Dotting the nation in obscure, off-beat or neglected venues, all types of art await the public’s pleasure – many just don’t know it yet. Christian-inspired art is even less likely to be promoted than its secular cousins and harder to find but well worth your effort. This summer (or anytime) you might consider a few Christian cultural adventures in America’s “hidden” art troves.
New York City oozes museums, and Christianity is well represented at the Museum of Biblical Arts, or MOBIA. A sophisticated and sleek museum, it makes up in elegance and professionalism what it lacks in size.
MOBIA’s mission is to “celebrate and interpret art related to the Bible and its cultural legacy” and to put Scripture back into culture. Literally back in, as they house the American Bible Society’s Rare Bible Collection, where you can find a Bible belonging to the emperor of Japan, among other rarities.
MOBIA’s shows stretch from antiquities to contemporary Christian artists. Recent ones include 20th-century Art Deco muralist Hildreth Meière and new illustrations for the King James Bible. Currently they host an exquisite and monumental 14th-century altarpiece from Siena: “Adoration of the Magi” by Bartolo di Fredi. Coming this fall is the first exclusive exhibit of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s liturgical works. Did I mention it’s free?
A dying church in Buffalo, N.Y., is resurrected as the Buffalo Religious Arts Center. Established in the former St. Francis Xavier Church, the group collects and preserves art from many historic but disbanded houses of worship in the Western New York area. Voila! A luminous stained glass Star of David, inscribed liturgical furnishings and guardian angels happily co-exist in one place. The artifacts of ancient synagogues and churches reveal decorative, ethnic styles of worship from European immigrants over the centuries and shouldn’t be cut from history when their churches’ doors close.
South Carolina: BJU Museum and Galleries
Meander south to Greenville, S.C., and you’ll find beaucoup bunches of fine, European masters in an unexpected venue: the fundamentalist Bob Jones University, or BJU. According to “experts,” such people have limited grasp of artistic principals and are far too prudish to appreciate fine art. Someone must have failed to inform president Bob Jones Jr. of his cultural inadequacies, as his spectacular stash is recognized as the largest collection of religious art in the Western Hemisphere.
BJU Museum currently hosts 30 rooms of galleries by Rubens, Murillo, Veronese, Cranach, Titian, Rembrandt, Ribera, Botticelli, Tintoretto, Van Dyck and many others.
Jones was roundly criticized by churches and secular journalists for buying Baroque and Renaissance art – considered trés gauche in the 1940s. Critics wouldn’t sneer now, as paintings Jones doled out $300 for sell for a cool million or so. Even the Washington Post admitted as much in “Baroque, Bob Jones University has the Best” by Paul Richards in 1984.
Jones responded to critics at the time: “I like Baroque paintings, that’s why I bought them. I didn’t have enough sense to know they were not in good taste. They serve a godly purpose and are a library of sorts.”
Bob Jones Museum opens their door to the public for a mere pittance ($5 adults) and offers other types of entertainment, such as annual operas and Shakespearean plays.
Next door in Tennessee, “Christ in the Smokies Museum and Gardens” vies for tourist attention alongside Ripley’s Marvelous Mirror Maze, Circus Golf in Black-Light and Dollywood. Far from the art-maddened crowds of the metropolis, this is God’s country – at least the entertainment seems that way. Openly biblical in a place where that still works, “Christ in the Smokies” is one part art, three parts evangelism and quite up front about it.
After a short introductory film, guests are shepherded through 12 scenes from Jesus’ life –nativity to ascent. Scenery is detailed and inhabited by full-size, wax figurines, “incredibly life-like” with background music and narration. Visitors, who tend to be families with delighted children, leave comments such as “unique, inspiring” and a “blessing.”
A museum that embodies religious Americana lays off the beaten path in Logan, Iowa. The Museum of Religious Arts was begot by Logan farmer Paul Lovell for lost, discarded or endangered Jewish-Christian art. Viewers encounter an impassioned wax Christ with thorns, a Holocaust survivor’s drawings and stained-glass windows rescued from Boys Town, Neb. For lovers of extreme eclectics there’s an old, communion-wafer machine (think fancy waffles). Child art prodigy Akiane Kramarik, who’s been featured on Oprah Winfrey and everywhere else, recently joined her prints to the lineup.
Excellent museums in D.C. would be hard to avoid, but the recent New York transplant National Museum of Catholic Art and Library is a gem. NMCAL is catholic in the classical sense, as it seeks to exhibit, promote and minister Judeo-Christian related art in general and in all artistic forms and periods.
NMCAL features great exhibits rarely if ever found elsewhere. Check out a group of riveting, religious sculptures by Salvador Dali, a gallery devoted to nun art (don’t miss Sally Fields as “The Flying Nun”), Michelangelo’s Madonna in bronze and the world’s largest portrait of Pope Benedict XVI at 14 feet.
