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Gethsemane donates 'Comforter' painting to Mpls. Art Institute

April 6, 2009

By Lynda Jensen

A valuable 19th century painting was discovered in a janitor’s closet at Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Dassel and subsequently donated to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The painting, called “Christ the Comforter,” (Christus Consolator,) depicts Jesus surrounded by the afflicted and oppressed, commented Pastor Steve Olson, who traveled Tuesday with longtime parishioner Irene Bender to formally acknowledge the gift at the institute.

Looking at the painting, which was done by Dutch painter Ary Scheffer in 1851, one can see many different figures that are relevant today as in the 1800s, Olson said.

The painting depicts Jesus comforting oppressed people, including a soldier draped in a French flag, homeless peasants, a mother grieving over her dead child, and a black slave in chains.

“In times such as these, this painting’s message of hope and comfort reminds us of where we can turn to in our time of need,” Olson said.

The painting’s appraised value, before it was restored, was $35,000.

The congregation could have sold it to a private collector for a handsome sum, but instead chose to donate it to a museum known for its free access to treasured works of art – the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

“We wanted it where it could be seen,” Olson said.

Bender found personal satisfaction in this, since she used to patronize the institute in her younger years, courtesy of its free admission.

“Irv and I would go there in the 1950s because of the free admission, and it was our first experience to see original art,” she said. “At this time of cuts to non-profits,” Bender continued, “it is commendable that they are keeping that policy. They do charge for special exhibits.”

The painting is an “extremely important historical and aesthetic object,” said painting curator Patrick Noon of the institute.

In fact, it was Noon who traveled to Dassel when the painting was first discovered.

How it was found

“As you know, we’re a growing church,” Olson said. The church started to look for more room in 2007 in order to find more space for Sunday school classes.

Two storage rooms were renovated to fit into another classroom at that time, and in fact all of the storage areas were given a keen look to reshuffle items here and there; in order to find more space.

In a janitor’s closet off the lobby, a large stack of art prints were discovered wrapped in bags, with the oil painting at the very bottom.

Olson, who has a personal interest in 19th century art, knew instantly that it was something noteworthy. “I knew I had something interesting on my hands.”

He contacted College of St. Benedict art professor Bob Wilde of Dassel (who has since retired). Wilde looked at it, and agreed that it was “something interesting.”

They brought the painting over to the Wells Fargo bank in Dassel for safekeeping. Olson had a bit of a hard time convincing people that he had the work of a real master on his hands.

He contacted Richard Hillstrom, a Lutheran pastor, who referred him to the institute, saying to use his name.

It worked. Olson called curator Patrick Noon, who traveled to Dassel in August of 2007. “I think he came out as a favor to Pastor Hillstrom,” Olson said.

Noon himself was “astonished,” Olson said. Olson suggested that he bring the painting in his van to the institute, and Noon objected, saying he wanted to send his team to properly package and transport the precious cargo.

It was then transported, restored and is now on permanent display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, www.artsmia.org.

From 1851 to 2009

At the time it was first painted in the 1800s, the artist Scheffer did two versions of the painting, called “Christus Consolator,” which depicts Christ comforting oppressed people.

His first version, which is 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide, was a sensation when first shown at the Paris Salon of 1837, according to the art institute.

A French prince bought the larger version for his Lutheran wife, who hung it in her chapel at Versailles. That version is now in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, a deeply pious Christian who kept an engraving of it in his apartment.

Another, smaller version (3 by 4 foot) was done, which is the one that was kept for so many years at the Dassel church.

As for how smaller version ended up in Dassel; the very first owner was William Bullard who had it from 1852 to 1856 in Boston, according to the art institute.

From there, Pastor David J. Nordling (1878–1931), was the next recorded owner of the painting. He was the pastor of a congregation in Bridgeport, Connecticut, from 1913 to 1915. Nordling subsequently resided in Geneva, Illinois from 1915–29 – and then Dassel, from 1929–31. “He brought it to Dassel in 1929,” Olson said.

Following Nordling’s death in 1931, the picture was donated by his widow, Julia, to the Gethsemane Lutheran Church.

Pastor Nordling himself died an early death; probably from a flu epidemic, Olson said, although this was information he gathered himself from obituary records.

It probably stayed in the pastor’s office until 1971, when another addition (the third of four) was added to the church.

It hung in the church lobby for many years, until about 1980, Olson said. It was in the janitor’s closet for between five and 10 years, he added. By that time, the painting was in disrepair, and the frame was falling apart. “It was showing its age,” Olson said.

The institute has restored the painting and promised to give a replica painting on canvas to the church that “ninety five percent of people won’t be able to tell the difference,” Olson said.

Local connections

Irene Bender, being no stranger to the research of art herself, underwent extensive research on the painting, and found the following local connections:

• Naomi Gray, who grew up in Cokato (daughter of Helen and Dan Nyquist) and now lives in Boston where she is a volunteer at the Atheneum, made another connection with an article in a publication at the time that connected the painting to the Bullard Collection.

“So the thread continues to weave,” Bender observed. “The curator at the MIA was really excited about that.”

• Another local connection to Rev. Nordling’s funeral at First Lutheran (Gethsemane) is that the Rev. Alex Sand who conducted devotions, was the father of Stella Bollman, who was the mother of Jeannie Cressy and Mrs. C. J. Peterson who sang a duet at the service was the mother of Seymour Peterson of Dassel. So there are still some connections.

The meaning inside the painting

The painting was inspired by Luke 4:18: “I have come to heal those who are brokenhearted and to announce to the prisoners their deliverance; to liberate those who are crushed by their chains.”

