The Problem of Mormon Art

I’ve long been a critic of Mormon artwork. The main problem is that artists tend to portray a superficial connection to the events they are portraying. That’s perhaps somewhat understandable except for the problem that people have a habit of remembering the art rather than the details of what the art was about. We saw that a few years ago with the renewed interest in the seer stones and the method of translating the Book of Mormon. People remember paintings that had Joseph with gold plates, indicating he read them. People didn’t remember all the lessons that he translated them by looking at the Urim & Thummim.[1] Critics complained that they were never taught in church that Joseph translated by looking at stones in a hat. This wasn’t typically true. But what they remembered was the misleading art.

Arnold Friberg’s Vision of Alma as a Viking

Misleading art abounds. Arnold Friberg’s paintings used to be in most people’s Book of Mormons and I believe remain in missionary editions. Yet they portray the Nephites as an odd mixture of vikings and Roman centurians complete with gladii as swords. The one thing that Nephites don’t look like is typical mesoAmericans wielding macuahuitl as their swords. The Salt Lake Temple visitor’s center has improved somewhat. They how have Lamanites looking more mesoAmerican and using macuahuitl but the Nephites still have that Friberg inspired Roman appearance. For more than 30 years Mormon scholars have pushed a mesoAmerican setting for the Book of Mormon that can explain many odd passages such as Alma 24:12-13.[2] Despite this body of scholarship misleading art distorts significantly how most members think of the Book of Mormon. As with the way people remember the translation process, people remember the art about the Book of Mormon rather than the text itself. In this case the distortion makes the unfortunate racism of the past persist in our culture. White Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian appearance is privileged and subtly treated as a higher value. This is at odds with the text itself but also almost certainly the actual appearance of the people in the text. It not only allows elements of our racist past continue to persist, but sets members up so that critics can undermine their trust in the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

To me though the worst part of Mormon art is our adherence to the 19th century European masters for our art. Their art, particularly Carl Bloch’s, is truly great. Most members prefer that more realistic style of art to more abstract styled works by great Mormon artists like Minerva Teichert. While one can find Teichert pieces in chapels or in temples, typically it’s Bloch or Friberg. Like me, you probably pointed out the paintings to your kids as you walked the hall with them when they were disruptive toddlers during Sacrament. They play an important part setting expectations and understanding. Yet they all again portray the Jews of Palestine as white northern Europeans. Not only is that distortive of the actual history, it again unintentionally pushes the persistent racism of our past. Whiteness is promoted. Even most popular contemporary Mormon art tends to follow in the same pattern as Bloch or Friberg.[3]

Imagine how our brothers and sisters of African, Asian or other ethnic heritage feel seeing our religion portrayed as fundamentally northern European? I don’t think I have to say much here, because it should quickly become clear we’re not being inclusive the way we should be.

What’s surprising about this is that the Church has historically been extremely inclusive with photographs. Church photographs for lessons have a variety of races and cultures partaking of the sacrament, offering prayers, and doing service and has for decades. Yet when it comes to representations of the scripture and important events in our history, our art is misleading and in many ways undermines the very religion it is supposed to promote.

While I’ve griped about this problem of Mormon art for years, it was recently brought into particular focus by a story of Jana Reiss on the place of Mormons in the alt right. The topic was some African American Mormons making exactly the points I made above. What was extremely shocking was a backlash by people pushing a white identity politics tied to the alt right. Searching on the twitter tag #DearWhiteMormons is a deeply depressing experience. Even acknowledging that many responding probably aren’t even Mormons but are the alt right & Russian troll armies, it highlights a huge problem we in the church have to grapple with.

Of course there is much we can do to solve this problem. I’m sure most of you reading have had lessons on racism in your Family Home Evening to prepare your kids prior to encountering such things at school. In ignorance, it’s so easy for children to pick up racism. Even though I opposed the politics of Pres. Obama, we had a lesson on the importance and historic nature of electing a black President. I’ve mentioned the many African American saints I encountered and baptized on my mission in Lousiana. Their stories overcoming obstacles I can’t fully understand continue to sustain me. I’ve also discussed the problems with LDS art that portrays Nephites or worst of all Christ as a northern European. Emphasizing to children as you read your scriptures that most art isn’t accurate is important. What we all really need to do though is start asking for better art.

