Want Catholic art? Fundamentalist Bob Jones University has it

An article in the Washington Post on the collection at Bob Jones University brought back to mind the odd experience of visiting that gallery in the heart of Greenville, and BJU’s campus. It really is a remarkable collection of Renaissance and Baroque religious paintings and a wonderful teaching tool.

The article leaves one important question unasked, concerning the provenance of the paintings. Given the controversy over the last couple of decades about art that was owned by Jews until the rise of Hitler, I would think the question of how Bob Jones, Jr. was able to amass such a large collection at bargain-basement prices ought to be asked.

There’s another important question asked, but not answered adequately: How is the collection used as a teaching tool? One of the most amusing aspects of visiting the gallery on a Sunday afternoon (when admission was free) was encountering Sunday School classes and other groups from fundamentalist churches touring the gallery. They would approach a painting and compare the artist’s rendering of the scene with the biblical account, interested primarily in whether that depiction was true to the text. There are also several fairly lengthy posted comments (or were the last time I visited) that offered a strongly theological lens through which to view the images. I recall especially a pointed attack on images of the suffering Christ. A “weak” Christ seemed to be against the fundamentalist message.

Still, it’s a great collection. More on the Museum and Gallery here.

A fascinating description of a recently discovered mosaic

G. W. Bowersock comments on a mosaic currently displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Discovered in Lod (ancient Lydda), the mosaic, dating from around 300 CE, depicts a number of animals, many of them exotic. Bowersock the mosaic as a whole in light of the image of a vase, with handles depicting panthers in the mosaic’s center. He argues it derives from the Dionysian cult, and that it is transmuted here in a Judeo-Christian context, with allusions to Isaiah’s prophecy of the peacable kingdom.

The full essay is here: The Lod Mosaic by G.W. Bowersock | NYRBlog | The New York Review of Books.

Gregory the Great, March 12

Today is the commemoration of Pope Gregory the Great, one of the shapers of medieval Christianity. A member of an old senatorial family who rose to the top of the imperial hierarchy in Rome, he withdrew from public service, founded a monastery in one of his family’s homes in Rome. But his education and diplomatic expertise pressed him into service as a papal legate to the Emperor in Constantinople. He returned to Rome and was acclaimed pope in 591.

Among his achievements: the mission of St. Augustine of Canterbury to England, liturgical revision (the common name for medieval chant “Gregorian” chant bears his name). He was  profound theologian, exegete, and pastor. His On Pastoral Care shaped the ministry, his Moralia in Job a model of biblical scholarship for centuries. He used his family’s wealth to feed the Roman people during famine and pestilence, and his administrative skill secured papal primacy in the west.

Among the most popular legends of Gregory in the later Middle Ages was the story that once as he was celebrating mass, he heard someone deny transubstantiation. Praying for a sign to prove the reality of the bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood, suddenly an image of the crucified Christ appeared before him and all the people. Here’s artist’s rendering of that legend:

The Conversion of St. Paul (or another excuse for posting a Caravaggio image)

Today is the Conversion of St. Paul. There are at least three versions of this event in the New Testament. The most famous is Acts 9:1-22. From there we have all of the juicy details–Paul’s persecution of the early Christian community, the road to Damascus, his ensuing blindness. Luke gives us another version of the same event in Acts 22:3-16. Paul describes the same event in rather different terms in Galatians 1. Paul’s account describes a different sequence of events following his “conversion,” but more importantly, he doesn’t use language of conversion at all. Instead, Paul writes of being called:

But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16)

The notion that Paul’s conversion was a dramatic break from the past is firmly fixed in Christian thought and devotion and there is some legitimacy to it. Paul himself describes a radical break from his past of persecuting Christans. However, in another way, it wasn’t a conversion. He does not see himself “converting” from one religion to another, from Judaism to Christianity.

Still, conversion holds a powerful grip on Christian reflection, and indeed that grip has strengthened over the centuries, especially since the 18th century Evangelical Revival (led by the Wesleys and George Whitefield).

Whatever one thinks of the historicity of Luke’s account, and the utility of viewing the Christian life in terms of conversion, perhaps the most powerful depiction of Luke’s version is that of Caravaggio: