A trip to Bethesda: BYU Museum of Art curator walks readers through an experience with Carl Bloch’s painting

Photo by Jason Swensen, Church News

On August 29, 2001, Christ Healing the Sick at Bethesda, found a new home far away from the Bethesda Indre Mission in Copenhagen, Denmark where it had previously hung for over a century. And now, for the past 20 years, Carl Bloch’s masterpiece has attracted visitors from around the world in the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. Kenneth Hartvigsen, a curator for the Museum of Art, is just one of its many admirers but he says that each time he sits in front of the painting, he learns something new. We asked Kenneth if he could help us “experience” a piece of art, as he does in class with his students at BYU, and he chose “the Bethesda.”

You can listen to Hartvigsen’s description of the painting in this week’s episode by clicking here or listening in the player below. You can also read a full transcript here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.

Morgan Jones: We talked about how there are Latter-day Saint art pieces. And also, obviously, there’s religious art outside of our culture. But I wondered if you might be willing, I think it could be kind of fun for listeners, if you could talk us through what this idea of like experiencing a piece of art might be like, with a piece of either Latter-day Saint art or religious art that our listeners might be familiar with?

Kenneth Hartvigsen: Sure, yeah. You know, I was thinking of one art object that I would think a lot of your listeners might be familiar with. And, you know, of course, they can Google this and it will pull it up immediately if it doesn’t immediately strike a chord. But if you look at Carl Bloch’s painting of the Healing at the Pool of Bethesda, which is a painting that we have at the BYU Museum of Art, it’s a painting that has come to mean an awful lot to the Latter-day Saint community in the last 15 or 20 years. It’s been at the museum for 20 years. And it’s something that’s been used often by the Church, you will see it often in publications. And so it’s a picture that would be familiar to a lot of people. And as I said, we have it here at the museum, it’s always on view on the main level. So people should come and experience it.

It’s a large painting. And it has a view of the Savior in a courtyard space, you can see that part of the courtyard is kind of covered and in shadow. And then on the interior space of the courtyard, there’s the pool of Bethesda, this pool of water. And, you know, we would know that for the story from the New Testament, that Christ approaching the pool of Bethesda, that this is a pool where there’s a kind of folk legend that an angel stirs the water every day, and the first person to get in the water, as soon as it’s stirred, will be healed. And so people gather around this pool to be healed. And that we see Christ lifting up a covering over a man who has been laying by the side of the pool for decades, and he is so so physically challenged, that he’s not able to even crawl into the pool to be healed, that he just lays next to the pool, and hopes that someday someone might carry him to be healed. And so we see the Savior lifting this sort of veil covering over this man. And we know that we’re just in the moment right before the Savior is about to say to this man, pick up thy bed and walk. So this man who is laid there for years, hoping that someone would carry him into the pool is about to be shown the miracle of healing through Christ. So that’s a painting, as I said, that I think a lot of our your audience will be familiar with. And if they aren’t, as I said, they should Google it and take a look or, and come to the museum and see it.

Well, the first thing I would say when having a meaningful art experience is that art takes time. And it’s meant to take time paintings or sculptures or whatever art objects you’re talking about. It takes a long time for the artist to create these things. It took them their entire life to study and learn how to do it. And we’re not meant to experience it in an instant but that is often how we consume it, we might see a painting and see it just as an illustration of a story and see it and then kind of move on. But I think the first thing to have a truly meaningful art experience is just to take time, when you see this painting at the Museum of Art, we have benches in front. And so you sit down, sit down and spend time with the painting. The longer you sit with any work of art, the more you’ll notice. And so I think that you can first start with just the visual experience, just sit down and, and look and just think about colors. Think about the composition of the characters, you know, the figures, think about how the artists composed the scene, how they chose which specific figures to focus on how they’re drawing your attention to those figures. So you can really just start with that sort of visual experience of the piece. In my experience, what tends to happen is that if you just start by looking and just thinking about the visual mechanics, the color of the line the shape, pretty quickly, without even trying, you are going to start feeling and start to think more deeply about, well, what is this reminding me of? What is this making me think of that’s maybe outside of the picture? And I think that’s where you as a visitor or viewer kind of become part of the story. You know, who in this composition Am I drawn to? And why? Is it because of something the artist has done visually? Or is it because of the emotions that I’m feeling? Am I engaged with this art object? You know, why did the artists choose to include so many figures?

