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.

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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.

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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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