It’s Christmastime, the season of festive window displays, twinkly lights, and rotund, white-bearded men in red suits. But behind all the hustle and ho-ho-ho, the Christian community celebrates a quieter story—the humble birth of a baby born some two thousand years ago in rural Palestine. A child’s tale to some, a message of hope to others, there’s no denying it’s a dramatic narrative, one that’s been brought to life by some of the most celebrated artists of all time.
Geniuses of figure and fresco, the Old Masters—think Raphael, Da Vinci, Correggio—dominated the art world for centuries with their portrayals of biblical scenes. Their paintings hang in famous museums across the globe, but surprisingly, a large sample can be found here in Greenville. Since its inception in the early 1950s, The Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University has amassed one of the largest collections of Old Master paintings in America. In fact, it boasts more than 400 works of European religious artwork from the 1300s to 1800s, plus 2,000 objects (including furniture, carvings, sculpture, and textiles) spanning 45 centuries of Western culture.
Twenty-two paintings and one sculpture are now on display at the Greenville County Museum of Art. “It’s a good taste of what there is to enjoy in the whole collection,” Erin Jones, director of M&G, explains. She sits surrounded by several massive paintings in the midst of the gallery on the Bob Jones campus. The space is closed as they pursue a more accessible location downtown, making the Sampling the Old Masters exhibit at the GCMA a timely presentation.
“It’s a beautiful collection that they have,” says GCMA curator Chesnee Klein. “It’s great to collaborate with them.” She guides me to several circular paintings, termed tondos, hanging in the gallery space, including Madonna and Child with an Angel by Early Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, and one attributed to the Master of the Greenville Tondo. (Yes, Greenville.) Because the artist is unknown—most likely a pupil of Raphael’s fifteenth-century instructor, Pietro Perugino—his name is derived from the place that carries his most representative work, in this case, our Upstate hometown. Thirty-two works are attributed to the Master of the Greenville Tondo, on display in galleries from Princeton to Venice.
Other highlights include the only full series of the Four Evangelists, (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), along with works by famed Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Mabuse’s Madonna of the Fireplace. In the depicted scene, Mary sits by a hearth, a naked baby Jesus squirming in her lap. The domestic nature is charming, though the cultural context can be historically confusing. The home is decorated in the Dutch-style of the Northern Renaissance with draping linens and distinct tile floor patterns, and instead of an olive-brown Jewish woman in first-century garb, Mary is a red-headed Flemish lady in late fifteenth-century wardrobe.
While it may seem strange for first-century figures to be portrayed through the lens of Flemish culture, M&G’s Erin Jones encourages the audience to lay aside modern assumptions and instead view the artwork through the lens of the painter. For example in the Mabuse piece, Mary’s arm is outstretched, testing the air to ensure its warmth and dryness—the ideal environment to change a diaper. A fireplace bellows rests on the floor and a fifteenth-century baby walker with little wooden wheels sits in the corner.
“These paintings are time capsules from the past,” Jones says. “They hold clues to history.” She gestures to a large piece resting in the corner of the M&G space. It pictures Christ’s ascension to heaven, but from the lens of clouds; the viewer is looking down on the apostles below. The painting was created by French illustrator Louis Auguste Gustave Doré in the 1800s, right after the invention of the hot-air balloon. It’s an aerial perspective that would have been revolutionary at the time, Jones explains, but can be underappreciated by the modern-day viewer.
“They still have stories to tell,” says Jones. And for a stunning artistic telling of the original Christmas story, Sampling the Old Masters is well worth a viewing.
Works from the M&G at Bob Jones University are on display at the GCMA through December 30. Other pieces of the collection are on loan to the Georgia Museum of Art, the Museum of the Bible in D.C., and others across the globe. M&G director Erin Jones will give a special tour of the exhibit on Sunday, December 9, at 2pm. For more information visit gcma.org or bjumg.org.