Emile Wilson’s Christ Praying in Gethsemene

Right off the bat I hope the Church commissions some art that makes Christ and the Jews of 1st century Palestine looking Palestinian rather than northern Europeans.[4] Why is this important? It breaks the perception of Jesus as privileging northern European ancestry. It’s also just more accurate. Second I hope we get art with Jesus interacting with people of all races. There are a few paintings of Jesus holding children of asian, black, or other ancestry. Why not put some of those in the hallways of our chapels and temples? It’s a small thing that would help inclusiveness. Why not some paintings of Jesus coming in glory at the second coming that show people of all races being caught up to meet him? Why not get rid of the beloved Friberg paintings from our Book of Mormon and replace them with art more informed by recent scholarship of what the Nephites and Lamanites were likely like? For that matter, given that we don’t know what Adam and Eve looked like, why not represent them as Asian, African or Polynesian?

The church has often condemned racism in conference. But this is a problem that goes beyond mere doctrine. There’s so many subtle unintentional ways in which we are not as opening to other races as we should be. Not only does this undoubtedly affect the effectiveness of our missionary effort, but it can lead to the presence of more overt forms of racism like we see on Twitter.

As I said, the Church definitely has been getting better. I was particularly excited seeing a darker skinned painting of Jesus in Gethsemene at I just wish we had paintings done in the more realistic style most members prefer that avoid making the scriptures seem to take place in Sweden or Ireland.

[1] I’m including the seer stones as Urim & Thummims as that quickly became the typical Mormon description by the mid-1830’s. FAIR put online Anthony Sweat’s excellent appendix in From Darkness Unto Light about the problem of art shaping perceptions of history, particularly relative to the translation of the Book of Mormon. He does a great job explaining why artists often don’t feel constrained by historic accuracy. One line in particular sticks with me. “It would be hard for me to paint a painting with Joseph with his head in a hat. We would have no sense of the vision of what is happening inside.” (237)

[2] Here I’m don’t mean to push the mesoAmerican setting as the only way to read the Book of Mormon. It’s certainly the most popular among scholars. The problem applies equally to nearly any other American setting for the Book of Mormon though. The point is we should not be seeing Nephites as Vikings nor Romans.

Recreation of Jesus’ Appearance

[3] By popular contemporary Mormon art I mean the majority of work you’re apt to find at a Deseret Book, Seagull Books, or what’s typically for sale at the mall. There are of course exceptions but those tend to be far less “realistic” in style and thereby frequently less popular with the masses. (Even though those tend to be the ones I personally prefer) This LDS art website gives a good representative view. I should note that thankfully a few are more inclusive and include children of different races with Christ. Yet Christ is almost always portrayed as northern European with only a few offering so much as a slight tan for a man living in a desert region and preaching in the countryside. Right now working full time indoors and of primarily Swedish, English and Sami stock I have a darker tan than most paintings of Christ.

[4] I recognize most Jews people encounter are descended from northern European, especially German, ancestry. Yet the Jews in Palestine prior to immigration of European Jews looked much more like Palestinians. Almost certainly Jesus would have looked more like contemporary Palestinians. A few years back Popular Mechanics presented one view of what Jesus likely looked like based upon forensic reconstruction of bones contemporary with Jesus.

71 comments for “The Problem of Mormon Art

  1. This is not so much a Mormon problem, as a Christian art problem. Virtually all the Old Masters–including those from southern Europe such as Michaelangelo, Rafael, El Greco, etc.–painted Christ as fair-skinned. The medieval “black madonna” icons are actually closer to an olive complexion. Sculptures of Mary, Jesus, and the apostles in the cathedrals of Europe all have germanic features. Historically, there’s a connection between fair=white=good, and artists have chosen fair complexions to symbolize righteous individuals.

