Guest Post by Curator Ashlee Whitaker
Fifteen years ago this month, history occurred at Brigham Young University. On November 2, 2001, the BYU Museum of Art unveiled their newest and, possibly, most important acquisition to date: Carl Bloch’s Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda. The acquisition marked a new chapter in the ministering impact of this painting and ushered in yet another of a series of miracles in order to bring the painting to BYU.
For almost 120 years, this piece hung above the pulpit of the Bethesda Indre Mission Church in Copenhagen, Denmark. Priests commissioned Carl Bloch, one of the nation’s most celebrated artists, to paint the scene in 1882, in commemoration of the opening of the Bethesda Indre Mission Church. Bloch’s interpretation of Christ healing an infirm man manifested the artistic mastery, empathetic spirit and penetrating narrative characteristic of Bloch’s religious scenes. It also reflected the vision of the Indre Mission—a late 19th century revival movement auxiliary to the Danish Lutheran Church that sought to instigate spiritual renewal and compassionate relief through ministry.
Over a century later, its impact was not lost on native Dane and LDS artist and collector Soren Edsberg, who approached the Bethesda Indre Mission church about potentially selling the piece. As the Bethesda Mission sought funds to renovate their building and accommodate new social and ecclesiastical programs, they made the difficult decision to sell the painting in 2001. Long-time Museum of Art patrons Jack and Mary Lois Wheatley donated the funds to acquire Bloch’s masterpiece for the BYU Museum of Art.
Because of the Mission’s status as an entity outside the official Danish state church, permission for the sale of a church altarpiece was granted. However, negotiations also had to be met with the Danish government in order for the work of such a prominent national artist to leave the country. Approval was eventually granted and, for the first time, a Carl Bloch painting would find a new home outside of Denmark.
The painting arrived at the museum on September 10, 2001, just one day prior to the tragic events of September 11. Had the shipment been delayed due to the upheavals in airline travel, the painting could have been exposed to fluctuations in temperature and humidity that would have damaged the work.
When the painting it was unveiled to the public in November 2001, donor Mary Lois Wheatley commented, “We hope that as people view the painting they will come to better appreciate the Savior as the real source of peace and strength.” Over the past 15 years, Bloch’s painting of the healing at Bethesda has become an iconic image for the Museum of Art, as well as for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Reproductions of the painting can be seen in meetinghouses and church buildings throughout the world and is used as signature image of the Church’s welfare program.
Museum visitors seek inspiration, comfort and instruction at the Museum by viewing and contemplating this image. Bloch’s depiction of healing invites reflection on the Savior’s invitation: “Wilt thou be made whole?” Christ’s interaction with the withered man is instructive of His capacity to succor. While the crowds that frequented the pool of Bethesda may have overlooked the withered man’s protracted suffering, obscured beneath his makeshift canopy, Christ noticed and extended compassionate healing.
Bloch introduces a further layer of consideration by drawing attention to the red-turbaned man sitting near the stone steps, in line with the Savior’s outstretched arm. Rendered with deliberate artistic detail, the man’s body language and gaze are in stark contrast with the soon-to-be-healed man. Holding his legs against his chest, the seated man looks askance with a wary, almost challenging stare, perhaps begrudging the impending miracle and his own unresolved plight. Whether embittered or skeptical of Jesus’ power to heal, he draws inward in a self-protective embrace, still relying on the waters for his cure—perhaps like many of us who trust in familiar traditions or our own understanding rather than in Christ, the Living Water.
In celebration of its 15-year anniversary, we invite patrons to visit the MOA and reflect on Bloch’s remarkable masterpiece. Share your thoughts with us: what does this painting say to you?
Those who enter responses will be entered into a drawing for a free print of Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda.