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Food Feature: Going for Baroque in Greenville

By God, it's the Bob Jones Museum & Gallery

Tucked away in the South Carolina foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains just a few hours from Atlanta, the city of Greenville quietly holds title to some of the country's finest art treasures. Two significant collections of art grace the city, separated by only a few miles — a major collection of Andrew Wyeth's watercolors at the Greenville County Museum of Art, and one of the world's top collections of Baroque art, at Bob Jones University. Is it any wonder that Greenville's sister city is Bergamo, Italy?

Bob Jones University is a study in contrast to downtown Greenville, the sidewalks filled with young men in suits and ties and young women in demure, ankle-length skirts. The university is best known as a controversial Christian fundamentalist college. Far fewer people know the role it has played in the preservation of Baroque and religious art.

Rev. Bob Jones Jr. began purchasing paintings soon after World War II ended, when his interest in the arts was further piqued by the inexpensive price tags on many large-format paintings by masters of Italian and Flemish Renaissance art. "Major European collections were being broken up, and there was a big flood on the market," says museum curator John Nolan. "Not many museums wanted them at the time, since they were all buying modern works."

Jones worked with collectors and auction houses to increase his knowledge of the period, eventually building up a collection of more than 400 paintings. It's regarded worldwide as a definitive collection of religious art, and used frequently by scholars for their study of classical artists. "Our collection is probably better known in Europe than it is in America," says Nolan.

Many of the Old Masters are represented here, including Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck and Tintoretto. Significant to scholars is the vast quantity of paintings by students of the well-known artists of the period, including those of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

The museum was the former dining hall for the campus, converted in 1965 to accommodate the mostly large-format paintings. Transformed into 30 galleries, the space creates unique and dramatic backdrops for the paintings through the use of color, wall coverings, woodwork, stone and music. The first 14 galleries focus on the development of Italian art from the Gothic through the Renaissance and Baroque periods, starting off with altarpieces from the 1300s, heavy in gold leaf. One of the more unusual galleries in the museum is the Tondo room, a round gallery showcasing tondi — circular paintings that depict the Madonna and Child — including an early work from Botticelli.

Furnishings and sculpture in each room correspond to the time period of the paintings. Nolan points to one of the oldest pieces, an Italianate chest used as a traveling trunk. "This one has rope burns from where they would strap it between two donkeys," he says.

A bizarre monstrosity of a pew-like bench fills another gallery wall, covered with intricate, elaborate carvings ranging from hummingbirds to dragons. "Dr. Jones saw this 30 years ago at an antique dealer up in New York City — saw it and liked it, but thought it was too much," Nolan says. "And just a couple of years ago, the dealer still had it. He couldn't move it; it was just too big. So he thought of us."

Accented by elaborate period frames, the paintings — generally enormous in size — fill the walls. Groupings flow from the chronological assemblage of Italian art into the Spanish Galleries, divided by archways into a cloister. French Baroque works fill another room, while the art of 19th-century English painters includes some significant historical pieces, among them Eyre Crowe's "Wittenburg, October 31." German paintings grace an intimate space decorated with original Swiss Gothic paneling. The remaining galleries focus mainly on 17th-century Flemish and Dutch art. One of the most striking pieces is Gerard van Honthorst's "The Holy Family in the Carpenter Shop," which draws the eye to a scene glowing with light from a painted lantern. "If you turn out the lights," says Nolan, demonstrating, "it continues to glow."

Unusual details come forth on close inspection of some paintings. "I love this one," says Nolan, of Mabuse's "Madonna of the Fireplace." "You've got the interior of a Flemish room, with the paneled walls, the fireplace. And she's warming her hands, so her hands won't be so cold while she's changing Christ's diapers. Notice the wooden baby-walker?"

In addition to the period furnishings, tapestries, stained glass windows and statuary appear in many of the galleries. Several other collections also find a home here. A single gallery of elaborately jeweled Russian iconographic art pays homage to iconography. Another room contains a rare collection of Imperial Austrian vestments. Tucked away in another corner is the Bowen Biblical Museum, a thematic "museum within a museum" of natural and art objects from lands mentioned in the bible. All in all, it's an inspired collection.

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