The Minneapolis Institute of Arts' newest painting isn't the proverbial Rembrandt discovered at a garage sale, but it is a 19th-century treasure unearthed in the janitor's closet of a Lutheran church in Dassel, Minn (pop. 1,233).

Museum director Kaywin Feldman calls the painting's rediscovery "our own version of 'Antiques Roadshow.'"

The 1851 work by Ary Scheffer, a Dutch-born, French-trained painter, is an "extremely important historical and aesthetic object," said MIA painting curator Patrick Noon. The Dassel church has given the painting to the Minneapolis museum, which had it cleaned and restored.

"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 a third-floor gallery of the museum. A member of the donating church, Gethsemane Lutheran, Bender helped trace the picture's history through church records.

Discolored by dirt and old varnish, the picture -- about 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide-- didn't look like much when Noon first saw it two years ago. An expert on 19th-century European painting, he recognized it as one of the most famous images of its era -- if it was authentic.

Scheffer did several versions of the scene, called "Christus Consolator," which depicts Christ comforting oppressed people including Greek and Polish freedom fighters, homeless peasants, impoverished women and a black slave in chains. His first version, which is 6 feet tall and 8 feet wide, was a sensation when first shown at the Paris Salon of 1837. A French prince bought it 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.

But how could a smaller version end up in Dassel, where it had been virtually forgotten since 1931?

'Like a kid in a candy store'

The Rev. Steven Olson stumbled upon it a couple of years ago under a pile of art reproductions in a janitor's closet.

"My first reaction was stunned disbelief," said Olson. He contacted a professor friend, who confirmed that it looked original, and then spoke with the Rev. Richard Hillstrom, a former MIA trustee and 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. A call from Hillstrom launched the museum's investigation.

Following the trail

In old records, Noon discovered that a "Christus Consolator" had been shown at the Boston Athenaeum in 1852 and again in 1856. It belonged to wealthy Bostonian William Bullard, who was a chum of artist Charles Perkins, founder of the city's Museum of Fine Arts. Perkins had studied in Scheffer's Paris studio from 1846 to 1851, owned two other paintings by the master, and probably lobbied Bullard to buy the "Christus." After Bullard's death, the picture was probably passed to his son Francis, who died in 1913.

A young Midwesterner, David J. Nordling, was a minister in Bridgeport, Conn., from 1913 to 1915. Noon speculates 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., (1915-1929) and then to Dassel, where he died in 1931. His widow gave the painting to Gethsemane.

But was it an authentic Scheffer? Or merely a copy?

Painting conservator David Marquis spent weeks carefully removing layers of discolored varnish, mold and a deteriorating linen backing. Miraculously, the painting was virtually flawless beneath the muck, its colors intact and every detail perfect. A stamp on the back even proved that the canvas had been purchased in a Paris shop in 1851.

"Close examination showed that this was by Scheffer's hand," said Noon. "His technique is very fine, like Ingres, a typical academic French painting style. There's no question that it's by him."

Keep it or donate?

Confronted with the evidence, the Dassel church was in a pickle. An appraisal set the picture's value at $35,000, a modest sum that may reflect the unfashionability of academic religious themes. Still, it was big for a church. They thought about keeping it, Rev. Olson said, "but only Lloyd's of London would insure it and they insisted we have museum-level security and atmosphere control."

Recognizing that they couldn't properly care for the painting, the church council voted unanimously to give it to the Minneapolis museum. The museum 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," said Olson, taking a last look at the painting in its new home.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431