The Amazing Catholic Art at Anti-Catholic Bob Jones University

The Amazing Catholic Art at Anti-Catholic Bob Jones University May 30, 2015
On the campus of Bob Jones University.  Photo by Kathy Schiffer
On the campus of Bob Jones University. Photo by Kathy Schiffer

Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Protestant university in Greenville, South Carolina, is downright unfriendly toward Catholics. Can I prove that? Well, shortly after the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978, Bob Jones, Jr., son of the founder and chancellor of the university, published an article in the school’s magazine, Faith for the Family, which begins:

“Pope Paul VI, archpriest of Satan, a deceiver and an anti-Christ, has, like Judas, gone to his own place.”

Catholic Answers tells the whole story in their tract on “Anti-Catholic Whoppers“:

It goes downhill from there. At one point, Jones attempts to raise the level of discussion, if only momentarily, by citing a diary kept by Bernard Berenson, the famous art collector and critic (who was, by the way, an Episcopalian). Here is what Jones says: 

“A pope must be an opportunist, a tyrant, a hypocrite, and a deceiver or he cannot be a pope. Bernard Berenson, in his Rumor and Reflection (a sort of notebook which he kept while hiding from the Germans in the hills above Florence during the Second World War), tells about the death of an early twentieth-century pope as described by his personal physician. When they came to give him the last rites, the pope ordered the priest and acolytes from the room, crying, ‘Get out of here. The comedy is over.’” 

You must–really, to avoid falling for such slander, you MUST read the rest of the story.

Bob Jones Jr. continued his separatist, fundamentalist policies, sharply criticizing his contemporary Billy Graham for accepting the sponsorship of Catholics and liberal Protestants for his 1957 New York crusade.

After Bob Jones Jr.’s death in 1997, the steamy anti-Catholic rhetoric was carried on by his son, Bob Jones III. In 2003, for example, Bob Jones III, the third president of BJU, referred to the Catholic Church as “a cult which calls itself Christian.” 

The university is well known for its promulgation of young-earth creationism ideology and, until recently, its segregationist policies.


So why, then, is Bob Jones University the largest repository of Catholic art outside of the Vatican?

St. Matthew, by Guido Reni, 1575-1642. From the on-line website of Bob Jones University M&G
St. Matthew, by Guido Reni, 1575-1642. From the on-line website of Bob Jones University M&G

For more than a decade, we’ve visited Greenville, South Carolina, at least once each summer to visit our son. I’ve driven down Wade Hampton Blvd. and passed the yellow brick buildings on BJU’s sprawling 206-acre campus without stopping. This year, though, I found myself with a free day while the guys were fishing, and I headed off to BJU to visit the M&G–the Museum and Gallery. This is my story.

*     *     *     *     *

The BJU campus was bustling when I arrived last Saturday:  Students and visitors criss-crossed the campus with roller bags and backpacks, heading toward one event or another. But when I walked through the door into the M&G, it was as though a calm fell upon the earth. Neatly uniformed staff welcomed visitors with a smile, and by their own demeanor, they set the rules: There would be no loud talking, no touching of the artworks, no photography, no food or drink, no strollers or umbrellas, no use of cell phones. As I toured the Museum’s hushed galleries, I found the ever-present security guards disconcerting. They casually studied the art or rushed purposefully past the doorway to the gallery where I stood, pen and pad in hand. They tried to seem busy, important; but I felt certain they were poised to tackle me, were I to pull out a pen knife or a spray can or–horrors!–a digital camera. But oh, the art!  The works are displayed in BJU’s two galleries, at the M&G on its main campus, and at Heritage Green, a satellite gallery in downtown Greenville.  While the collection’s primary focus is European Old Master paintings, it also displays nearly 200 pieces of Gothic to nineteenth century furniture, approximately 100 works of sculpture, some 60 textiles, over 1,000 ancient artifacts, and approximately 130 architectural elements that range from stained glass windows to fireplace mantels. The Old Master Painting Collection at Bob Jones traces the artistic, cultural and religious history of Western Europe from the 14th through the 19th centuries. Included are works by recognized artists such as Rubens, van Dyck, Reni, Tintoretto, Le Brun, Cranach, Ribera, and Murillo. As I entered the first gallery, I was stunned by beauty: There were other works, to be sure; but the gallery was dominated by a large painting of the Virgin Mary being crowned Queen of heaven. The work was by Antonio Checchi, who is also called Guidaccio da Imola. The painting, according to the description, is the only known work by this artist which bears his signature. The Latin inscription on the cartouche below the Virgin is translated:

“This was done by Antonius alias Guadacius Imopletus, finished in 1470 the 9th day of the month of October. Thanks be to God.”

Beautiful! That the first prominent artwork should be a celebration of the Mother of God. But then the anti-Catholic rhetoric rears its head again.  Read the notes which are posted on the wall carefully: Can you spot the error and misunderstanding of what the Catholic Church really teaches?

