The Last Supper mural on the Fine Arts building survived a war in Germany and drew crowds in a tourist park in Florida before finding a home at Bob Jones University.
The mural’s beginnings were in Germany during the time between World War I and World War II, when “creativity was blossoming again,” said Darren Lawson, dean of the School of Fine Arts and Communication.
Lawson’s office oversaw the installation of the mural in 1999, leading him to delve into the work’s past. He quickly found out he was not alone in his search—a number of sources ranging from travel bloggers to the BJU Review magazine have traced the history of the piece from World War II Germany to Florida and finally to South Carolina. Lawson said the complete story is something worth retelling.
The Puhl and Wagner Company, a renowned glass company in Germany known for producing mosaics, recreated the masterpiece of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in mural form. From 1929 to 1930, artists carefully worked with 300,000 colored tiles to make 10 500-pound panels, together an impressive 24 feet of intricate mosaic.
After 27,000 hours of work, the artists delivered the completed piece to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. But Lawson’s research revealed that the work of art was not displayed there for long.
“So, they had this beautiful piece put together—and then Hitler came to power,” Lawson said.
“Stingray Tom’s Florida,” an investigative travel blog run by historian Tom Cook, picks up the story of the mural during the bombings throughout World War II. The mural was disassembled and hidden in a basement for protection.
As the war ended, many art pieces that survived became spoils of war for several countries. Some sources claim the mural was seized by the U.S. to keep it from the Russians, while others claim the work made its way to the Puhl and Wagner Company’s U.S. holdings.
Once the piece reached the U.S., another mystery transaction ensued, leaving the mural in the hands of the Curtis family in Polk County, Florida.
In 1952 the piece was again displayed for the first time since the war as the central attraction of a small tourist destination the Curtis family built called Great Masterpiece, in reference to the Last Supper mural, the family’s great masterpiece.
Cook traces the mural’s history during this time through travel brochures and postcards referencing the then-popular attraction. Lawson found many similar artifacts, including a placemat from a local Florida restaurant containing the script for the park’s half-hour commentary on the mural.
But the mural’s display was cut short once again with the rise of Florida’s Walt Disney World only 30 minutes from Great Masterpiece. As the park closed in 1978, the mural went back into storage—until another mystery transaction.
Ken Curtis donated the mural to BJU in 1999. Lawson speculates BJU’s reputation with the Museum & Gallery might have brought about the decision, but Curtis’ reasons remain unknown. Regardless, Lawson said he was grateful for the gift.
In 1999, Lawson’s office oversaw the restoration and installation of the piece at BJU, which took another 138 hours of work from Ken and Karen Brinson, two Art + Design faculty members at the time who had experience with murals. Hundreds of students now walk by this piece of history every day.
Now, Lawson’s office oversees the upkeep of the mural. But to Lawson, the significance of the piece lies in its long voyage to BJU. “We’re the owners of it now, and we’ve got to tell the story into the future,” Lawson said.