Double vision? Not quite! The work on the left, by Danish painter Carl Bloch; and the right-hand work — our Agony in the Garden window, by stained glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo – are strikingly similar, but their differences reveal the artists’ separate worldviews.
Artist Carl Bloch was born to a Danish merchant family, in Copenhagen, in 1834, and his father planned for his “respectable” future as an officer in the Danish Navy. In 1855, Bloch chose, instead, to enter the Royal Danish Academy of Art, for formal art training. He always traveled in good society: among his friends were playwright Henrik Ibsen and fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen (of Little Mermaid fame), who even wrote a cringeworthy poem in his honor. Today Bloch is best remembered for the much-reproduced series of 23 religious paintings he created for the King’s Chapel at Fredriksborg Palace in Denmark between 1865 and 1879 (Now the National History Museum run by the Carlsberg brewery foundation). Wikipedia notes that “For over 40 years The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has made heavy use of Bloch’s paintings, mostly from the Frederiksborg Palace collection, in its church buildings and printed media. The Church has produced films depicting scriptural accounts of Christ’s public ministry, using Bloch’s paintings as models for the colour, light and overall set design as well as the movement of the actors in many of the films’ scenes.”
Our stained-glass artisan Nicola D’Ascenzo’s life followed a different path. He was born into a family of artists, metalworkers and armor makers, in Torricella Peligna, Italy, in 1871 – a region rich with romantic ancient legends, historic sites, and wild landscapes. His family emigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia in 1882. Some form of handcrafts was always in D’Ascenzo’s future: he initially apprenticed as a stonecutter and to a woodworker, studying painting in the evenings at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts (now part of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts) and the New York School of Design. D’Ascenzo embraced the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, which reacted against industrialization and mass-production — setting up a medieval-style guild to create one-of-a-kind handcrafted artworks – such as our church windows, which were one of his early commissions. Among his other well-known works are stained glass in the Washington Memorial Chapel in Valley Forge; on the Nipper Building in Camden, New Jersey; and at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.
The two artists probably never crossed paths, though Carl Bloch lived in Italy from 1859 to 1866, and likely traveled back and forth afterwards. D’Ascenzo would have been nineteen when Bloch died of cancer in Denmark.
D’Ascenzo’s Agony in the Garden window is clearly inspired by Bloch’s work, but D’Ascenzo added his own layer of meaning. Bloch’s paintings are like stage sets, focused on the drama of the characters, while D’Ascenzo’s Arts-and-Crafts style designs also celebrate “our deep human need to connect with the natural world.” The contrast in the Agony in the Garden images is especially outstanding: Bloch’s bleak landscape emphasizes Christ’s sorrow and loneliness, while D’Ascenzo changes a barren tree into a beautiful green tapestry and tucks several apostles into the lush foliage. The tree is essential to his message – a reminder of Christ’s passion, and an emblem of our faith’s deep spiritual connection to the natural world. In the Old Testament, the olive tree was seen as a symbol of Hope: D’Ascenzo profoundly transforms Bloch’s “glass half empty;” to a “glass half full!”
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