When I first planned to visit the Bob Jones’ Museum & Gallery (BJUMG.org) in Greenville, S.C., with a friend, I only had a vague notion of what to expect. I had heard it was a wonderful collection of Catholic art: I modestly imagined a handful of medieval monstrances and icons and perhaps an altarpiece or two.
I made sure we had several options for our trip, just in case the museum didn’t deliver. Greenville is a marvelous city only a couple of hours from Charlotte, N.C., in one direction and Atlanta in the other. The city has European influences due to the various corporations that are headquartered here, so there is plenty to see, from the state-of-the-art suspension bridge over the Reedy River to the gelato shops lining Main Street.
After attending Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s Catholic Church and eating a hearty Southern brunch of shrimp and grits, we set out. The gallery is on the campus of Bob Jones University, a small, conservative nondenominational Christian college. We parked our car in the visitor parking lot, unsure where the museum was, and began wandering across a grassy lawn. "Maybe it’s in there," I said, pointing to a nondescript building.
Inside, our eyes adjusting from the bright Carolina sunshine, we found ourselves in a soaring great room, standing on a rich, red carpet and surrounded by paintings, furniture and sculptures. Immediately, our minds and hearts recognized this was a special place.
A smiling student greeted us and, in a subdued tone, briefly explained the museum’s rules for visitors (no photography allowed and no touching of the art). We purchased our tickets ($5 for adults) and the optional audio tour.
Looking at the museum map, I was immediately impressed by the sheer scale of it. There are 30 galleries, each featuring art from a different period.
The first gallery we entered was the Italian Gothic gallery. Detailed altarpieces and triptychs depicting the Blessed Virgin Mary and saints filled the room.
We moved slowly from one piece to the next, quietly and reverently gazing at the brilliant colors and sacred images. I was awestruck, and so was my friend. "Didn’t we pass a Burger King on our way here?" he half-jokingly asked. "I feel like I have to pinch myself to remind myself I’m not in Europe!"
Perhaps because of the museum’s limited hours (Tuesday through Sunday, 2-5pm) and the fact it’s a well-kept secret, there usually aren’t large crowds. That particular Sunday, my friend and I were the only visitors in the galleries for most of the afternoon. As a result, our visit felt like a contemplative pilgrimage through Christian art history. The hushed tones of the staff and the inspirational music playing softly in the background help create an atmosphere conducive to quiet contemplation of the magnificent works of sacred art.
This was at least part of the founder’s original intent. Bob Jones Jr., founder of the museum and grandson of Bob Jones Sr., who founded the university, began collecting sacred artwork in 1948, with the desire to complement the fine arts and religion schools. At the time, museums and collectors did not fully appreciate Baroque art, and so the paintings were available for a song. The original 25 works included Botticelli, Botticini, Ghirlandaio, Tintoretto, Veronese and Ribera. By 1991, the museum had more than 400 paintings.
During our visit, we soaked up Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque works, as well as altarpieces and pulpits from churches and devotional items such as chalices, patens, monstrances and processional crucifixes. In one gallery, my friend noticed a French processional crucifix from the 13th century in gilt copper and champlevé enamel. To look upon it and imagine the faithful — perhaps saints! — celebrating the holy Mass 800 years ago was humbling and inspiring.
My favorite gallery was a small, octagonal-shaped room designed especially to showcase a unique painting reminiscent of the work of the Italian painter Sandro Botticelli. It features the Blessed Mother holding the Child Jesus surrounded by angels. It was painted by an artist who has come to be known as the "Master of the Greenville Tondo." (A Botticelli also hangs in the gallery: Madonna and Child With an Angel. Both works date from the 15th century.)
"When an expert does not know the name of the artist who authored a known body of paintings … then the historian will create a pseudonym based on the place where the best representation of the artist’s work resides and assign the master’s name," museum spokeswoman Amy Basinger explained. "So, in this case, M&G’s painting is the representative work: Wherever these artist’s paintings are in the world, which is about 32 locations, Greenville, S.C., is represented." Impressive, indeed!
Other galleries include the Italian Baroque gallery, which has a marvelous painting of St. Matthew being inspired by an angel by Guido Reni (1575–1642). In the Flemish Baroque gallery, an exquisite painting of the Crucifixion by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) demonstrates the agonizing humanity of Christ. Another of my favorites is in the Dutch Baroque collection, a warm and intimate depiction of the Holy Family called The Holy Family in the Carpenter Shop by Gerrit van Honthorst, called Gherardo delle Notti (1592–1656). The painting showcases contrasts in light and dark and depicts a young Christ and the Blessed Mother holding up a lamp while St. Joseph works, deep in concentration.
We encountered several 17th-century etchings by Rembrandt as well — Rest on the Flight, Flight Into Egypt, Crossing a Brook and Crucifixion.
Other special collections housed in the museum include the Russian Icon Collection, which dates from the 14th through 20th centuries; the Bowen Collection of Antiquities, with artifacts that span 37 centuries and represent everyday life from ancient Egyptian, Roman and Hebrew cultures; and the Benjamin West Collection. The museum also has a satellite campus in downtown Greenville, with exhibits geared toward children and teenagers.
The most recent acquisition to the museum’s collection was unveiled Oct. 4: "With the advice of a colleague who is a curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we were able to recently purchase a French 14th-century carved-ivory diptych panel called The Trinity," Basinger said.
After nearly three hours in the museum, my friend and I emerged again into the outside world feeling enriched beyond words. As we headed back to the car, the strip mall across the street stood in stark contrast to the place we had just been. It served to remind us that in the midst of a dingy, broken world, the beauty of God is still acutely manifest in places like this museum and gallery. For the rest of our day in Greenville, we enjoyed some Italian gelato, discussed our favorite works of art and planned our return trip to the Bob Jones’ Museum & Gallery.
Janneke Pieters writes from New Orleans.