NEW YORK – The Museum of Biblical Art, one of the few in America to explore the theme, opens today with a striking show of works on scriptural motifs by self-taught, Southern folk artists.
Located near Columbus Circle in Manhattan, the museum is a $3 million expansion and spinoff from a gallery the American Bible Society operated since 1997.
Its initial offering features 95 pieces titled “Coming Home! Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South.” University of Memphis art historian Carol Crown assembled the show, on display through July 24, which was previously seen at her campus and Florida State University. Crown also edited an accompanying book.
A second, separate collection also is on display of 29 rare Scripture editions and manuscripts – all on loan from the Bible society’s collection, the largest in the United States. The full trove of 1,880 items is visible behind glass above the gallery: Next year, the Bibles will get an added display space.
By reorganizing the museum to be independent from the Bible society, public schools will be more likely to sponsor student visits, said executive director Ena Heller, who also led the former gallery.
The Southern artworks offer an eye-catching array of roughhewn, compelling religious visions. Among them: biblical Eden, Jesus as the black messiah and end-times monsters from the Book of Revelation.
Colors run from shocking pink and chartreuse to morbid browns. The materials include a door, masonite, wood, stone, battered junk, paint and felt-tip pens. Many paintings are festooned with preachy words – and occasional misspellings.
Sometimes the regional painters’ evangelical fervor blends with God-and-country patriotism and American flags.
The late Howard Finster of Summerville, Ga., is among the best known of the “outsider artists” in the show.
At the center of the gallery are four crucifixes. One by self-described Alabama “universal believer” Lonnie Holley evokes Sept. 11 with a jagged section of cable hanging on a cross. Another is a 1994 scarecrow, crafted by Memphis Baptist Hawkins Bolden from a cross, old pots, pans, cans, wires, a grill, rubber hoses and leather straps.
Astonishingly, Bolden, who died only weeks ago, was blind since childhood.
The art show also features an odd and interesting historical artifact: A chart showing biblical proofs for the end of the world in 1843, according to end-timer William Miller’s prophecies.
History also underlies the collection of Bibles, including: a 15th century Torah scroll from a synagogue in central China; the first Bible printed in North America (a 1663 translation into the Algonquin language); Erasmus’ Greek-Latin New Testament of 1516; William Tyndale’s first English Old Testament from 1530 and an early copy of John Wycliffe’s pioneering – and outlawed – 14th century English New Testament.
Future shows on the schedule through 2008 will cover contemporary, Asian, Ethiopian, Dutch and Jewish art along with two photography displays.