    Which is where the problems begin. The racist doctrines of the past (curse of Cain, Lamanite curse of darkness) have been repudiated by the Church, but left a vacuum in it’s wake. There’s no coherent alternative rational behind what Can and Laman were cursed with. Considering that most Mormons have grown up thinking dark skin was imposed on some groups after the fall, a dark-skinned Adam and Eve is bound to be controversial, even though this is the most reasonable evolutionary assumption.

    Indeed, when an artist submitted a painting depicting a bare-breasted Eve to the Mormon Art Contest last year, her skin color was more controversial than the nudity.

  2. I should add that Church film work in the last few years, most notably in the temple films, has been more ethnically diverse.

  3. Yeah, I think the Church definitely is trying. When David Evans pointed out that painting of Christ in Gethsemene at I confess I’d not seen it before. Even with the realistic styled art for the popular market there are starting to be more paintings of Christ with diverse races. (Typically holding children) So we’re making progress but we have an awfully long way to go still.

  4. Carl Bloch is Danish, not Dutch. Perhaps instead of “Dutch masters” you could write “European masters”?

    But, yes, I agree, different, more diverse art is definitely necessary in to-day’s church. A picture is famously worth a thousand words!

  5. Doh. Can you tell I wasn’t an art major? Fixed in the original post, persistent in the comments for all to see my ignorance. I have a historic inability to distinguish between the Netherlands and Denmark for some reason.

  6. Okay first of all I’m not sure this is “the problem” with Mormon art.. there are a few problems in my opinion, lack of diversity is only one. To be fair, if you look at the entries to the International Art Competition sponsored by the church (Church history department) the entries are extremely multicultural. They are a very good representation of the worldwide church:

    Why doesn’t this work make it into Deseret Book or the Ensign? Well, DB is in the business of selling what people want to buy, and so this goes to LDS people’s general tastes in art, which is kinda lame. DB, Seagull books, etc.. are not the church, so we can’t really blame the church for what they sell. We should put the blame on members of the church that buy the kind of stuff they sell.

    That said there are some really fine LDS artists producing work currently, including artists like J.Kirk Richards, and Walter Rane, Jeffrey Hein — and they are making in-roads to DB and church magazines. I really like what Micah J. Christensen is doing with his podcasts to promote & discuss the current Mormon art world. See You could also take a look at this new society just getting started: you’ll find a mix. Check out Jeff Hein’s portrayal of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet..

    There’s also some really fine LDS artists who don’t happen to be producing “Mormon” themed art. Amazing landscape artists like Bryan Mark Taylor, Doug Fryer, Mitch Baird, and several others. The church does hire them to paint murals inside temples, and their work has also appeared often in church magazines.

    People get really hung up on historical accuracy in art.. but this has been a common issue in art since the renaissance. People have unrealistic expectations about historical accuracy in art, but they forget that artists are not historians. Every artist is different in how much they care about historical accuracy. Many really phenomenal artists simply care about historical details very little.

    But I can’t let you get away with ragging on Friberg. I mean come on!! He was one of the best, and comes straight out of the classical American golden age of illustration. That guy knew how to make a picture. Of course it’s not accurate! The guys have tree-trunk arms, that was his thing.. he painted heroic men and beautiful women – classic American Illustration stuff. Non-artists just don’t get how good of a painter he was. His edges, and his brush strokes, awesome. His composition – wonderful. He knew how to create drama. That painting of the Nephite baptism is anything but stale, it’s perfectly staged with those fantastic and I might add meso-American mountains in the background.. That’s certainly not happening in North America! Back when these were painted (1960’s) his information and research was pretty good for what he could gather.

    BTW – his King Noah / Abinadi picture is just amazing. Leopards!!!

  7. Also you left out lots of other LDS artists whose work we see often – especially Harry Anderson – his work is everywhere in the church, and he wasn’t even LDS. He was Seventh-Day Adventist. Also classic golden-age illustrator, we were so lucky to find him — although I’m certain it wasn’t luck. That guy could flat-out paint. He refused to do any Book of Mormon themed work, but his bible / Christ paintings are so well painted — I wish I could paint half that good. His was certainly a white european-looking Christ, and they have really reached iconic status within the church. My favorite of his is probably Christ ordaining the apostles.. in terms of how well it’s painted. Not a very dramatic image, perfectly semetrical composition – but the execution and brush work, stunning.

