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Christ the consoler

MINNEAPOLIS -- It isn't quite the proverbial lost Rembrandt found at a garage sale, but it is a 19th-century art treasure unearthed in the janitor's closet of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Dassel, Minn.

"Christus Consolator"
The painting "Christus Consolator" by the Dutch-born, French-trained artist Ary Scheffer now hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. (Associated Press)
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It isn't quite the proverbial lost Rembrandt found at a garage sale, but it is a 19th-century art treasure unearthed in the janitor's closet of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Dassel, Minn.

The Rev. Steven Olson stumbled upon the painting, dirty and discolored but obviously of Jesus, a couple of years ago under a pile of art reproductions in a janitor's closet in Gethsemane.

"My first reaction was stunned disbelief," Olson told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and St. Paul this week.

The pastor contacted a professor friend, who confirmed that it looked original, and then spoke with the Rev. Richard Hillstrom, a former trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and an expert in religious art who grew up in Dassel.

"Richard danced like a kid in a candy store" when he saw the painting, Olson said.

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It turns out the painting "Christus Consolator," was by the Dutch-born, French-trained artist Ary Scheffer, one of the pre-eminent Romantic painters in Paris of the first half of the 19th century.

Iconic in its day

Scheffer's 1851 work was iconic in its day, and reproductions enjoyed wide circulation in Europe and America. But it went unrecognized for 70 years in Dassel, a town of just 1,300 people 50 miles west of Minneapolis.

Scheffer did several versions of the scene depicting Christ consoling oppressed people, including Greek and Polish freedom fighters, homeless peasants, poor women and a black slave in chains. His first version was 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide and caused a sensation when first shown in 1837 Paris. A French prince bought it for his Lutheran wife, who hung it in her chapel at Versailles; it now hangs in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, a tribute to Vincent Van Gogh, a pious Christian who kept an engraving of the painting in his apartment.

The smaller version found in the church in Dassel is "an extremely important historical and aesthetic object, MIA painting curator Patrick Noon said.

David Marquis at the MIA spent weeks removing discolored varnish, mold and dirt to find the painting's colors intact and every detail perfect. A stamp on the back showed the canvas had been purchased in Paris in 1851.

How did it end up in Gethsemane Lutheran in Dassel?

Through old records, Noon determined the painting once belonged to a wealthy Bostonian, William Bullard, who had a friend who studied in Scheffer's Paris studio and probably lobbied Bullard to buy it. After Bullard's death, the picture probably was passed to his son, Francis, who died in 1913.

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Path to Minnesota

David Nordling was a minister in Bridgeport, Conn., from 1913 to 1915. Noon speculated that somehow Nordling acquired the painting, perhaps from a New York gallery to which it might have been consigned after Francis Bullard's death. Nordling's ministerial career took him to Geneva, Ill., and then to Dassel, where he died in 1931. His widow gave the painting to Gethsemane.

"Close examination showed that this was by Scheffer's hand," Noon said. "His technique is very fine. . . . There's no question that it's by him."

An appraisal valued the picture at $35,000. The church thought about keeping it, but only Lloyd's of London would insure it, and it insisted on museum-level security and atmosphere control. Unable to afford to keep the painting, Gethsemane decided to donate it to the MIA, where it will occupy a prominent place in the 19th-century paintings gallery.

"Oh my, I can't believe it. It makes me teary eyed," said Irene Bender, dabbing her eyes Tuesday as she gazed at the picture in the museum. A member of Gethsemane, Bender helped trace its history through church records.

The MIA is giving the church a photographic reproduction of the painting, printed on canvas.

"Today, when our society is so ridden with conflict and doubt, it is good to see Christ's consolation to the homeless and downtrodden being rediscovered," Olson said this week in the painting's new home, the MIA.

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"Christus Consolator"
The Rev. Steven Olson (left) of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Dassel, Minn., looks at "Christus Consolator" along with Minneapolis Institute of Art painting curator Patrick Noon. (Associated Press)

Related Topics: DASSEL
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