HILLEROD, DENMARK — About a mile’s walk through the streets of this picturesque and quaint little town is Frederiksborg Castle.
It’s perched in the middle of a lake, and tourists aptly describe it as the Versailles of Denmark, with its meandering gardens and majestic inside rooms.
But members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider this castle special for a different reason. It’s home to a series of paintings by 19th-century Danish artist Carl Bloch on the life of Christ.
Since 1955, when few images were actually used by the LDS Church in publications, these paintings have been used to illustrate more than 300 issues of the Improvement Era or the Ensign. They can also be seen in LDS meetinghouses, temples and other buildings.
A special exhibit of other artworks and altarpieces by Bloch, on display at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo, Utah, has been the most well-attended show the museum has had in 15 years. More than 250,000 people have come to see the artwork at the exhibit, which will soon close.
Oddly enough, in Denmark, the paintings are tucked in a small room off of the main chapel at Frederiksborg.
If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you might walk past them.
Dawn Pheysey, curator of religious art at the BYU museum, said many Danes don’t quite understand the fascination and fervor of Mormons toward Bloch, a Lutheran artist who fell out of favor toward the end of his career.
But there’s something about his work that resonates with Latter-day Saints.
“I think his figure of Christ is a figure that resonates with our beliefs about him,” Pheysey said. “It’s a very strong, masculine figure and yet a very compassionate one, all rolled into one. That seems to resonate with us and what we believe, and I think that’s one reason the church was attracted to his images of Christ.”
Another Danish artist, Bertel Thorvaldsen, has had a similar effect on members of the LDS faith with his "Christus" statue. Like the works of art by Bloch, the LDS Church began pursuing the opportunity to use this statue back in the 1950s.
A copy of the work is now on display at Temple Square in Salt Lake City and more than a dozen other locations owned by the church. The statue has almost become synonymous with the LDS Church, yet the small church in Copenhagen where the original stands is strikingly quiet when compared to the pulsating streets of this metropolitan city.
While both Thorvaldsen and Bloch were not members of the LDS faith, their works, along with all others the church uses, emanate a certain spirituality and testimony, said Rita Wright, curator of art and artifacts at the LDS Church History Museum.
It’s not the faith of the individual that matters, she said, but rather the quality of their talent and ability to express testimony.
“Artists through the ages have been able to express their testimony and beliefs through their work and have not had the light of the gospel,” she said. “For me, looking at a lot of things, it’s the testimony of the individual that does affect how I receive the art. Carl Bloch was not a member of the church, but he believed in God and really sought to make that spiritual connection.”
During the 1950s, the church actually used several works by well-known masters, including Caravaggio. Now, contemporary artwork is done primarily by members of the church.
Gwen Schweider, from Idaho Falls, Idaho, recently attended the Carl Bloch exhibit at BYU. For her, it was “touching” to see the works of art she grew up seeing in magazines on display. The light and color were more spectacular than the prints, she said. And Schweider felt she was able to recognize more detail and emotion in the paintings than the prints.
None of the works at Fredriksborg are in Provo, but five massive altarpieces Bloch did for churches in Denmark and Sweden are the highlights of the show.
Schweider said her favorite was a painting of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, where an angel is embracing the Savior as he suffers from the weight of the sins of the world. Bloch, whose style has been compared to Rembrandt, uses great contrast between light and shadow to highlight the angel and the suffering Christ.
“This time, Christ was in need,” Schweider said. “He needed to receive help as much as he needed to give help.
“I would love to sit in one place for a long, long time and study the details of (Bloch’s) work.”
Pheysey, who spent nine years working to obtain permission to bring the artworks to Utah, said she has been surprised at the level of personal feelings people have shared about the exhibit. One painting, titled “The Daughter of Jarius,” has led people to share their grief over the death of a spouse or child and how they relate to the painting, which depicts Christ before he came to raise the daughter from the dead.
“They have written how that is almost a healing experience for them to contemplate that," she said. “There is such a personal experience in the paintings. That’s one of the other reasons I think the Bloch paintings are so important to us.”
“I think there are levels of thought and understanding that emerge from a thoughtful encounter with a work of art that sometimes the printed word can’t do,” Wright said.1 comment on this story
“Carl Bloch: The Master’s Hand,” will close May 7. Tickets are no longer available to see the exhibition, but people can still try to enter through a standby line or check online at www.carlbloch.byu.edu to see if someone has canceled a reservation.
The exhibit is open daily now from 10 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.
“We are pleased that so many people have taken the opportunity to see these works; they will probably never be seen together like this again in the U.S.,” said Christopher Wilson, spokesman for the museum.
Nicole Warburton is a Salt Lake-based writer, photographer and the mother of a spunky little girl. Her "Women Only" blog appears on DeseretNews.com.