    A close second (for me) is Moses ordaining Aaron… They do look pretty white european in that one, but the quality of his technique is off the charts.

    Alas, the art that the church is producing now is more of the media / video kind. The bible videos are pretty good in their portrayal of Christ and his apostles I would think?

  8. My favorite depiction of Christ is this one:

    I love the tip of the hat to Russian iconography.

    Next up…music. Book of Mormon Stories with its faux Native American beat and weird mode. Combine that with some of the less informed primary choristers using racist gestures as sign language…I saw one make rabbit ears/feathers behind her head when the kids sang “Lamanites.” Not to mention it wasn’t just about the Lamanites…

  9. What the Church giveth in words — occasional condemnations of racism — it taketh away in ubiquitous artistic depictions in our publications and wall art that exalt whiteness. Even worse, this exalts *phony* whiteness, imposed whiteness.

  10. I once had a conversation with a Lebanese descended ethnic Christian who grew up in the states… While he looks very middle Eastern, he’s still classified as “white” on the census…

    I’m firmly in the “no manner of ites” camp, and recognize that everyone imagines god in their own image, regardless of any painting… All this hand wringing does no good, and only helps people invent reasons to lose testimony.

  11. Tom, there’s tons of great LDS artists. I have a whole collection on pinterest of stuff I like. While I prefer more abstract or impressionist art I know most people prefer more realistic art. My point though is that a lot of art misleads people about what went on. That is good well intentioned artists are misleading people.

    Occasionally pretty good stuff has made it into the Ensign and as others have noted there’s a lot of variety of good stuff available. I think excusing it on market terms isn’t that great. Certainly much of the problem is with us, the general lay membership. But I think exposing people based upon art in meeting house walls or in church magazines would help a great deal. Further, as I noted, commissioning art that’s both more inclusive and more historically accurate would go a long ways.

    As you noted J. Kirk Richards does great work but isn’t “realistic” enough for most lay members I think. I love his stuff, especially his “Baptism in the River Jordan.”

    While I’m sympathetic to your point that “artists aren’t historians” again the reality is that there is a very real effect. I don’t think artists get to simply disown the effects of their art if those effects are reasonably predictable.

    asdf, I’m all about not having ites but when all the art tends to focus on a particular ite I don’t think we’re near to achieving that. Saying we shouldn’t have ites and then doing it are two very different things.

  12. Has anyone heard that story about the Christ portrait where he is wearing a red robe? I heard it at the MTC – that the apostles commissioned it and kept sending revision after revision back to the painter until he got it right? The unstated but strongly implied message being that they knew what he looked like, and that that painting was the closest thing?

    If that story is as common as I think it is it explains why artists aren’t willing to depart from it to much. Has anyone else heard that story? How verifiable is it?

  13. BRD529, You can read the artist’s version of the story here

    It does not appear to me to be a question of the apostles generally or getting it right, but rather staff members and perhaps the correlation committee getting what they wanted. Apparently it also required First Presidency approval of the proposed final version. The message some inferred and other retellings implied seems unjustified.

  14. BRD529, I’ve heard something similar in Institute (and I’m sure most posters here have similar stories). As I recall, the story was that some president/apostle (Harold B. Lee?) told someone (don’t recall who) that Jesus looked almost exactly like He does in the Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hoffman, except that Jesus had blue eyes. I place the story in the “faith promoting folk tales” category as I’ve never seen anything in print to verify the story. Happy to be wrong if anyone has additional info.

    Also, not sure who painted it, but I’ve now seen a painting of a young woman of African descent kneeling in prayer in two temples now. I think it’s beautiful. Also, in the entrance to the Washington D.C. temple, above the stairs leading to clothing sales, there’s a picture of Jesus standing at the edge of the jungle(?) with what appear to be two young Meso-American children. Fairly confident in my memory that He’s rendered as a white European, but I found the painting to be moving.

