20 Years Ago

 In MOA Features

20 years ago tomorrow, the world changed forever in a wave of fire and grief and bloodshed. Lives were lost, families were forever shaken, and fear and hate found their way into hearts around the globe. The awful events of that day need no reminder, as their echoes haunt humanity to this day. No one’s life would ever be the same again.

In the midst of all the bitter memories and heartache, the mourning and sorrow we all can and should feel for the events of 20 years ago tomorrow, I hope you’ll indulge me in discussing one tiny miracle from 20 years ago today. It won’t erase an ounce of that pain, nor do I think it should. But maybe for you, as it has for me, it might help that pain be mingled with a small amount of hope, for what is hope if not a way to make our burdens a tiny bit more endurable?

20 years ago today the Museum of Art was blessed with a long-awaited arrival: a canvas, over 100 years old, more than 9 feet high and 12 feet wide. On it was a beautifully told portrayal of a simple story from the New Testament painted by the 19th-century Danish master Carl Heinrich Bloch. The story came from the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John, which reads in part:

“Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked”

You’ve doubtlessly seen the painting. If you’re a Latter-day Saint, you’ve seen it emblazoned on lesson manuals and chapel walls for decades, and if you’ve been to the MOA in the past two decades, you hardly can have missed it. The Savior in his long white robe; a crowd of hurt and hurting people; a central figure in a red turban whose face is hard to read; a shrouded man who’s waited so long for relief that he’s driven stakes into the ground to maintain his humble shelter; a child looking directly at you. Bloch has taken this simple, beautiful story and transformed it into an intricate tapestry of human emotion. The faces suggest pain, worry, resignation, and grief. Who knows how long many in this “great multitude” have been there, desperate for some small relief from their sufering? The scarred and tormented figures are a testament to the inevitability of pain, injustice, and learning to cope with loss. And yet at its core, this painting, like the story it embodies, shares a message of hope and healing, of perseverence and patience, of fortitude and faith.

Those who received the painting 20 years ago today could not have imagined the horrors of 20 years ago tomorrow. But that reminder of hope in spite of enduring pain is one the world would need very soon. It is a message we need today.

Let’s be clear; we’re just an art museum. We cannot heal illnesses or injuries; we cannot put an end to global violence. What we can do is offer some small shred of comfort, hope, and beauty to anyone who seeks it. And so today we invite you to sit in front of the Pool of Bethesda and be inspired by its majestic message. Take as long as you like. Soak in the artistry, the testimony, and the reverent love. Come and see for yourself just how much of a difference a single work of art can make in your life. We promise you won’t regret it. We’ve seen it changing lives for 20 years.


Riley Lewis

Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890), “Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda,” 1883, oil on canvas, 100 3/4 x 125 1/2 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchased with funds provided by Jack R. and Mary Lois Wheatley, 2001.

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