Editor's note: The upcoming BYU Museum of Art exhibit, "The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann and Frans Schwartz," runs from Nov. 15 to May 10, 2014. For more information, visit sacredgifts.byu.edu.
PROVO — To the right of a spacious lobby filled with paintings of the Nativity and sculptures of biblical figures hangs an iconic painting of a humble carpenter healing a man near a pool called Bethesda.
For Dawn Pheysey, head curator at the BYU Museum of Art, this is where it all began.
In 2010, the BYU Museum of Art hosted more than 306,000 visitors in an exhibit featuring the life of Christ through 19th century Danish artist Carl Bloch's paintings. The exhibit was titled "Carl Bloch: The Master's Hand."
Beginning in November, the BYU Museum of Art will open a new exhibit featuring the works of Carl Bloch and other 19th century painters called "Sacred Gifts: The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann, and Frans Schwartz."
The painting that inspired it all, the BYU-owned "Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda" by Bloch, which was on display in the 2010 exhibit, will be featured in the new collection as well.
BYU obtained the painting, which has become an icon for many Christians, after what Pheysey calls a series of fortuitous events — because becoming the sole proprietor of an original 1883 canvas oil painting is no easy feat.
"It took several hoops in order to get permission to purchase it," Pheysey said.
The transaction acted as a springboard for Pheysey's dream —an exhibition of Bloch and other artists' religious paintings.
"We began going over to Denmark every year and building relationships with people there in the churches," Pheysey said.
That friendship paved the way for what Pheysey called some presumptuous requests — four altar paintings, the centerpiece of many churches in Denmark, and eight paintings from the Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark.
While the process for borrowing paintings from other museums is easy, Pheysey said this was a particularly steep request because both the altarpieces and the paintings from the castle are permanent fixtures.
"And so we ask, and it sinks in for a minute and we tell them about the 306,000 people who came to the last show and how they lined up, and how there were throngs dying to see these works," said museum director Mark Magleby. "And they think, 'We love these works,' but then their altruistic feelings take over and they say, 'We'd like to share them with all of those people.'"
BYU's exhibit in 2010-11, "Carl Bloch: The Master's Hand," featured four of Bloch's altar paintings from churches in Denmark, and the upcoming exhibit, "Sacred Gifts: The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann, and Frans Schwartz," which opens Nov. 15, will feature eight paintings from Bloch's "Life of Christ" series, located in the King's Oratory at the Frederiksborg Castle museum.
Though Bloch's paintings will be featured again, Pheysey said visitors can expect a different show.
"This exhibit is totally new," she said. "This time we were able to borrow all the paintings we were not able to borrow the first time. It's the completion of the exhibit."
And this new exhibit is making history.
"These paintings have never before been out of the oratory since they were installed ... in the 1860s-70s, and they will not be loaned again," castle director Mette Skougaard said in a press release.
Skougaard said the castle's decision to grant BYU's request came as a result of the great importance Bloch's paintings have to the people of Utah.
It was in part because of the encounter many of the contributing church officials had with Utah patrons that they gave their consent to lend their beloved and permanent paintings for another exhibit, Pheysey said.
BYU borrowed a portrait of Carl Bloch from the Frederiksborg Castle for the 2010 exhibit, "Carl Bloch: The Master's Hand." Toward the end of the exhibition, BYU museum officials extended the invitation to all they had been working with in various churches and at the castle to come to Provo to see the exhibit firsthand.
"We wanted them to experience what we were experiencing with Bloch's paintings," Pheysey said. "In a way, it was our gift to them."
During their weeklong stay, visitors from Denmark and Sweden saw not only their paintings on display, but the thousands of people who came to view them also.
"They couldn't believe how much the people of Utah loved Carl Bloch," Pheysey said.
Pheysey recalled that one of the most remarkable aspects of the visitors' stay was how patrons in the museum would personally thank them for allowing BYU to borrow Bloch's paintings.
"I don't know how people in that gallery knew, but they would come up to (our visitors) and say how much the paintings meant to them," she said. "They couldn't believe it, nor could they believe the crowds."
Ultimately, Pheysey said, the week's experiences, combined with the visitors' glowing report of the exhibit to their home congregations in Sweden and Denmark, paved the way for "Sacred Gifts."
"To be able to share our feelings for these paintings made a huge difference in our ability to go and ask these other churches who didn't lend the first time," Pheysey said.
Full-circle sacred gifts
And museum officials like Magleby and Pheysey said they recognize the gift they have been given in making this exhibition a reality.
Pheysey said that while the first exhibit featuring Carl Bloch was to acquaint people with his work, "Sacred Gifts" is about recognizing the many gifts that embody this exhibit.
"We realized the art and the message of the exhibition itself was really the result of many gifts," Pheysey said. "There are the God-given talents of the artists. They are magnificent and not only uplifted people in their lifetime but continue to uplift and edify Christians all around the world today."
In return for their generosity, BYU will cover the cost of conservation for each painting before it returns back to its original home. Paintings have been donated from locations in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and New York.
Magleby said that the generous donations given by patrons are also essential to make the exhibit possible — and free to the public.
"We are totally funded by philanthropies, by donors," he said. "One of our biggest donors came forward and gave a half a million dollars. With the cost of conservation, shipping and insurance, half a million is a starting point."
Magleby said that it was not uncommon — after conservation and masterpiece shipping — for an altarpiece to cost $100,000 per exhibit.
"Sacred Gifts" will feature three altarpieces by Carl Bloch from churches in Sweden and Denmark.
Though the exhibit is free, Magleby and Pheysey said that they hope patrons will be inspired to donate to the museum, bringing the concept of gifts full circle.
"We would hope people would give as much as they feel it was worth," Pheysey said. Donations can be made online and at the exhibit.
"The whole process is about sacred gifts. It's the gift from the churches and the people there to share the focal point of their church with us, and on our part to be able to provide funds so that when the paintings go back to them, future generations can enjoy them as well," Pheysey said.
Ultimately, museum officials agree that the exhibit is about the infinite gift of the prime subject — the Savior, Jesus Christ.
Emmilie Buchanan is an intern for the Deseret News with Mormon Times. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho. Contact her by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @emmiliebuchanan
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company