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'Sacred Gifts' paintings bring history, stories to Provo

Editor's note: This article is part of a series for the upcoming BYU Museum of Art exhibit, "The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann and Frans Schwartz," which runs from Nov. 15 to May 10, 2014. For more information, visit

Just as each painting coming to Brigham Young University's new exhibit, "Sacred Gifts: The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann, and Frans Schwartz," is unique, the stories and history of each work of art are equally varied.

Whether it’s lasting through World War II or the destruction of San Francisco in 1906, many paintings bring a rich legacy with them to the walls of the BYU Museum of Art in Provo.

‘Christ in Gethsemane’

Californian John Zeile was the last independent owner of Hofmann’s 1890 painting of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. Zeile treasured the painting so greatly that during the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, it was the only possession that he saved from his home.

Later, John D. Rockefeller purchased the painting from Zeile and donated it to the Riverside Church in New York, N.Y.

“I’ve always been interested in the picture, but never felt that an individual ought to possess such a rare treasure. I feel it should be made available to the general public,” Rockefeller said of the painting.

And in 1944, Good Housekeeping ranked the painting as one of America’s eight favorite pictures.

While this painting will be familiar to many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, if all goes well, the beloved picture of the Savior in the Garden of Gethsemane will have some additional features, uncovered during the conservation of the painting.

Underneath where Jesus is praying, Hofmann originally painted a thorny, prickly branch. In the background on the right, Peter, James and John were depicted sleeping. On the right, behind the praying Lord, is the city of Jerusalem.

“Over the years the painting has darkened,” Dawn Pheysey, head curator for the museum, said at a BYU Campus Education Week presentation.

When he painted this piece, Hofmann experimented with paint and varnish. Now, Karen Thompson — a conservator who previously worked for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — has found that she cannot remove the varnish without also removing the paint, Pheysey said.

The final look of the painting remains to be seen, as it is still undergoing conservation — a mixture of chemistry, art and years of training.

‘Jesus in the Temple’

Painted in 1880-1881, Hofmann’s portrayal of Christ teaching in the temple as a child was displayed in Dresden at the outbreak of World War II.

“(Museum officials) knew that Dresden might be bombed, so the museums took the paintings out of their frames and rolled them, packed them into trucks and took them to the country. They stored them in castles, or silos, or barns or wherever they could find so the paintings would not be destroyed during the war,” Pheysey said.

Many paintings didn’t survive the destruction of the war; however, several of Hofmann’s did, including “Jesus in the Temple.”

By the time the war was over and the paintings were returned to their respective museums and churches, the interest in Hofmann’s academic style had waned, and his paintings were not shown again. Museums preferred more contemporary work.

“It’s been in storage waiting to make its debut again,” Pheysey said. “It’s wonderful that it survived the wars and fires.”

‘Portrait of Christ, the Savior’

Hofmann painted this 1894 painting of Jesus Christ with the intent to hang it in his bedroom. At night, Hofmann would look into the eyes of the painted Jesus and ask himself if he had kept the Lord’s commandments that day.

His friends persuaded him to put it in his studio so others could also see it. Every Sunday, the artist opened his studio to the public to come and view the painting of Christ.

“Not only did Hofmann have this response to that painting,” Pheysey said, “but so did President Monson.”

President Thomas S. Monson, president of the LDS Church, has kept a copy of this particular painting of the Savior in his office since he was first called to be a bishop in his 20s.

In a 2010 interview with the Museum, President Monson said that when he has a concern or a problem, he looks at the painting and asks what the Savior would have him do.

‘Christ and the Rich Young Ruler’

This painting, done by Hofmann in 1888, was a favorite of the artist’s wife. After her death, Hofmann elected not to sell the painting but rather to keep it in his studio.

“Hofmann had a very generous heart,” Pheysey said. “He was always thinking of the poor. In his studio, there was a donation box with a handwritten note that read, ‘For the orphans of Dresden.’ ”

‘Agony in the Garden’

While BYU has offered to provide a replacement painting for all the art it is borrowing during the exhibit, the priest for Norresundby Church in Norresundby, Denmark, opted to leave the wall empty.

The priest — who agreed to let BYU borrow Frans Schwartz’s portrayal of Christ being comforted by an angel in the Garden of Gethsemane, titled “Agony in the Garden” — said the empty wall serves as a reminder that the angel in the painting has a responsibility elsewhere, and when the exhibit is finished, she will fly back to his congregation.

Emmilie Buchanan-Whitlock is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: or on Twitter: emmiliewhitlock