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The inside story on the mystery ‘painting in the parsonage’

"Christus Consolator" by Ary Scheffer, oil on canvas, 1851.
Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts
“Christus Consolator” by Ary Scheffer, oil on canvas, 1851.

Pastor Steve Olson has been taking a lot of media calls since the news broke a few days ago, about an original oil painting by 19th century master Ary Scheffer, which was recently discovered in a janitor’s closet in Dassel, Minn.’s Gethsemane Lutheran Church. “I’ve been getting emails and phone calls from all over, from people out of state, even out of the country. ‘Inside Edition’ called a while ago,” Olson marveled.

The discovery
“I want to correct something that’s been misconstrued in the media,” Pastor Olson says. “The Scheffer painting wasn’t just laying there, forgotten in a janitor’s closet for 70 years.

“The painting belonged to Gethsemane’s pastor in the ’20s and ’30s, David J. Nordling, and he hung it in the parsonage. When he died from influenza in 1931, his widow donated the painting to the church, where it continued to hang in the parsonage for many years until, in the 1970s, the church did some remodeling and transferred the painting to the church lobby, where it stayed for years, until 1998.”

“No one in the congregation knew much about its history or origins; it was just one of many pieces of artwork that belonged to the church. They wanted to hang a new banner in that space and needed to make room. That’s probably when it got moved into storage.”
Skip forward to 2007 when, with a growing congregation that was quickly outgrowing the church’s available space for classes and activities, Pastor Olson was looking over all the church storage areas (some of them pretty large), with an eye toward putting them into more active use.

“In the process of clearing out space, we came across a stack of paintings in sleeves. As soon as I picked up the bottom painting, I could tell this was no cardboard print; it was on canvas. And then when I saw the date, 1851, and the name Scheffer, I began to wonder. I’m a fan of 19th century painting myself, so I was familiar with the style and subject matter.”

“I called Bob Wilde, a retired professor of art from St John’s and St. Benedict University and a friend of the church, and asked him to come over. Looking at it closely together, we became even more convinced this was something special. But the painting and frame were badly in need of repair — the wood started to fall apart in our hands.”

“It was evident we needed to keep it someplace safer than a church closet,” Olson says. “So Bob [Wilde] and I hustled it over the bank.”

At that point, Pastor Olson contacted a number of art institutions to find help authenticating the piece, but he couldn’t get anyone to take his claim seriously. He finally turned to Dassel native, Richard Hillstrom, a fellow art aficionado and a former trustee of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Hillstrom directed the pastor to contact Patrick Noon, the MIA’s curator of paintings; Noon soon followed up on the pastor’s query and came out to Dassel to see the painting for himself. When Noon first examined the Scheffer painting in the Wells Fargo bank vault, Olson says, “He was beside himself with excitement at the possibility of what this might be.”

Keep it, sell it or give it away?
Once the MIA’s restoration team confirmed the painting’s authenticity, Gethsemane’s congregation had to figure out what to do with it. Before restoration but after its initial authentication, the painting was appraised at a value of $35,000. “Apparently, there’s not much of a market these days for religious artwork,” Olson says.

Insurance and security were also thorny issues: With a piece so rare, Lloyd’s of London was willing to insure the painting, but only if the church would agree to keep the piece under tight surveillance and with the kind of atmosphere controls you’d find at a museum. “We just couldn’t care for it here,” Pastor Olson says simply.

According to the pastor, selling the painting wasn’t an attractive option for the church. “We just wanted people to be able to see it,” he explains. “For people who have been shipwrecked by life, or who have lost their homes, or who are in despair, or yearning for freedom — the message that Christ is our consolation seems all the more important to get out now.”

In the end, the congregation voted unanimously to donate the piece to the MIA. “We looked into a lot of offers (some of them not so subtle) from a lot of institutions and museums interested in taking the piece. Ultimately, in addition to its being a wonderful museum, it was important to us that admission to the MIA is free. No matter your circumstances, at the MIA you can be surrounded by things of beauty. You’d be surprised how many places don’t allow the public to view their work so freely.”

Some historical details about the painting
Ary Scheffer completed this version of “Christus Consolator” in 1851; it is a smaller rendering of the image made famous in a much larger work he debuted in Paris in 1837.

Anne-Marie Wagener of the MIA says, “Multiples like this were quite common at the time; a way for a painter to capitalize on the popularity of one of his pieces. Scheffer painted several versions of ‘Christus Consolator,’ with dimensions identical to those in the piece now at the MIA, in the 1850s.”

“We actually have quite a lot of art in the church library. In light of the circumstances,” Olson laughs, “we’ve checked out those other pieces more closely, but the Scheffer painting was the only really valuable one, it looks like.”

The public can now visit the newly restored and reframed version of “Christus Consolator” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where it will be on view as part of the museum’s permanent collection of 19th century paintings. Noon offers his commentary on the painting here.

Susannah Schouweiler writes about visual arts.

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