandate for a “populist” art that would eschew the Mannerist obscurity still dominant in the late 16th century. Although Baroque artists are known for capturing their subjects in moments of high drama (as in Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa), Reni’s St. Matthew is subtler. The evangelist is depicted in old age, pen in hand. Enrapt, he gazes down at a boyish angel, who is evidently dictating the Gospel. In keeping with the Baroque manner, the figures are realistic, yet bathed in a divine light which gently idealizes them. In the hands of a lesser artist, the scene might easily have become maudlin; Reni’s deft touch renders it breathtakingly sublime. Curiously, the museum’s web page refers to such Baroque works as “painted propaganda.”
For over three hours, I wandered though a bewildering maze of galleries, scribbling notes. My intention was to jot down the names of works I wished to learn more about later, but, I admit, I had also hoped to find evidence of fundamentalist counterpropaganda (if you will). I assumed that the BJU Museum & Gallery surely would not allow all these seductive examples of Catholic devotion to speak for themselves. Early in my tour, I found evidence that seemed to confirm my suspicions. Admiring Guidaccio’s Coronation of the Virgin, I read on the adjoining wall plaque that the painter’s iconography “typifies the spiritual focus of the medieval Catholic church.” The veneration of Mary, it seems, stemmed from “a lack of knowledge of a loving and merciful Christ . . . ” But I was both disappointed and impressed to find very few examples of such overt disapproval. I did note, however, numerous sins of omission. For the most part, the distinctively Catholic content is simply ignored. De Crayer’s St. Augustine, for instance, depicts the great saint in his role as the bishop of Hippo, in full regalia. But the adjoining plaque and my audio companion were conspicuously silent about this.
At last, stumbling upon the Protestant corner of the museum—a curiously dark corner, I might add—I stood before Lucas Cranach’s Salome With the Head of John the Baptist. Cranach painted several versions of the Salome story, a story that attracted many Renaissance and Baroque artists. In Reni’s depiction, for instance, Salome has something of the voluptuous hauteur one might expect. Looking at the Cranach Salome, I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s comment: “She is like a dead woman. One might fancy she was looking for dead things.” Certainly, there is no hint of the seductress here. Cranach’s Salome is a dwarfish ghoul, bearing the grotesque, severed head of the Baptist on her silver platter as if she were about to serve it up for Herod’s supper. I was delighted.
In the gift shop, I found a docent—by all appearances, a BJU coed—who seemed happy to chat with me. I commented on the unusual fact that one of the most impressive collections of Catholic religious art in America happened to be owned by a Protestant university. “Do any of your visitors comment on this?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” she said, laughing. “One lady recently got very angry about it. She said that someone ought to burn it all!” When I asked how she responded, she shrugged and said, “I didn’t know what to say.”
I persisted: “Haven’t you some standard reply for people who think that you are somehow promoting Catholicism?”
She admitted that she didn’t at the time but “realized that I should have, and I asked [my supervisor] about it. Now I just say that, while we may disagree on some points of doctrine, the art can also be a tool for illustrating Christian truths.” She reminded me that many of the paintings were merely “commissioned” by the Church—implying that they were Catholic in a nominal sense only. I thought this answer was a tad evasive and reminded her that the museum is nonetheless crammed with imagery that many Protestants would find scandalous. She grew wary at this point and seemed eager to drop the conversation.
Upon my return to Charleston, I read up on the history of the museum, hoping to find a more satisfying answer to my questions. In a Foreword to Richard P. Townsend’s Botticelli to Tiepolo: Three Centuries of Italian Painting From Bob Jones University (1994), the man responsible for assembling the collection, Bob Jones, Jr., writes,
Some have expressed surprise that an institution strong in its emphasis on the Scriptures and Protestant in orientation would have on the walls of its museum . . . paintings from the Roman Catholic tradition, depicting extra-biblical scenes, saints and their legends.
Masterfully understated, wouldn’t you say? “Western Christian imagery stems from this [Catholic] tradition,” he argues, “making the inclusion of these paintings reasonable.” To which “imagery” does Jones refer? Does he, or his institution, recognize images of eucharistic sacrifice, say, as “Christian”? Reportedly, Jones himself once claimed that Roman Catholicism was “not another Christian denomination, [but] a satanic counterfeit, an ecclesiastic tyranny over the souls of men.” His son, Bob Jones III, in a sermon preached on October 6, 2005, referred to the recently deceased John Paul II as “someone calling himself Christian but refusing to abide in the doctrine of Christ.” He lambastes the likes of Billy Graham for his ecumenical confidence that John Paul was a holy man who had surely gone on to his eternal reward. Jones III is not so sure: “If he believed in the dogma of the Church of Rome . . . I have no qualms about saying that the Pope is in hell today.” No, if we are looking for some consistency between the word and the deed, there is nothing “reasonable” about the BJU collection.
The above-quoted sermon notwithstanding, BJU has cleaned up its act in recent years. I searched in vain for any overt evidence of anti-Catholic sentiment on the university’s website. Its once controversial “President’s Corner” (where Catholicism and Mormonism were once described as “cults”) seems to have vanished. Though Bob Jones III is still the chairman of the board of trustees, Stephen B. Jones, the fourth in the dynastic line, is now BJU’s president. According to a recent story in the Greenville News, he has expressed some dissatisfaction with the term “fundamentalist,” and his father has stirred up a hornet’s nest by endorsing Mormon Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination. Could it be that BJU, that ever-so-reliable bastion of Protestant separatism, is headed down the well-traveled road of accommodation? Time will tell. In the meanwhile, the BJU art collection must remain something of an enigma.
The Holy Spirit does indeed work in mysterious ways.