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Major BYU exhibit may give Christendom a new favorite painting, draw 200,000 visitors

SHARE Major BYU exhibit may give Christendom a new favorite painting, draw 200,000 visitors
We think this painting will be absolutely iconic in the church because of the very different Mormon doctrine of the Atonement, that the sacrifice took place primarily in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Christ took upon himself all of our sufferings. This painting portrays that suffering in an incredibly deep and meaningful way. – Museum Director Mark Magleby

Many Mormons might have a favorite new painting of Jesus Christ after they see the blockbuster, $1.2 million "Sacred Gifts" exhibit at the BYU Museum of Art.

Both the director and the curator of the museum believe Christians everywhere will be touched by the spirit of a 19th-century painting of Gethsemane few of them have ever seen from a painter whose name few of them have ever heard.

More than 200,000 people are expected to visit the exhibit, which opens today and runs through May — 30,000 people already have secured free tickets at sacredgifts.byu.edu/tickets, including "sellouts" on Friday and Saturday — but "Agony in the Garden" by Frans Schwartz may resonate particularly with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We think this painting will be absolutely iconic in the church because of the very different Mormon doctrine of the Atonement," museum Director Mark Magleby said, "that the sacrifice took place primarily in the Garden of Gethsemane, when Christ took upon himself all of our sufferings. This painting portrays that suffering in an incredibly deep and meaningful way."

If Schwartz does become a Christian favorite, he will join the exhibits two other painters, whose work already hangs in many homes and churches throughout Christendom, including Mormon meetinghouses worldwide.

Christian icons

Prints of famous, revered paintings of Jesus Christ by masters like Carl Bloch and Heinrich Hoffman hang in Mormon meetinghouses around the world. Now, 19 of their original religious works are gathered together for the first and likely only time.

But it's the third, surprise painter in the exhibit, Schwartz, who might steal the show and win new converts to his powerful, deep and moving images of the focal point of Christendom.

One of the iconic images of Christ's face in American Christian families and Mormonism is from "Christ and the Rich Young Ruler" by Heinrich Hofmann. That painting was loaned to the exhibit with along with three other Hofmanns by the famous Riverside Church in New York City

A dozen paintings by Danish master Carl Bloch, several of which are common in LDS meetinghouses and publications, are on loan to BYU from churches and museums in Denmark, Sweden and Germany

"They say a Broadway musical is a success when people come out of the theater singing the theme song," Magleby said. "People come to our exhibit already singing the tune. They know the song because they have seen prints of many of these paintings in their homes and churches throughout their lives, but at the museum they are really seeing them for the first time."

This collection of religious paintings is a major American art event for the very reason Schwartz is not well-known in America: Many of these paintings never leave their homes. For example, eight of the paintings have never been seen outside the Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod, Denmark.

Only chance

"You have to dig them out of the wall," museum chairman Henning Fode said Thursday during a news conference at BYU. "These paintings have never left the castle, and my director instructed me to say it will never happen again."

Loaning out their paintings represented a major sacrifice for some congregants in the churches involved.

"The discussion was extremely emotional for some, who said, 'We're not a museum,' " said Inger-Marie Dahl of the Ordrup Kirke in Charlottenlund, Denmark. Ordrup loaned a famous 1880 Bloch painting titled "The Mocking of Christ."

"Our original reaction was unanimous: 'Absolutely not,' " said Riverside Church Councilmember Karen McVoy-Stone. "We are not letting these paintings out of our church."

Eventually, she said church members realized the loan meant a "huge number of people would get to see these works of art" who otherwise wouldn't.

"Not all churches love their paintings," Magleby said, "but these churches cherish these paintings."

Mutual gifts

The lenders also were swayed to loan their paintings by BYU's offer to pay to conserve the paintings. That was a particular motivation for the Sankt Jakobs Kirke in Copenhagen, home of Blochs "The Resurrection," said church chairman Ole Erhardt Pagels, explaining that an intruder slashed the painting with a knife in 1975 and church members feared sending it to the United States would destroy it.

Through donors like Roy Christensen, BYU paid about $65,000 for work on "The Resurrection," Pagels said.

"I saw it for the first time today," he told the Deseret News Thursday, "and you can't see (the old damage). We will get the painting back in our church in better condition than it was before."

Riverside's McVoy-Stone said her church's members will gain new appreciation for their four loaned works because BYU has taught the church how to light the paintings for optimum viewing.

For Riverside members, the loan also was an opportunity to learn more about the LDS Church and share their faith with Mormons.

"It's important to have open dialogue between peoples who have different Christian expression, but the center of our being is Christ," McVoy-Stone said, "that we believe that Christ is the risen Savior, and we believe that it's important to do the things Christ asked us.

"Agony's" effect

For Magleby, "Agony's" power is in its masterful depiction of Christ's expression.

"Those eyes," he said. "Those sorrowful eyes. There is a forlorn pain in his eyes. They are unblinking. He has entered into this with eyes wide open about the importance of what He is doing. I never saw that his eyes were open and full of pleading until I saw it in person."

For BYU's head curator, Dawn Pheysey, the consoling touch of the angel is soulful.

"It's the most powerful image I have ever seen of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane," she said. "Seeing it in person for the first time was the most incredible experience. It just takes your breath away. The embrace by the angel is so tender and so personal and so powerful at the same time.

"The angel is embracing the Savior, giving all the strength he can possibly give to the Savior of the world."

Pheysey learned of the painting, on loan from the Nrresundby Kirke in Denmark, when a friend showed her an etching of it.

Her feelings about the importance of touch in the painting and of consoling others in life are captured in a video that is part of the app produced for iPads visitors can rent and use as they stroll through the exhibit. The app includes interviews with people around the world, music that fits the paintings and more.

Magleby also appreciates the cool colors Schwartz used, very different from the deep reds of Bloch. He said they "better represent the loneliness of fulfilling the demands of the Atonement and the inconsolable expression on his face."

The only reason he sees that some Latter-day Saints might not fall in love with the painting is that LDS culture is "very conservative about portraying wings," he said. "But they are a symbol. No one thinks the Savior has wings though he says, 'How oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings.' It's that 'as' " that makes it clear it is a symbol.

Pheysey also appreciated the symbolism of the wings.

"Someone who saw it said the wings of the angel envelope the Savior and block out the darkness, even if its just for a moment."

The journey

The exhibit begins with an elegant presentation of Schwartz's "Agony in the Garden." It ends with Bloch's bold "Resurrection of Christ."

"He is victorious," Magleby said. "The victory is won."

For the visitors from Denmark and New York on Thursday, the effect was striking.

"It's fantastic to see them together," Pagels said.

"You go through those doors," Riversides McVoy-Stone said, "and you walk in and you feel the presence of Jesus. You look at every picture from all three artists and you feel the spirit of Jesus. You feel these men were imbued with the spirit to produce incredible art."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com