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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive A Visit To The Museum Of Biblical Art, New York City

On any given day in this grand city of museums, parks, and monuments, visitors to New York can drop in on any number of treasure houses to peruse a dazzling and dizzying array of plastic art, paintings, photographs, fire engines, old sitcoms, nineteenth century passports, and dinosaurs. From the Fire Museum in SoHo, the Museum of Television and Radio in Midtown, and the Museum of Sex in the Flatiron District to the Museum Mile on the Upper East Side and the Museum of Natural History, you could spend about as much time learning about the secret lives of brontosauruses and the differences between vamps and virgins as you could standing in line for tickets to the long-running Broadway show Mamma Mia.

On May 12, 2005, the city welcomed its newest museum, the Museum of Biblical Art. Nestled between Huntington Hartford's famous "porthole" building, which once housed the Museum of Fine Arts, and the glittering steel and glass of the new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle and the Modernist conglomeration that is Lincoln Center, the Museum of Folk Art, and the Church of the Latter-Day Saints on the Upper West Side, the Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA) resides on the second floor of the American Bible Society building at 1865 Broadway (on the northwest corner of Broadway and 61st).

In 1997, MOBIA executive director Ena Heller opened a gallery devoted to art works inspired by the Bible in a portion of the space that the museum now occupies. Exhibitions in the smaller space featured African-American Bible-themed quilts, stained glass, Russian Orthodox icons, and twentieth-century Guatemalan and Peruvian folk art. Although the original gallery never advertised itself widely and seemed hidden even from visitors to the Bible Society, its shows garnered enthusiastic and respectful reviews. That little gallery space has now grown to a 2,700-square-foot exhibit hall that will feature traveling collections and exhibitions of Bible-related art.

At present, MOBIA's airy, well-lighted spaces feature two stunning inaugural exhibitions: "For Glory and for Beauty" and "Coming Home!: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South."

"For Glory and for Beauty" features highlights from the American Bible Society's collection of rare printed Bibles and handwritten Bible manuscripts. Although the primary work of the American Bible Society (ABS) is to provide translation tools for translators in the field, it also owns one of the world's largest collections of printed scriptures. Almost 200 years ago, ABS opened a library that focused on documenting the history of Bible translation and Bible publication. One of the little known gems of this library—open only to scholars and available for viewing by special invitation—is the rare book and manuscript collection, which contains about 2,000 books and a few manuscripts. The library has now loaned part of this collection to MOBIA as part of a planned series of five exhibitions that will share the treasures of the library with the public. As the catalog points out, "For Glory and Beauty" presents selections from the collection that "document the history of the Bible as it came down to us in its original languages and in some of its most influential translations. It also highlights the history of the Bible as an artifact through outstanding examples of typography, illustration, and book binding."

As visitors enter this exhibit space, they first walk back to the world of early Bible manuscripts and make their way around the room to the most recently published Bible on display, a limited run hand-printed folio Bible printed in 2000.

The earliest manuscript in the display is a Torah scroll on goatskin—one of thirteen that were once housed in the synagogue of Kaifeng, the capital of Henan Province in central China. Although the synagogue was built in 1163, it was destroyed in 1642 when a rebel army diverted the Yellow River to flood the city. When the synagogue was rebuilt twenty years later, the Torah scrolls were restored. The ABS scroll measures twenty-three inches by seventy-one feet, extends from Gen 1:1 to Lev 18:19, and contains panels from several other scrolls. The oldest portion of the scroll dates from the fifteenth century, and the newest portion of the scroll was added in the mid-seventeenth century.

While there are no Greek New Testament manuscripts on display, ABS does own the first published edition of the Greek New Testament, and visitors can see it here. Printed by Johann Froben in Basel in 1516, this edition has several distinct features. First, it is the oldest mass-produced edition of the Greek New Testament. Second, Erasmus edited the Greek text, which was later to prevail as the standard Greek NT text for the next three hundred years. Finally, Erasmus authored the Latin text printed next to the Greek text, providing the first new Latin translation of the NT since Jerome's Vulgate.

