Museum of Biblical Art
Virtual Tour (2020): Julian Hirsch
The Museum of Biblical Art was founded in 1966 by Mattie Curath Byrd, a wealthy Dallas socialite and businesswoman. Byrd used the museum to display her collection of commissioned and purchased biblical art, including a 124 foot long painting depicting the miracle of the Pentecost. In 2005, a fire decimated much of the museum and its collection (including the Miracle of the Pentecost), but the museum reopened in 2010 with expanded galleries and collections. The museum aims to provide a non-affiliated space for the exhibition of biblically themed art.
The museum is visually distinctive and eminently visible from the road. Its edifice features a large gateway designed to replicate Jerusalem’s Damascus gate. The reopened museum added several additional architectural features including representations of a Mesopotamian Ziggurat crowned by a glass Pyramid on its roof. The lead curator explained that this structure was meant to symbolize the Bible’s ancient origins and history of transmission. The reopened building exterior also utilizes “Jerusalem Limestone” as a means of visually associating the structure with the Holy Land and in particular, Jerusalem.
The museum’s entrance features a group of portraits by B.E Evans and Alberta Bell, depicting Jesus and Mary as black Africans, challenging the public perception of Jesus as “white.” According to the curator, these paintings were selected as the first visitors would encounter to send the message that the museum endorses a multicultural view of the Bible, its characters, and its stories.
The foyer features several replicas of renaissance sculptures and a painting by Austrian artist Heinrich Schwemminger of King David.
From the foyer, visitors can access the National Center for Jewish Art and the Museum of Holocaust Art, two self contained sections within the museum space. The National Center for Jewish art displays artworks by Jewish and Israeli artists and a group of Jewish ritual objects, explained in detail for non-Jewish visitors. These collections came about in the aftermath of the 2005-10 renovations when, with the encouragement of Dallas’ Jewish community, galleries were devoted to the exclusive display of Jewish and Holocaust art. In time these galleries expanded and became their own separately incorporated museums.
Walking around the peristyle, visitors can look at a group of cast replicas of Michaelangelo sculptures and a series of paintings depicting the interiors of famous churches around the world.
The European Art Treasury features European Christian and biblically themed art spanning from the Medieval period to the early Modern period. The room contains paintings, sculptures, and metalwork, demonstrating the wide range of media and subjects historically utilized across Europe for the depiction of biblical art.
The museum also includes galleries for temporary exhibitions. At the time of my visit (Summer 2020), these included a display of Renaissance maps of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and an art installation by Israeli artist, Avner Sher, focused on Jerusalem’s historical and contemporary cultural and religious centrality at a global level.
The contemporary Christian art gallery features paintings and sculptures by modern Christian artists depicting the Holy Land, Bible characters and stories from the gospels. Towering over the gallery is the museum’s centerpiece painting, a monumental depiction of Christ’s resurrection and emergence from the Garden Tomb by Ron DiCianni.
The museum’s exterior serves as an exhibition space for sculpture, including a Stations of the Cross series. These sculptures are displayed along an outdoor garden path lined with Roman columns, referred to as the Via Dolorosa, the Jerusalem street along which Jesus carried the cross on the way to his crucifixion. Traditionally, the Stations of the Cross are part of Catholic liturgy, where they serve as an experiential and ambulatory means of contemplating Christ’s Passion. The museum’s curator told me that in his view, in the context of the museum, the Stations and Via Dolorosa can be appreciated for the raw power of Christ’s story regardless of one’s religious background.
The Museum of Biblical Art’s unique status as a religiously unaffiliated biblical museum allows it to use art to directly assert that rather than being a source of contention through claims of exclusive ownership, the Bible’s stories and characters can be used to develop interfaith understanding and appreciation. While visitors who make their way throughout the entire museum will come away with this message, the separation of certain parts of the museum which exclusively display Jewish or Christian artworks means that visitors who do not come to the museum with curiosity might easily only view artwork which they view as being ‘for them.’ Though one might appreciate a work of art for its aesthetic beauty alone, the religious dimension of biblical art means that each work in this museum is imbued with emotion specifically connected to the religious backgrounds of their viewers. If a visitor is to take away the full range of emotional weight an artwork has to offer, they must be able to tap into that religious dimension, even if it differs from that of their own background. Looking at art from the Hebrew Bible, a Christian visitor might find themselves only tapping into Christian interpretations of Hebrew Bible stories rather than a Jewish perspective. Equally, a Jewish audience might benefit from some degree of explanation of how a Christian visitor might interpret a particular artwork. Such a framework focusing on the multivocality of the Bible for people of different religious backgrounds would not only draw attention to religious similarities, but would also provide a means of celebrating religious difference.