The painting testifies to the spiritual focus of the medieval Catholic Church. Christ was increasingly seen as an awe-inspiring supreme and universal ruler and judge of men. Fear of death and judgment increased as the Black Death (which some saw as a punishment for sin) ran rampant through Europe.  People began turning to Mary as a mediator to the mercy of Christ. As a woman and mother, she was seen as approachable, merciful, and kind. In reality, then, a lack of knowledge of the character of a loving and merciful Christ fueled the veneration of Mary. Such a lesson from history should not go unheeded–the best way to combat error is through a knowledge of the truth.

Such was my introduction to the art of the Bob Jones University galleries. The works were remarkable, but a visitor to the gallery had to be mindful that at any moment, the ugly stick of anti-Catholicism might rise up and poke you in the eye. It took more than 90 minutes to rush through the gallery–even though I skipped the special exhibit on the work of the Low Countries and the Benjamin West collection, housed in BJU’s War Memorial Chapel. I missed so much, I’ll have to return on my next trip South. But here are a few of the treasures which caught my eye.

  • Madonna and Child with St. Bernard and St. Catherine of Siena by Il Riccio
  • A triptych (icon) of The Annunciation by Tommaso del Mazzo (Master of St. Verdiana), on loan from the Getty Museum. On the right panel were St. Paul and a deacon. On the left panel, St. Jude Thaddeus and St. John the Evangelist.
  • Paintings of St. Luke and St. Christopher
  • Madonna and Child with St. Anne and angels
  • St. Sebastian
  • Madonna and Child with St. Paul and St. Augustine
  • St. Anthony of Padua (Yes!! I recognize the cell in which he is praying as that in which he lived and prayed at La Verna)

Get the picture? Everywhere I looked were masterpieces depicting Catholic saints. I paused to reflect on Stefano Cernotto’s depiction of the Last Supper. Painted between 1534-1536, it is an interesting moment in the Last Supper narrative. The work is off-center (the table is on the right side of the canvas) and it depicts, not the Breaking of the Bread, not the recognition of Judas as traitor. In Cernotto’s work, the guests are still arriving and not everyone is seated. Servants are still busy with their duties. The four Evangelists are each portrayed by Guido Reni. One painting depicts “a Bishop Saint“–but the Gallery is uncertain exactly which saint, which bishop, it portrayed. There he stood with his crosier, a crown on the floor, richly embroidered vestments, and–this is important, I’m sure–a chain and leg brace. I’m still hoping I’ll uncover a clue which will tell me who that holy bishop was. A Milanese painting attributed to Carlo Francesco Nuvoloe (1609-1662) depicted St. Joseph and the Christ Child. It was heartwarming because Joseph’s love for his adopted Son was so evident. The Wedding Feast at Cana was depicted on canvas again and again. Paolo de Majo (1703-1784) showed the feast in detail, including the tiny wine cups on the table and the marble steps, reminiscent of a Neapolitan church, leading up to the table. Another version of the wedding feast by Giovanni Domenico Piastrini in the 18th century Roman style showed guests seated at a round table, with bright colors and gold. The Dead Christ Mourned by Angels was painted by Pietro della Vecchia. Like so many others in the collection, it featured a Christ with light hair, not the deep brown my eyes are accustomed to seeing. And in Manetti’s Christ Disputing with the Elders, the young Jesus had curly red hair. I admired embroidered tapestries, their metallic threads depicting St. Francis Theses on the Church Door of Wittenberg, by English painter Eyre Crowe.  Whoa! Here I must share some of the anti-Catholic sentiment evident in the painting and its description:

In this painting he has included the likenesses of a number of these people from 16th century Wittenberg. John Tetzel the Dominican monk who promoted the sale of indulgences is on the horse on the left.  Catherine von Bora, the nun who eventually married Luther, is on the right foreground with Luther’s father, mother, and sister. To the left of Catherine von Bora, Luther’s artist friend Lucas Crandall. Luther is in the center, a position between the Catholics on the left and the Protstant commoners on the right, illustrating the choice between a religion of works versus one of grace.

More than the words, the painting itself demonstrated the anti-Catholic sentiment. Catholics were scowling, angry men in expensive silks and laces. The Protestants are painted as happy, simple people in plain, inexpensive frocks. And lastly, I saw a painting by Edward Matthew Land (1816-1877) depicting Martin Luther Discovering Justification by Faith. It’s the great “aha!” moment, as he pores through the Scriptures.

 *     *     *     *     *

When I left, I stopped to talk with the helpful staff in the gift shop. Did I have any questions? they asked. I should have just let it go, but I ventured out: “I’m Catholic,” I said, “and I notice that there are many misstatements and misunderstandings about Catholicism on your wall. Would you like to know more about that?” No response. “I see that many of your paintings depict Mary as Queen of Heaven, the Madonna and Child, and the Saints.  Should I infer that your founder, Dr. Bob Jones, had a great devotion to Mary?” You’ll notice that there are no paintings represented here. My email and repeated calls to the Museum and Gallery for permission to post have received no response. You can visit the Gallery on-line, though, here.  You’ll have to click individually on the Galleries at the right, then view selections from the art contained in each. It’s well worth your time!

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • BJU is just another reason why Greenville is a great place to be Catholic.

    • johnnysc

      “No response”

      Being Catholic in the south makes it very easy to evangelize. I get many types of responses when I answer that yes I do have a Church and it’s the One that Jesus founded. ‘No response’ isn’t one of them…

      • I wake up every day and say please Jesus put somebody in front of me today that I can talk to about being Catholic.

  • Neko

    Catholic Answers fails to cite Karl Keating, who wrote the section excerpted above in his book Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on “Romanism” by “Bible Christians” Tut tut.

    • Stephs2cents

      Is citation necessary if Karl Keating is the founder of Catholic Answers, though?

      • Neko

        Doesn’t CA have several writers on staff? So yes.

        • Stephanie

          Fair enough. I spose during one web redesign or another things got shifted around. It’s pretty recognizable as his writing, though, isn’t it? I love his patient sorting through of all aspects of any issue, no matter how seemingly big or little.

          • Neko

            I’m not familiar with his writing. Hence my confusion.

            I was curious about the Berenson story and came across Keating’s book on google books. (It’s been a long time since I’ve thought of Bernard Berenson!) Berenson kept this diary while living in fascist Italy, and his anecdote about “a pope” may be inspired by cynicism about the Vatican’s alliance with Mussolini. Hard to know without context. However, the title Rumors and Reflections is a bit of a disclaimer.

  • Nicholas Jagneaux

    Mrs. Schiffer,
    Thank you very much for this article. I was in Greenville once, and had I known about the museum, I certainly would have visited it. I look forward to an opportunity in the future.

    • kathyschiffer

      There is also an ancillary center in downtown Greenville, near the library. I still need to get to that one, too!

  • RobinHMasters

    Lots of art museums don’t allow photography. You should visit some more.

  • una.fides1

    I must add that while I attended there I was able to witness Dr Bob Jones III say, soon after John Paul II’s death, that “if the pope followed Catholic teaching, then the pope is in hell.” I was on my way to convert at that point, and shocked by the statement I looked around me to see expressions of others only to find normal blank stares and no shock or horror as I was experiencing. At that point, I was able to refute all the misunderstandings and errors in the rest of his anti-Catholic sermon one after another as he raised them. They think the usual, that Catholics worship Mary and the saints as if gods, that Catholics worship the pope, that the holy sacrifice of the Mass is some kind of idolatry, and on and on and on one misunderstanding / anti-Catholic lie after another. I converted to the Catholic Church, the pillar and foundation of truth (1 Tim 3:15), soon after graduating. It is a shame how many misunderstandings and how darkened their minds were by these false teachings. In my journey I was able to discover so many Bible verses that go overlooked, so much truth in the Bible and in history. If only they would open their minds, humbly beg God for light from heaven, there can be no doubt that he would lead them into the fullness of His truth.

  • It’s stuff like that that makes evangelical protestants repulsive to me. i don’t care they have theological differences, but for God’s sake be respectful. But they can’t, because once respect is given to Catholicism, the whole protestant justification falls apart. They have to denegrade Catholicism and the Apostolic forms of Christianity (Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) because they stand in antithesis. They have to justify their theology by ripping apart others. Plus a good portion of them have nothing but hate in their hearts.

    • Chris

      Manny, Please look over what you have written. Your comment that many Protestants have “…nothing but hate in their hearts” is judgemental; only God knows what is in each heart. Also, doesn’t your own statement that you find Evangelical Protestants “repulsive” indicate hatred in your heart? How can you find any of God’s children repulsive? And aren’t you “ripping apart others” by your ill-considered comments? Please, Manny, take your own good advice and “…be respectful”.

      • No that does not mean I have hate in my heart. I am responding to specific actions. I said “It’s stuff like that…” I said I don’t care they have theological differences. I look at what I have written and I stand by it. Hushing up does no one any good. Put it on the table and let’s discuss it.

    • Mostly the Fundies have it in for the Papists. The Evangelicals tend to notice things in common with Catholics; the Fundies, the differences. Either way I love to talk Jesus with them.

      • You know, I’m not aware of the differences between Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. I lumped them together. Perhaps I was being unfair to the Evangelicals. Can you explain the difference to me?

        • In the South they are quite separate. For example, Billy Graham is an Evangelical, and the Fundies can’t abide him. Likewise, the Southern Baptist Convention churches are Evangelical. Fundie churches do not belong to the SBC.

          • I think I’ve seen Catholic prejudice from both groups. I can’t quite make the distinction, but thanks. And to re-iterate, I’m only repulsed by those that have and exhibit prejudice toward Catholics.

          • I love running into anti-Catholics, they’re the best people to evangelize.

          • Ha! You’re probably right, but I get to flustered when insulted. Best to you. 🙂

          • Even if we speak for only a minute or two, I give them my card and say hey there’s not enough time right now to really talk, but if you want to do lunch sometime call or email me.

  • Wow, what a great peek into your visit! I’m a graduate of BJU, and, to my Fundamentalist parents’ everlasting shame, an Anglo-Catholic. On my last visit to the BJU Art Gallery last October, I prayed the rosary while walking through. That is the one place in Greenville I miss the most.