In 1880, LDS poet and essayist Hannah Tapfield King wrote, “Nature and art are twins, born of beauty and brought from heaven! All the grand sculptors have taken their models from nature — beautiful, glorious nature, the child of God!” She added the caveat, “If the artist, painter or sculptor has had a sublime, poetical, heaven-inducted soul, so far has he or she excelled their contemporaries.”
King described visiting the galleries and museums that house great art as “a feast (that) none but those who witness such can understand or appreciate. … In the figures, the attitudes, the expression, there is a spirit in each that is felt but not told by articulate sounds.” She wrote eloquently of “The Dying Gladiator” and “Venus di Medici,” two sculptures that remind us that in nature, man is God’s greatest creation.
King beautifully expressed the joy I find when I enter museums and meditate upon great works of art. They speak to the soul and force contemplation beyond the mundane and the material world. I had this experience several times in the last two months while attending and returning to the Carl Bloch Exhibit at the the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. Bloch certainly qualifies as a “sublime, poetical, heaven-inducted soul.” One cannot enter without feeling the devotion and adoration that pervades the exhibit. Perhaps that is why I returned and will yet return.
Bloch’s masterpieces are taken from scriptural accounts of the life of Christ. His reverence for the Savior exudes from his paintings. Bloch’s most renowned work is "Healing at the Pool of Bethesda," a towering 9¼- by 10½-foot rendering, that is splendid in detail and spirit. Christ, clothed in subtle but radiant white robes, lifts a coarse cloth covering a man infirm for 38 years. Although the waters beside him supposedly have healing properties, this lonely soul has no hope. Bloch presents Christ in his glory, subtly yet forcefully capable of healing tortured souls. The canvas also reminds that far too many individuals, as evidenced by others around the pool, “miss the mark” and look for healing from any but the great healer, Jesus Christ.
However, this is not my favorite Bloch painting. And that is the lovely thing about art. Because it speaks so directly to the soul, individuals choose favorites that speak to their heart and to their personal life experiences. My favorite is a smaller, yet exquisitely rendered painting.
Yes, I adore "Christ in Gethsemane" because I, too, have experienced the divine comfort of angels. I am roused by "The Temptation of Jesus" and reminded of Christ’s majesty, that Satan’s tawdry enticements dissolve into nothingness before the Savior’s grandeur. Bloch’s studies of everyday life are also compelling. "The Woman with the Sparrows" depicts mercy personified. "Old People" exudes tender devotion between an elderly couple, as an aged wife reads to her bedridden husband.
Yet my personal favorite is "The Daughter of Jairus." It is a smaller, darker canvas. Light focuses the viewer’s eyes on a mother tenderly straining forward, head tilted, clutching the bed sheets of her lifeless, unblemished daughter. Tears trail down her cheek as she numbly gazes at the still body of her beloved. Then the viewer’s eyes are drawn to darkened images, barely noticeable in the background — except for the soft glow emanating from the barely discernible Savior of the world. He stands, framed in the doorway, contemplating the heart-wrenching scene before him. The living embodiment of salvation is about to restore the young girl to life. The Savior and Redeemer of the world, the restorer of hope and joy, will do for Jairus, for the daughter and for her mother what he will do for each of us. He will replace despair with hope and suffuse each with his mercy and his love.
Hannah Tapfield King quoted Lord Byron, who captured in words the joy one feels before works of genius. Byron “in his own strong, peculiar language described his feelings, on returning from the Vatican; he sa(id): ‘I returned dazzled, and drunk with beauty.’”
Great works of art invite contemplation. They invigorate and inspire. They force us to new heights. Paraphrasing, it was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said, “A mind, once stretched by a new idea (or work of art), never returns to its original dimensions."