Countless Church members can likely relate to the symbolic elements of James Tissot's deeply personal "conversion."
The 19th-century French artist was enjoying a successful career painting European high society when he experienced a religious rebirth — a life-changing epiphany that prompted Tissot to turn his talents from the fashions of the world and focus on what matters most: his relationship with Christ.
He would spend years creating meticulous watercolors capturing sacred moments from the Savior's mortal ministry as recorded in the Gospels of the New Testament. Between 1886 and 1896, Tissot painted some 350 scenes, spanning, in chronological settings, from the annunciation to Mary to the birth, ministry, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Tissot's "The Life of Christ" would be introduced at the Paris Salon in an era where secularization defined French society. Yet his work touched a collective spiritual chord. Press accounts reported emotional reactions among exhibition visitors. Men were witnessed reverently removing their hats even as women wept and kneeled before the works.
In 1900, "The Life of Christ" was purchased by the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences. More than a century later, Tissot's definitive, faith-driven series is being loaned, in part, to the Brigham Young University Museum of Art for seven months. Museum officials at the Church-owned school are thrilled that a new audience will experience and enjoy the Christ-centered works of James Tissot.
"I hope people will allow themselves to look at the paintings and find their own testimonies of the scriptures and the Savior," said BYU art educator Rita Wright.
The BYU Tissot exhibition opened June 18 and includes 125 works from "The Life of Christ" series. Visitors to the complimentary show on display in the museum's lower gallery will likely notice the dim lights illuminating the paintings. Tissot created his works utilizing opaque watercolors on woven paper that could fade with prolonged exposure to strong light. But the lack of artificial light also adds a quiet ambience to the exhibit — encouraging reverence as visitors move from one painting to the next.
Students of the New Testament will quickly recognize in Tissot's work the pivotal moments of Christ's ministry found in the gospel writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The Savior is typically depicted in white garb. His physical features suggest the divine, setting Him apart from those with whom He interacts.
Many of Tissot's works are charged with emotion and testimony, including his interpretations of Christ's suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross at Golgatha. Also included in "The Life of Christ" are depictions of Jesus ministering to the sick, His sacred teachings, the Last Supper and episodes from the His parables. Narrative labels next to each work identify the scripture from which the painting was drawn.
Sister Wright hopes visitors will appreciate the exhibition as one man's devotion to Christ even as they look for their own methods of dedicating their life's work to God. Included in the BYU exhibition is a copy of Tissot's illustrated Bible, which was owned by both President Joseph F. Smith and President Joseph Fielding Smith.
"The Life of Christ" will be on display until Jan. 9, 2011. Group tours can be arranged by calling the BYU-MOA at 801-422-1140.