Minnesota – Lutheran art
Minneapolis arguably hosts one of the world’s most cultured insurance companies with the Thrivent Financial Collection of Religious Art. Over 800 prints and drawings of religious subject matter from 13th century illuminated manuscripts to early modern prints including Renaissance and Baroque. Not to be scoffed at, the Lutheran company collected and displays prints by Dürer, Rembrandt, Cranach, Manet, Picasso and Bellows as examples.
Thrivent hopes their collection will remain a source of pleasure and spiritual enrichment, welcoming visitors to their Religious Art Galleries at Thrivent Financial, Minneapolis. Wish I could find this at my insurer’s office.
Salvation Mountain – California
Up until last year, you could visit a delightful gentleman and simultaneously stand on mounds of his artwork in Niland, Calif. Leonard Knight’s world renowned Salvation Mountain is sadly lacking its maker, as he recently entered a nursing home, but his work stands.
There is nothing like Salvation Mountain on earth: an American Christian’s humble answer to Egypts’ pyramids and Japan’s gold-plated Buddhas. Crafted over 30 years as a means of inspired evangelism, Leonard’s homemade mountains and grottos are lettered and illustrated with “messages from God” and the Bible as a form of visual soul-winning.
Adobe plastered mounds drift from the desert floor like an improbable mirage – a naive and brilliant, alien village. Three stories tall and about as long as a football field, Knight used only clay, shovels and paint – a miracle in itself.
California’s version of John the Baptist resonates with the most unlikely viewers: art lovers, Christians, retirees and withered, desert-dwelling hippies volunteered to help as Knight slowed down a bit. Concerned over the monument’s future, locals recently formed a non-profit group to preserve Salvation Mountain, Knight’s wonderful folk-art and his zealous message of the unconditional love of God.
Another Christian museum worth the trip alone from a far country is the Museum of Biblical Arts, or MBA, in Dallas, Texas. It’s the largest museum in the U.S. to display fine modern and classical art around biblical themes and utilizes art “for tolerance and understanding.” MBA hosts special galleries in biblical archaeology, Jewish art, religious architecture, African-American, Hispanic and classical Greco-Roman art. Heavy- hitters show up on their walls such as Sargent, Chagall, Lipchitz, Shahn, Köllwitz, Nolde, Kokoschka, Buffet – you get the idea.
If you prefer to visit churches, the newly formed Christian Arts Commission, or CAC, in Fort Worth was expressly created to save yet another wax art piece from ruin, this one a room sized reproduction of the Last Supper by Hollywood crafter Katherine Stubergh. Since delivering the piece, they’ve set their sights on other exhibits such as a huge cross collage-mural and smaller works of art. The CAC is administered by Central Christian Church.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Hope Gallery and Museum of Fine Art exhibits and sells European masterworks with a rare emphasis on Scandinavian artists, particularly Danish. Durer, Rembrandt, Bloch, Kroyer, Zorn, Ancher, Molsted, Wegmann and Juel adorn the walls. Not all works are biblical, but many illustrate the Bible or are scripturally inspired.
Russia still holds sway on art and spirituality in Kenai. Visit there to tour the Holy Assumption of the Virgin Mary Russian Orthodox Church (orig.1849) to savor authentic art and architecture. One of the oldest Russian Orthodox Churches in Alaska, the domed beauty shelters an iconostasis with paintings and icons from the early 1700s and later, including those made by Alaska’s natives.
Colleges and universities
Consider the greatly neglected college galleries in every state. Some of these are larger than public museums and are either free or require a small fee. Here’s the short list:
Yale has extensive art holdings, especially in historic paintings and archives in exhibits such as the recently ended epic “America Rising.” It featured American works from the late 17th century to 1893 and themes such as the Revolution, Gold Rush, railroads and related politics.
St. Louis University houses items such as Frederick J. Brown’s “The Life of Christ Altarpiece, 1994-95,” a very large and moving visual theological reflection on the life of Christ.
Southern Methodist University, Dallas Theological Seminary and Texas Christian University all have art collections which are periodically on display. Check their websites for more information.
Biola University hosts all types of Christian art events and exhibits across the year, tending toward contemporary.
Havard’s several museums and galleries feature formidable collections of almost all genre and periods, though not always on display. Check to see what is available on exhibit.
Stanford has a large art collection in all types of art, including Renaissance and religious subjects. They host several galleries that open to the public.
The Princeton Art Museum has lots of older European (therefore largely Christian) art in their collections. If you are planning to visit Princeton, please note that not all artworks are on view at all times.
Georgetown boasts a strong collection in Baroque period art and others with religious subjects such as “Calling of St. Matthew” by Luca Giordano on permanent display in its historic flagship, Healy Hall.
This is just a fly past of America’s Christian art; there is so much more. If you know of exhibits, collections or artists that may interest WND readers please feel free to email Marisa Martin.