Moving around the room, visitors can see two of the smallest Greek New Testaments ever printed. In 1551, Robert Estienne of Geneva produced a pocket-sized New Testament that featured the Greek text sandwiched between two Latin translations, the Vulgate and Erasmus' Latin translation. The distinction of Estienne's sexto decimo edition lies in the verse divisions that he marked in his text as he rode on horseback from Paris to Lyons. This system, though inconsistent, provided the foundation for the modern division of the text into verses. Jean Jannon's Greek NT, released in Sedan in 1629, has the distinction of being the smallest Greek NT ever printed. Jannon, who had worked for Estienne, established his own press and produced three editions of the French Bible between 1631 and 1641.

Many of the earliest English translations of the Bible, as well as one of the first Bibles produced in the colonies, can be found in this remarkable exhibition. On display here are Wyclif's New Testament (c. 1440), a beautiful manuscript on vellum; a copy of the first folio edition of the King James Bible (1611); and the Massachusetts Bible (1663). The Massachusetts Bible, printed in Cambridge, is the earliest translation of the complete Bible in any of the native languages of America and the first Bible printed in the New World. Also known as "Eliot's Bible," because Presbyterian pastor and missionary to Indians John Eliot completed the translation, this version was financially supported by the "Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel amongst the Indians of New England." which was the first missionary society ever established in England. The copy on display at MOBIA is one of twenty presentation copies that Eliot sent to his supporters in England.

"For Glory and for Beauty" also celebrates and features the history of Bible production with displays of elegantly printed Bibles, illuminated Bibles, and exquisitely bound Bibles. In this day of easily produced typographical fonts and designs, the stylish typography and beautiful printing of the hand-printed Bibles of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries seem all the more remarkable. In the exhibit ABS displays three incunables—taken from a Latin word meaning "things put in a cradle" and "swaddling-clothes," the word refers to books printed before the end of 1500 in the infancy of printing. One is especially significant in the history of typography: in 1497, Aldus Manutius printed a small quarto in Venice that displays a beautiful Greek font with red titles and red initials. The copy features a misprint that was caught and corrected by hand in Psalm 71.

Another marvel of typography in the exhibit is the Complutensian Polyglot, which displays the creativity and the skill of the typographer. Sponsored by Cardinal Francisco Ximenes de Cisneros and printed in a town whose name had been Complutum, this Polyglot Bible comprises six volumes. The typographer, Arnaldus Guillelmus de Brocario, spent more than three years printing the volumes. Volumes 5 and 6 appeared in 1514 and volumes 1-4 in 1517. The first volume on display here contains the Pentateuch in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, with the Aramaic paraphrase and its Latin translation printed below the main texts. The Hebrew roots appear in the marginal column, and an interlinear translation is printed with the Greek text. Most publishers today, even with their computerized fonts and sophisticated printing, would have difficulty tackling such a project with the elegance that this edition displays.

The illuminated and illustrated Bibles on display trace the evolution of the use of images in Bibles from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. The earliest illuminated Bible at MOBIA is a Book of Hours in Latin from Flanders, a small book that contains delicate ornamentation. The most recent illustrated Bible on display is the Doré Bible, published in Tours in 1866 by Alfred Mame. Gustave Doré provided 238 engravings to embellish a new French translation of the Vulgate. By the end of the century, Doré's illustrations appeared in Bibles in a dozen different languages and were reproduced in most family Bibles in America.

The art of binding Bibles is also celebrated in the exhibition. Two of the highlights of the display are a German Bible and a modern Chinese Bible. Printed in Halle in 1770, the small German Bible displays its owner's initials, J. R. H., on the front cover and the date, 1772, on the back. Made of vellum over cardboard, the binding includes a beautiful border of painted foliage and birds and four biblical quotations. The Chinese Bible, a presentation copy of the New Testament in Chinese in 1909 or 1910, features an elegant binding of sterling silver decorated with appropriate scenes. Four copies of this edition were presented in 1910 to the last Emperor of China, Pu Yi, and three members of his family.

