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

Published: Thursday, Nov. 14 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

The Mocking of Christ with Mary the Annunciate and Mary the Elder, by Frans Schwartz, is on display in a new exhibit called Sacred Gifts: The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann and Frans Schwartz, at the BYU Museum of Art in Provo on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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."

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