Ten years ago, I got to spend a whole day in Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City, wandering about the gorgeous gardens and visiting all the sites that a non-Mormon could get into. I enjoyed the tranquility and the snapshots of Mormon history I’d known nothing about. I watched various bridal parties approach the main temple and pose for photos and I watched a few films chronicling the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The art in the main visitors center fascinated me, even though I knew it was highly idealized at best. For instance, why do painters constantly portray Jesus as the only person in the crowd wearing a white robe? No first-century carpenter would have dressed like that, so I knew instantly these were not meant to be realistic.
A recent Religion News Service story shows that I am not the only journalist asking these kinds of questions:
SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) -- Enter the North Visitors’ Center in Temple Square here, home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and you can’t miss them: 10 life-size oil paintings that march along a curving wall.
The paintings illustrate the life of Jesus. Here is John baptizing Jesus, there is Jesus gathering disciples from simple fishermen. Another shows Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, and in another he is crucified between two thieves.
In all of the paintings, there is little room for interpretation about who is being depicted: Jesus glows with an otherworldly light.
But if the message is hard to miss, so is something about the medium. Everyone is spit-spot clean and all of the paintings seem set more in the lush, green valleys near the Great Salt Lake than on the dry, brown shores of Galilee.
There are even American wildflowers -- lilies of the valley, bluebells and buttercups -- at the feet of Jesus as he preaches.
But to focus on the quality of the art -- commissioned by the church in the 1960s from artist Harry Anderson -- is to miss the point. This is what Mormons call “gospel art,” and they revere it less for its artistic merits and more for its religious purpose -- to convey the message and doctrine of Mormonism, which binds its 15 million members worldwide.
There is no great mystery as to why the Latter-day Saints have such a varied iconography. They have an additional holy book, the Book of Mormon, that details the saga of an Israelite tribe that emigrated from the Old World at around 600 BC and its adventures and misadventures in the New World. There’s plenty of art all over the Western world that chronicles many centuries of events in both Testaments, but the Mormons have been on their own concerning their unique stories.
And so they’ve created art that portrays the history of their forebears and events in their church, including Joseph Smith’s 1820 vision of two persons of the Trinity who are speaking to him. It being difficult for most humans to imagine such a tableau, the LDS church has a painting of the event, which appears along with this blog entry. Mormons call it the First Vision. As the piece says, “Having a common set of images reinforces what Mormons see as their specialness.”
The RNS piece was incredibly interesting but I wondered at the reason for it. LDS art has been around for decades, so why bring up the kitsch angle now? If we're talking religion-art kitsch, why not write up the late Thomas Kinkade? The article continues:
“Mormon art” exists in a way other scriptural representations do not. And while all religions use art to further their tenets -- picture a Catholic Church altarpiece from the medieval period -- no Protestant denomination has quite the same relationship to this kind of illustrative art as the LDS church.
Well -- not so fast. Visit the bottom floor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church world headquarters in Silver Spring, Md. There is a ton of art-- very similar to what one sees in Salt Lake City, in fact -- that details the SDA story. And while I would not call the Jehovah’s Witnesses a Protestant denomination, they too have an amazing iconography of world events and their religion. What has fascinated me about the art in their Watchtower publications is the tremendous racial variety in its characters. It is no accident that the Witnesses have a huge draw from minority groups and their inclusive art shows it.
I wish this RNS piece had come out last summer, when the Pew Research Center published a survey of the most racial diverse and non-diverse American religious groups. The Adventists and Witnesses, both of whose art shows believers of varying skin colors, were near or at the top. The Mormons, whose art shows Jesus as a Caucasian as are most of his followers, rank near the bottom.
And if the cherished icons of a faith show an all-white cast of characters, what hope does the LDS church have of penetrating parts of the world that is non-white? Or, how have they managed to do so in spite of the art that decorates the central halls of their faith?
Those are questions the article could have raised. As it was, one is left wondering what spurred this sudden interest in Mormons and kitsch.
Now, this piece well represented the Mormon point of view and included a diversity of quotes. It was refreshing to read something interesting about Mormons that didn’t relate a controversy or politics. I wish more religion pieces would research the interior landscapes of a faith that seem outlandish or at least strange to outsiders, then explain those landscapes to us.
This piece raised more questions than it answered. Is what one sees in the visitor’s center really art? Or is it propaganda on the order of what one might see in North Korea? And is it a selective history, in other words, not one that shows Joseph Smith’s many wives?
It ends by mentioning the impact such art has on children. The images that children see win their Sunday school books and church literature are how they will picture key events of the faith for the rest of their lives. Those first images one tend to be indelible and yes, such art brings abstract images to life. Obviously none of the Mormons quoted seemed all that distressed that these paintings aren't what you'd see in the Louvre. Is this something the rest of us should care about? We're never told.
Photos from the LDS Media Library