This text is inscribed on the frame of the primary version in Amsterdam, according to Patrick Noon, curator and department chair, paintings and modern sculpture at the art institute.

At the center of the composition is the figure of Christ, surrounded by the afflicted and oppressed. According to the painting and scripture, the “brokenhearted” are depicted to the left. A kneeling woman mourns her dead child, while in the background (from left to right) we see an exile with his walking stick, a castaway with a piece of the wreckage in his hand, and a suicide with a dagger.

“Placed near these groups are Torquato Tasso (crowned with laurel), a brilliant 16th-century poet imprisoned as a madman, and figures representing the three ages of women,” Noon observed. The model for the oldest woman was Scheffer’s mother, he added.

“To the right of Christ are the oppressed of both the past and present, among them a Polish independence fighter, a Greek Souliote (inhabitant of Souli) warrior, a medieval serf, and a black slave. With his left hand Christ releases a dying man from his shackles, as the repentant Mary Magdalene kneels beside him,” Noon noted.

Scheffer’s image enjoyed wide circulation in Europe and America through engraved and lithographic reproductions, including an 1856 lithograph by Currier and Ives, Noon observed. “In the southern United States a prayer book circulated with an engraved frontispiece that eliminated the figure of the black slave. This prompted a poetic diatribe in 1859 from the American poet and abolitionist, John Greenleaf Whittier.”

Research done by Irene Bender

The following is an article written by Irene Bender that was printed in The Steeple church newsletter.

The Gift

Over 75 years ago, Gethsemane Lutheran Church received the gift of a painting.

It hung in the narthex for many years received little attention, other than the occasional comment that it was rather dark. It eventually ended up in a storage closet without careful packing. Then one day, a year ago, the painting was recognized.

“Christus Consolator” was painted in 1837 by Ary Scheffer, a French painter of Dutch extraction. Scheffer received many state commissions and his paintings of literary and religious subjects made him one of the foremost romantic painters.

The large first painting is in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam on loan from Amsterdam’s Historisch Museum. At the center of the painting is a figure of Christ, seated on a cloud. He is surrounded by the afflicted and downtrodden.

The Christus Consolator – Christ shown as the comforter of suffering humanity – was inspired by the lines of Luke 4:18: “He hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives.”

Gethsemane’s painting is one of probably four or five smaller versions of “Christus Consolator.” Examination by an art curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art has authenticated the painting as an original done by the artist. Suddenly the painting has value; it was no longer stored in a closed but in a vault.

As people speculated about its worth, it was thought it might fund a new addition or at least pay off the church’s debt.

The painting was appraised at $35,000. Restoration would have been at least $5,000 and exhibiting it would have been a concern. The Gethsemane Church Council decided the best place for the painting is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where it could be restored, conserved and enjoyed by their many visitors. The Institute will give a copy of the restored painting to the church.

Its origin is a mystery. Provenance of the painting cannot be determined. Oral tradition states that it was left to Gethsemane by Mrs. Nordling after The Reverend David Julius (D. J.) Nordling died in 1931.

Rev. Nordling came from Geneva, Illinois, to Dassel where he served First Lutheran (Gethsemane) and Swan Lake Lutheran in 1929 until his death in Dassel in 1931.

How did a pastor acquire an original painting from the old masters? That, too is a mystery.

At one time, Rev. D. J. Nordling served a church in Bridgeport, Conn. Research reveals that “Christus Consolator” was exhibited at the Boston Atheneum in 1852 and 1856.

The Atheneum’s catalog did not list an owner. The painting may have come to the United States and used as a political statement to support the anti-slavery movement. The painting shows Christ surrounded by many people needing help and a black slave is holding out his shackled hands to Christ.

The Kane County Anti-Slavery Society, located in Geneva and St. Charles, Illinois (where Rev. Nordling served) was made up of some of the leading citizens in the towns and churches.

Although it was many years later than Rev. Nordling lived in those towns, one can imagine a plausible connection to the painting. An interview with a person who was a young woman when the Nordlings were in Dassel remembers “They had nice things.”

A biography in “My Church” Volume XVII , Edited by Rev./ Prof. S. J. Sebelius, D.D., Augustana Book Concern, Rock Island, Illinois, gives a lengthy history of David Julius Nordling. (1878 - 1931) Pastor Nordling was a power in the pulpit. God had endowed him with a powerful voice. His sermons were well prepared. logical, positive and Biblical.

He wanted to lead his people to the life in Christ. The keynote of his message was ‘Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.’ He was a true shepherd of the flock. Their joys and sorrows were his joys and sorrows.

“Funeral services were held in Dassel, March 26.

Pastor Alex Sand conducted the devotionals and Pastor A. F. Seastrand preached the sermon.

Pastor M. Le Vander conducted devotionals in the church. Pastors Walter F. Pearson and J. I. Bergstrand, close friends of the departed, paid tributes to his life. Dr. Paul H. Andreen read the obituary.

Pastor Swan Johnson preached in Swedish language and Dr. P. A. Mattson, president of the Minnesota Conference delivered the English address.

A vocal duet was by Mrs. C. J. Peterson and Mr. Clarence Johnson and selections by the choir. Pastor C. A. Callerstrom, president of the Cokato District was in charge. The body was sent to Geneva, Illinois for burial.” Services were also held in Geneva Lutheran Church.”

The greatest gift of this (Christmas) season is the reminder of what is truly of worth. Seventy-five years after it was first given, “Christus Consolator” continues to invite us to rejoice in the gift of grace and share that joy wherever it is needed.


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