"For Glory and for Beauty" offers a magnificent visual history of the translation of the Bible and the veneration of the Bible as artifact through the desire to present the text in a beautifully crafted type, sumptuous bindings, and striking illustrations. This display provides a fitting pretext for the exhibition in the next rooms, where the art explores the centrality of the Bible in the work of a number of Southern artists; yet, in another way, it cannot prepare visitors for the breathtaking paintings, sculptures, and found object art that comprise "Coming Home!: Self-Taught Artists, the Bible and the American South."

Originally shown at the Art Museum of the University of Memphis in 2004, "Coming Home!" features 122 works by seventy-three Southern artists, including Howard Finster, Sister Gertrude Morgan, Elijah Pierce, Clementine Hunter, Myrtice West, and William Thomas Thompson, among others. While the artists use a variety of media to express the urgency of their messages, all of them think of themselves as preachers of the word of God. Apocalyptic images abound, as do crucifixes and portraits of the afterlife. The art pieces are by turn comic, pathetic, arresting, and disturbing. Some of them are scary enough to plague one's dreams and induce nightmares. Visitors leave "Coming Home!" with the feeling that they have journeyed to the American South and the still pervasive obsessions with Christ, the Bible, and the afterlife that haunt its back woods and rural roads.

A smiling six-foot wooden evangelist named Brother John greets visitors as he stands behind the Heaven and Hell Pulpit created just for him. Jessie Cooper (b. 1932) and Ronald Cooper (b. 1931) worked with wood, foam, glue, steel wool, and metal to make the pulpit for Brother John. The top of the lectern features a bucolic scene in soothing greens and blues where two figures welcome people with open arms. The bottom half, painted in a garish red and orange, depicts the flames of hell, souls in everlasting torment, and Satan and his minions gloating over their subjects. Doors to a cabinet on the bottom open to reveal a large wooden figurine of Satan towering over those unfortunate souls who are in his care.

The displays in the exhibition are arranged roughly from Creation to Apocalypse, but visitors can easily move about at random without feeling like they have missed out on some unfolding meaning. In fact, the best way to see this exhibition is simply to wander without direction or plan and to marvel at these glorious treasures.

Numerous objects and paintings devoted to the Creation portray various events from the first chapters of Genesis. In her oil on linen canvas, Lisa Anderson (b.1941), whose paintings recall the work of early American folk artist Edward Hicks (1780-1849), depicts Adam Naming the Animals (1994) in an idyllic scene with angels standing guard and a variety of animals, including a whale in the distance, surrounding him. William "Ned" Cartledge (1916-2001) portrays another scene from the Creation narrative in his carved and painted wood sculpture, Get Wise, Eat an Apple (1986). Here the serpent is presented with the toothy grin of a snake oil salesman who is playing a shell game with the woman, in which the serpent has substituted three apples on the top of a crate in the place where the shells would be. On the crate are printed the words: "Get wise/eat an apple/direct from the Tree of Knowledge/recommended by the talking serpent—Genesis 3:6." Hugo Sperger (1922-1996) depicts the unfolding of the Creation in his acrylic on board painting Creation (1977). Each frame shows God conversing with the primeval couple and eventually casting them out for their disobedience. Lawrence Stinson's (1906-1998) little sculpture, Garden of Eden (1975), constructed of plywood, driftwood, plastic flowers, and paint, presents a rather static couple sitting placidly on a log amongst the animals and plants of the Garden.

Much of the art on display in "Coming Home!" portrays the persistent apocalyptic undertones of much Southern religion. The exhibition features a number of prophecy charts, tools that Christians can use to track events in the unfolding of God's plan and to be sure they are ready for the second coming of Christ. On display is the Millerite Chart of 1843 (1842), produced by B. W. Thayer & Company, an ink on canvas chart that provided the Millerite sect with the rationale for standing on a Kentucky hillside in 1843 to await Christ's glorious return. George F. Bingham's (1884-1957) Bingham's Prophecy Chart (1907), tempera and ink on muslin, depicts various beasts and figures from the books of Daniel and Revelation, and Henrietta Black's (1900-1971) paint on canvas Daniel 2 and 7 (1935) focuses on the Colossus from Daniel 2 and the fearsome beasts from Daniel 7. These charts, both of which are at least six feet high, present disturbing images based on biblical texts so that the second coming of Christ becomes a scary event if the believer is unprepared.

