We may not know what Jesus looked like, but artists in every region and generation have tried to capture how he seemed to them.
In 19th-century Europe, painters depicted the Christian savior as a heroic figure, divine yet human. Their style was realistic, but their goal was emotive — to make viewers feel the man’s presence.
Now, Brigham Young University has brought together in a single exhibit two dozen religious works of three artistic giants from the late 1800s — Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann and Frans Schwartz.
For BYU, Bloch’s paintings are a second coming of sorts. The LDS Church-owned school displayed his work in 2010 through 2011, attracting one of the largest audiences in the museum’s history.
The Danish artist’s Jesus is familiar to Utahns, having appeared often in Mormon meetinghouses, manuals and magazines.
But in his time, Bloch was even more famous in Denmark, where his works graced Lutheran churches in what were known as “altar pieces.”
For this exhibit, “Sacred Gifts,” which opens Nov. 15, the Provo school secured eight Carl Bloch paintings on loan from the Frederiksborg Castle in Denmark (part of the famous “Life of Christ” series in the King’s Oratory).
These paintings have never before been out of the oratory, says Dawn Pheysey, the show’s curator, “and leadership at Frederiksborg Castle say they will not be loaned ever again.”
Two Hofmann paintings of Jesus in the temple will be on loan from the Gemäldegalerie Neue Meister in Dresden and the Riverside Church in New York. Neither has been displayed for more than a quarter-century.
Part of the reason for such exclusive rights to these prized works is that BYU agreed to restore the pieces, Pheysey says. “They look dramatically different since they’ve been cleaned.”
Hofmann and Schwartz, who was half a generation younger, were influenced by Bloch.
“We wanted to bring these three religious painters together, because they are so well-known in Utah,” Pheysey says. “And because they are examples of academic realism.”
All three studied at an art academy — Bloch and Hofmann in Denmark, Schwartz in Germany.
At the time they were working, European Christians were building or renovating many churches and there was a call for religious art.
“These men were at the top of the field,” she says. “Plus, they were all religious men.”
Hofmann’s painting of Christ has been hanging in LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson’s office since he was a young bishop, Pheysey says, challenging him to live his faith.
Of the three, Schwartz may be the least familiar to locals.
He was, the curator says, a “rather eccentric loner” who never married. He had inherited wealth, so he did not rely on the sale of his paintings for his livelihood and often gave works to churches for a nominal fee. When he died, Schwartz bequeathed his art to Copenhagen to decorate buildings.
But he was always engaged in religious questions.
“He would discuss with the bishop of a church the scriptural subject he was being asked to paint,” Pheysey says. “He would delve into it more deeply than a cursory reading of the story. He wanted to represent the doctrine correctly.”
These artists were not even trying to be historically accurate, says Utah artist Brian Kershisnik. There was no talk of what a first-century Jew in Palestine might look like or have worn.
Christians believe Jesus “was one of us, related to us,” Kershisnik says. “Gods had never been related to us in the history of the world. So my Jesus would look like me.”
Thus we see Christ giving the Sermon on the Mount wearing a Roman toga, surrounded by Danish-looking followers. But there’s a boy touching a butterfly in the crowd.
Those small details “make you feel he’s there, and you’re with him,” says Kershisnik, who served a Mormon mission in Denmark. “Bloch captured something that feels accurate to the experience of Jesus.”
Hofmann, too, created a “complicated savior,” he says, “who could be loving and approachable but who might also be angry with you, who might reprove the disciples.”
It’s an image that large groups of people could see and say, “Yes, that’s my Jesus.”
‘Sacred Gifts’ opens next month
P “Sacred Gifts: The Religious Art of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hofmann and Frans Schwartz” runs from Nov. 15 through May 10 at Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art in Provo. Patrons are urged to reserve their free tickets as early as possible. Most paintings in the exhibition will be on view throughout the show, according to the museum’s website, but the eight Bloch paintings on loan from the Frederiksborg Castle will be shown four at a time. For more information, go to http://sacredgifts.byu.edu/exhibition.
From the Bible
“Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is.”
1 John 3:2