A selection from the first paintings the Church ever commissioned on the Book of Mormon is on display at the Museum of Church History and Art in Salt Lake City through Sept. 11.
On display in the theater foyer in the museum's lower level, the 10 paintings are by Danish imigrant artist C.C.A. Christensen, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and pulled a handcart to Utah.Described by museum curator Richard Oman as a "great visual historian," Christensen is best known for his large-scale historical paintings.
The Book of Mormon paintings were done for a competition in 1890, sponsored by the Church's Deseret Sunday School Union in an effort to meet the need for teaching materials. Based on the original paintings, the Forbes Co. of Boston, Mass., produced a series of lithographic posters that were distributed throughout the Church as visual aids for teachers.
"It was the first art competition the Church ever had," Oman said. "To my knowledge it is the first time the Sunday School formally got involved in creating some kind of visual aids for teachers. And it is the first art the Church ever commissioned on the Book of Mormon."
Included in the exhibit are examples of the paintings from the Church collection and most of the Sunday School prints. Three paintings by Christensen on loan from private collections are featured as well.
The series follows members of Lehi's family as they build a ship for their journey to the New World, make plates for record keeping, receive blessings from Lehi, separate into opposing groups called Nephites and Lamanites and build a temple. Other paintings show Nephi lashed to the mast of a ship by his brothers, the visit of Christ to the New World, and the Angel Moroni delivering the plates of the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith.
Christensen's European tradition is evident in his art, reminiscent of early Italian Renaissance paintings.
Christensen's work is unique in its reflection of human warmth and emotion, Oman noted. For example, in a painting of Lehi blessing his family, a child is shown struggling to get free from his mother, while another is shown burying his face in the lap of his grandfather, Lehi.
"They are acting like little children, and you can tell by looking at the paintings that Christensen was a father and knew what little children act like," Oman said. "His tone is always the family. That's how he sees the gospel, in family terms."
For that reason, Oman feels a visit to the exhibit would be a good way for parents and children to initiate their study of the Book of Mormon this year.
He suggested that families bring along their copies of the Book of Mormon and, as they view a painting, open to the chapter and read the incident depicted in the painting.