There are a lot of figures in the Pool of Bethesda painting, more than we have specific characters in the account of the healing? Why did he include those people? Who are they? Because each one of them has their own story, their own experience? And so I think, you know, as I said, starting with just the visual, starting with the simple questions of what do I see, starting with the simple question is of what colors are being used? And why? Why is the artist focusing my attention here? And then you just allow yourself to think and feel. And the truth is, there’s always something more to think about and feel when you engage with a work of art for a long period of time.

We have had Bethesda here for 20 years, as I said, and we give regular talks in front of the Bethesda. And almost every time that someone gives a talk, they say something different that I hadn’t thought of before. Something that occurred to me looking at the Bethesda not too long ago, just in this is just one example. As I said, it feels like you could have a different feeling or a different experience every day. But looking at the Bethesda not long ago, it occurred to me that we’re not looking at Christ healing anybody, we’re actually looking at the moment before somebody is healed. We’re not seeing the man standing up and carrying his bed away. We’re seeing him still laying on this, you know, rough bed on the stone next to the pool of Bethesda. We’re seeing a man who at this moment, still does not believe that healing will ever come. He doesn’t know who the Savior is at this moment. He’s not someone who sought out the Savior, who came across this man next to the pool. And so it occurred to me, for the first time fairly recently, that what we were witnessing is a moment of anticipation. And probably still a moment of frustration on the part of this man. He’s been laying there for years, for decades, for almost his entire life, hoping that somebody would help him into the water and nobody has. And I thought about how many times in my life have I felt like this blessing that I thought I should have is never going to come? How many times in my life have I been like this man, laying in darkness, Christ is literally lifting up the curtain to sort of reveal him. How many times have I been laying in spiritual darkness or emotional darkness, and felt like this blessing is never going to come, this relief is never going to come because I can’t do XY and Z, I can’t lift myself up and carry myself into the pool because other people aren’t lifting me up and carry me into the pool.

So I realized that this painting, this realization ahead of this painting in this moment, was how universal this painting is in expressing that moment, of frustration, of hope, but also doubt, of doubting our own abilities and what part we have to play in reconciling our own shortcomings in this life. But the beauty of it is that the man doesn’t know that the very next words out of the Savior’s mouth will be pick up your bed. And how often we do not realize that the blessing is what is happening in the next moment. And so that is just that’s just one example of what that painting meant to me recently. But there are so many people in that painting and you could kind of tell an entire story about each and every character and we do this sometimes with audiences will come we call it slow looking is kind of what I’ve been describing for you and, and we’ll bring people in front of the Bethesda. And we’ll just sit there for a few minutes. And then we’ll say, well tell us what you see. And then we’ll say, well, which characters are you drawn to? How does that make you feel? What do you think about these characters, it’s amazing how people will pick out some figure in the background that you’ve never paid attention to. And then they will elucidate for you how that character in the background is the center of the whole painting, and you had no idea. But I think it is it is about being open-hearted. And it is about spending time and then trusting yourself, allowing yourself to feel, allowing yourself to openly feel and think whatever it is that this work of art makes you think and feel.

How valuable is that? That a work of art says to us, that pretty much every work of art says to us, I want you to take a few minutes and think and feel whatever it is, you need to think and feel right now. I mean, imagine what the world would be like, if every single day, everyone gave themselves a few minutes to think and feel whatever it is they need to think and feel. And I feel like that’s what art is inviting us to do. Every single artwork is inviting us to do that. Anyway, I can, I can keep doing this forever.

Morgan Jones Pearson: This is so fun. I pulled up the painting as you were talking. And it’s interesting to me because I’ve never thought of it the way that you described it. And that he didn’t know who Christ was. So when he’s pulling up the thing that that man has overtop of them. It’s almost like the guy has a look on his face like, “Hey, man, what are you doing?” And how many times have we thought that whether it be toward God or just in general, like, what is going on here? Like, why would you do this? Here I am just trying to like my own business and sleep under my thing, and like, you’ve come and lifted it off. But I think that your thought is so profound. And I love the way that you invited us to view that. So I appreciate you being willing to go along with my crazy-haired idea.

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