1 of 4
August Miller, Deseret Morning News
Some of the 46 Rembrandt works on display. The exhibit opens at 10 a.m. today.

After months of preparation and several acquisitions by the LDS Church, an unusually large collection of biblical Rembrandt etchings will open to the public today at the LDS Museum of Church History and Art.

"Rembrandt: The Biblical Etchings" features 46 of the Dutch master's works, 17 of which have recently been acquired by the museum, according to curator Robert Davis. The rest were loaned by independent collectors Shawn and Andrea Merriman and the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University.

Davis believes it is the largest collection of Rembrandt's biblical etchings ever assembled for one exhibit.

He said the church acquired 20 etchings from a private collector about a year ago, but there was not room to display all of them in the current exhibit, which opens at 10 a.m. today following a premiere showing hosted Friday night for local dignitaries and leaders of various faiths.

Part of the acquisition proposal between the church and the private collector was that the museum would mount the exhibit, Davis said.

Rembrandt van Rijn produced 300 etchings — 70 of which focus on biblical scenes — during his lifetime, in addition to hundreds of portraits and commissioned paintings. Regarded as one of the greatest of the Old Masters, many believe the quality of his etchings has never been surpassed, Davis said.

Prints made during Rembrandt's lifetime (1606-1669) from the copper plates he etched with a needle and chisel are known as "lifetime" prints and are considerably more valuable than later prints. Davis said there are a number of lifetime prints in the current exhibit, including a virtuoso piece in "Annunciation of the Shepherds." "There are all kinds of techniques present" in the etching.

Among the works featured are "Abraham's Sacrifice," "Joseph Telling His Dreams," "David and Goliath," "Adoration of the Shepherds," "Jesus Among the Doctors," "Return of the Prodigal Son," "Rising of Lazarus (The Large Plate)," "Christ and the Woman of Samaria," "Driving Moneychangers from the Temple," "The Crucifixion," "Descent from the Cross," and two of Rembrandt's self-portraits.

Davis lauds the artist's "unique ability to depict key moments of Bible stories."

"He communicated meaning and characterized individuals through their gestures and expressions and through the composition of the artwork. He also interpreted scripture from his Dutch viewpoint and filled his etchings with images of common people in humble settings to represent events from the Bible."

The scenes, some smaller in size than recipe cards, are "more than just illustrations of Bible stories," Davis said. "He brings his feelings and his understanding of people into them. He did it mostly because of an inner need, not because he was commissioned" to create them.

Rembrandt was obviously a serious student of the Bible, he said, noting that though he acquired great fame, wealth and possessions earlier in his lifetime, by the time he reached his 40s he had to auction off most of what he owned to meet his rising debts. When he died in 1669, an inventory of his few possessions included only one book — his well-worn Dutch Bible.

Born in the Dutch town of Leiden on July 15, 1606, he eschewed his father's entreaties to learn a profession and left the University of Leiden to study painting. He quickly established a reputation for quality and began teaching. By 1631, his studio in Leiden was flourishing, and he moved to Amsterdam, where he became the leading portrait artist in Holland. Commissions were frequent, and his reputation continued to grow.

He married Saski van Uylenburgh in 1634, and they had four children, three of whom died in infancy, followed by the death of his wife in 1642. After her death, "he developed a new style based on the content of the religious texts he increasingly turned to," Davis said. "He curtailed artistic display for its own sake and included only what was important in expressing the story. Rembrandt turned away from glorifying individuals to reveal the power of humility and simplicity. Portraying truth now became his primary objective. "

Though his body of work included 600 paintings and 1,400 drawings, it was Rembrandt's etchings that some art historians say were most popular during his lifetime, probably because many were affordable to Dutchmen of more modest means, Davis said. The medium of etching copper plates also allowed the artist to make several prints, and then rework the plate itself — often several times — to add detail if desired.

Avoiding the more idealized depictions by Italian artists influenced heavily by Catholic iconography, Rembrandt favored realistic personal portrayals, Davis said, adding he was able to capture "the right moment in time, with an empathy for those being portrayed."

Unlike most exhibitions at the museum, which focuses almost entirely on LDS art and history, organizers were looking to broaden the appeal for potential audiences with a display that is of interest not only to Christians and Jews but to art lovers. Curators have incorporated elements of a 17th-century salon reminiscent of some of the world's finest galleries for the current exhibit, he said, including rich carpets, Delft tile, art glass windows and a Rembrandt Bible.

Etchings by Albrecht Durer and Lucas van Leiden, whose work Rembrandt admired, are also included in the current exhibit with an explanation of their influence on his work.

Elder Marlin Jensen, who oversees the museum and is the church's historian, said the church has never before hosted an exhibit comparable in prestige to the Rembrandt etchings. "We're blessed to have 17 now in the ownership of the church."

He said Latter-day Saints acknowledge in the 13th Article of Faith that they seek after things that are "virtuous, lovely and praiseworthy," and the etchings fill that bill.

"All of us need artistic stimulation, and in these etchings we find work by an artist who in many ways is unsurpassed. His focus through much of his life was on biblical scenes from the Old and New Testament."

Those interested in "seeking to understand God and Christ better and to come to know them" will find the exhibit helpful, including parents looking for "a way of promoting conversation and discourse for their children."

"In our information age we're so saturated with media, but 400 years ago this was the way we communicated religious truth and it is still among best form of communication we have."

Elder Jensen said the church plans to promote the exhibit through the Utah Travel Council and that a virtual tour of the exhibit will eventually be posted on the church's Web site at www.lds.org.

He said the church has no plans to turn toward more of a "municipal art gallery" feel but welcomes the chance to showcase works by a master whose "love of the Bible and ability to render biblical scenes in a wonderful way is very much in keeping with building faith in God and creating interest in a wonderful book of scripture."

The museum is located at 45 N. West Temple, and the exhibit will run through Dec. 11, 2005. Hours are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission is free.

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com