A stunning interpretation of Antichrist in the Revelation is Cherry ShaEla'ReEl's (b. 1956) acrylic paint with poly coating, on wood glittered frame, Beast 666 (1998). A colorful collage in which various figures fade into one another, the beast looms from the center of the painting, while it is surrounded by a fist clenching dollars bills, a pig-headed evangelist, and a message that reads, "Bye-Bye Miss America." William Thomas Thompson's (b. 1935) acrylic on linen Faithful and True (Christ of the Second Coming) (2001) features an indistinct figure of the white Christ riding a white horse down from the heavens. Thompson's acrylic on linen Whore of Babylon (2003) features a similarly indistinct woman in red dominating her earthly abode.

Crucifixes and portraits of the crucifixion also abound in "Coming Home!" One of the most striking is Hawkins Bolden's (b. 1914) Untitled (Crucifixion) (1994). Composed of mixed media, wire, wood, found metal, and rubber, Bolden's assemblage art features metal and wire attached to a wooden cross. Bolden, blind since childhood, began making mixed media constructions to serve as scarecrows in his garden. Bolden's art influenced two other Southerners who became famous for their assemblage art, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Yet another stunning crucifix is Lonnie Holley's (b. 1950) The Cable That Snapped Before They Saved Me (2001), constructed of metal, wood, cable, and paint. The snapped cable forms a noose that is set against the backdrop of the cross.

"Coming Home!' also offers some reverent and some comic glimpses into everyday religion and its foibles. Bernice Sim (b.1926) portrays a baptism in the river in her oil painting New Hope Baptist Church Baptism (ca. 1988). Herbert Singleton (b. 1945) captures not only human shortcomings but also the hypocrisy of the preacher in The Biggest Baptist is the Biggest Sinner (1998). This carved and painted wood relief depicts a Baptist minister standing close behind a young woman parishioner with a Bible in one of his hands and his other hand firmly on her rump.

The largest number of paintings in the exhibition belong to Howard Finster (1915/1916-2001), a Baptist minister from Summerville, Georgia, whose most famous creations are his Paradise Gardens and the World's Folk Art Church. His work includes paintings, prints, sculptures, and mixed media pieces. All of his pieces include image and text; thus, the message Finster preaches is included literally in the artwork. Finster often called himself "A Second Noah" and "God's Last Red Light," and he warned that the ever increasing immorality of the world indicated that the end of time was near. For example, in his I Am the Angel Flying Low #3398 (1984), Finster's painted angel on a plywood cutout carries a sign that reads: "I am the angel flying low to tell you that the Bible is so. Only believe in it and be ready to go, for your last day you never know. And remember I told you so." Finster signed and numbered more than fifty thousand works of art. He once said: "All other people want me to do is paint. All I want to do is preach."

The exhibition is best captured, however, by a kitschy acrylic on wood painting by C.M. Laster (b. 1963) and Grace Kelly Laster (b. 1966) titled There is One King (2002). Reminiscent of the black velvet Elvises of roadside fame, this painting depicts Elvis, the king of rock and roll, holding up a cloth featuring the face of Jesus weeping (supposedly Veronica's veil). Bordering the artwork, at the top and bottom of the painting, is the phrase: "There is only one King." The Lasters' painting underscores the inextricably bound nature of art, the Bible, and popular culture in the American South.

"For Glory and for Beauty" is an ongoing exhibit at MOBIA; and "Coming Home!" runs through July 24, 2005. The website is http://www.mobia.org/

Henry Carrigan, North American publisher of T&T Clark International, hcarriga@morehousegroup.com

 
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