Even South Carolina natives are surprised to learn that their state is home to perhaps the most important collection of religious art in the Western Hemisphere, with paintings by Old Masters like Rubens, Tintoretto and Veronese. Jaws drop when they learn that some estimate the collection as being the second largest collection of sacred art in the world – second only to the Vatican.
Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery has been displaying its awe-inspiring collection for more than 50 years.
Bob Jones Jr. thought that a campus art museum dedicated to religious works would be a great addition to the Christian university. On Thanksgiving Day 1951, the collection opened to the public with an assembly of some 40 paintings in two small rooms. Today the collection consists of 425 paintings and 1,000 pieces of antiquity.
In 2008 the museum expanded to include a second facility: the Gallery on Heritage Green. The downtown gallery features a rotating display of pieces from the museum’s permanent collection, is in the heart of Greenville’s thriving downtown, and allows easier access to the museum’s collection. The purposefully bite-sized Gallery on Heritage Green is the ideal place to introduce someone to art – whether that person is a child or a grumbling husband who does not yet consider himself an “art lover.”
Downstairs, the current exhibit, The Power of the Portrait, examines the ways in which artists’ immortalize people on canvas. A diverse cast of characters is on display: political and religious figures, literary characters, actresses and everyday people.
Upstairs is a high-tech, hands-on education zone dedicated to helping you understand the paintings you’ve seen downstairs. A series of displays breaks art down into its component parts – color, line, texture, composition – in a way that deepens understanding while remaining fun and accessible.
Museum Director Erin Jones explains that the hope is that people will look at a work of art and bring their own experience and intuitive understanding to it. Then the museum steps in to help deepen the experience. “Art can be intimidating,” she says. But, with a world-class art collection and a little context, the experience of looking at art can become something interesting, even pleasurable and meaningful.
For a more in-depth look at the collection, I headed to the campus museum, which houses the bulk of its impressive collection of sacred art. The religious themes of the artwork are certainly important to the school’s educational mission, as well as to the many church groups that visit, but the museum also has a more secular artistic and historical appeal.
“The paintings are religious, but art during this time was mostly religious in subject since it was the church that had the power to commission it,” Jones points out. A tour through the paintings is not only a tour through the religion of the 14th through 19th centuries; it also is a tour through the history and culture of Western Europe.
To the average viewer, the rooms of angels and saints might become a blur without a little guidance. Luckily, the museum excels at contextualizing the paintings by coaxing visitors to “read” them. “Back then a lot of people were illiterate,” Jones says, “but they could read these paintings.” The symbolism and meaning of the paintings might have been clear to people in the 15th century but my tour group and I need a little help.
Our guide stops in front of a large painting in the first room. “Who do you think this woman is?” she asks. The tour group and I look at our shoes. It’s like we’re in fifth grade and have been asked to name the capital of North Dakota. Finally a woman in front musters her courage and asks, hopefully, “Mary?”
She’s right. Of course! The blue veil should have given her away. A medieval churchgoer would have recognized her immediately. And with a little help, we’ll quickly become pros at decoding the art as well.
Our guide goes on to point out other symbols in the painting that will repeat throughout the museum’s collection. I look around and see everyone is now eagerly scanning the work for clues that will tell them which haloed saint is hovering behind Mary.
The tour continues. As we walk the halls I realize that it is not just the extraordinary artwork on the walls that makes the museum remarkable. The galleries are filled with antique architectural elements, such as prayer stalls and paneling from centuries-old Italian churches. The use of these details creates a reverent atmosphere that allows you to get a sense as to what it what it must have been like to see these paintings in the churches they were originally created for.
Erin Jones pauses before we enter the next room and offers a warning. “This room can be a little … overwhelming.”
Overwhelming? Perhaps. But it is also magnificent. The Grand Picture Gallery pays homage to the great collectors of the past. The gallery is set up in the style of a 19th century art salon and has landscapes and portraits cramming every available inch of the walls, from floor to ceiling.
This is the room where many of the Baroque masterpieces are displayed. The Baroque artwork, most from the 17th and 18th centuries, is expressive and emotional. The painting’s drama and intensity are a perfect fit for the Grand Picture Gallery’s blood-red walls and gilded frames. Jones explains that in the 1940s and 50s, Baroque artwork had fallen out of fashion and Bob Jones Jr. was able to purchase them for a mere fraction of their value today.
With that, my day at was over. As I left through the museum’s magnificent foyer and into the Carolina sunshine I knew one thing for certain: “Greenville’s best kept secret” was not one I intended to keep.
The Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery at Heritage Green is open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students and children 12 and younger are free with an adult. Walk in tours are available on Friday and Saturday at 3 p.m. for an extra $3.
The Bob Jones University Museum and Gallery on campus is open Tuesday-Sunday from 2 to 5 p.m. The Museum on campus has additional closures over the university’s winter holidays, so check here make sure to visit for a full schedule. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for students and children 12 and younger are free. Guided tours are by reservation only. You can visit both museums on the same day for a reduced rate. The combined ticket is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $4.50 for students.