  15. While I agree that there are serious problems in Mormon art, particularly as it relates to race, I still reiterate what has been said before: art is not history, art is not an accurate and literal representation of the world. Art, even bad art, is symbolic, is is subjective, deeply personal, and should cause us to reflect. It’s a chance for us to exercise our critical thinking skills. I feel like the real failure here is that we’ve cut so much art education and critical theory from our curriculum. We’ve become too focused on the literal at the expense of the abstract.

    But, since you talked about Mormon art, I have to say that Minerva Teichert is hands down my favorite Mormon artist. The Relief Society building has a number of her originals on display, if you are ever in Salt Lake. And the sister missionaries that are assigned in that building don’t get many visitors, so they are always so excited to show someone around. An absolute hidden gem.

    My two favorite paintings of the Savior are “Christ Calling Peter and Andrew” by James T. Harwood and “Save Me – the Hand of God” by Yongsung Kim.

    Harwood’s painting we have hanging in the entry of our home as a daily reminder of Matt 4:19. Although decidedly European, the style, the color, and the story it tells are deeply meaningful to me–despite knowing that it is not an historically accurate depiction of the events. I love that in a piece dedicated to following the Savior, there is an important focus on His feet.

    Kim’s painting, which we have in our living room, reminds me, not of Matt 14:29-31, which is most assuredly the artist’s inspiration, but rather of 1 Ne 1:20. What the artist painted as water, I see as the veil–certainly not the artist’s intention, and certainly not an accurate presentation, but deeply symbolic for me. And certainly it’s not an accurate representation of the story in Matthew, since there is no storm in the background. But symbolically, the storm is here and peace is there-through Him.

    For our kids, we bought James H. Fullmer’s “Other Heroes of the Book of Mormon” which provides more ethnic and gender balance than traditional Mormon art.

  16. I’d just like to recommend John Turner’s wonderful chapter on Mormon depictions of the Savior in The Mormon Jesus: A Biography.

    Here’s a bit from my notes on that chapter: How do Mormons envision the Savior? In the 20th century, Protestants had a “chorus of complaint over ‘medieval’ depictions of a mournful and pale man of sorrows.” “Mormons were latecomers to the muscular Christianity movement,” and “when Parson submitted a series of sketches for feedback, church leaders recommended a more masculine rendering of the savior.” (It’s Chapter 9, entitled The Great White God, but he also features the beautiful Emile Wilson painting that Clark features above.)

  17. I firmly agree with Clark’s comments about representation, something that Neylan McBaine’s wonderful book Women at Church made me think more deeply about. One small way that I try to introduce gender and ethnic diversity is through the selection of the artwork for our weekly ward bulletins, so that a wider array of members can hopefully see someone a little closer to themselves when they come to church on Sundays.

    More on McBaine’s book here:

  18. Clarke, I’d like to provide a little reality check. When Arnold Friberg started painting Lamanites, keep in mind that he didn’t have access to FAIR, computer databases, the internet, or the more recent scholarship that you are throwing at him. He was probably painting Lamanites before you or I were born. And while he is accused of not correctly inserting meso-American “macuahuitl”, he did include many themes from the pacific islands, meso-America and South America, which have emerged as themes of debate by FAIR. It’s not like Joseph Smith drew any pictures. There isn’t ANY descriptive text in the BoM that would help an artist out like “the tangerine and fig sunset cast long shadows upon Nephi’s now faded-moss-colored tunic that now swayed gently in the Arabian peninsula breeze”. Nothing.of.the.sort.exits. Give the guy some credit! His work is of the highest caliber and in-line with old-world masters. He filled in many details that have helped millions of Mormons contextualize an ancient and extinct civilization. Isn’t that a type of genius? Isn’t that inspired? Wasn’t that the purpose of the art?

    Artists have always been on the cusp, they are visionaries who create something tangible from multiple snapshots in the text by coloring in between the lines (so to speak). They are makers of midrash. They do no more and no less than others who “liken” the scriptures to real life, or those who testify that they imagine Christ wiping away tears, or liken Christ to two rock climbers, or a father helping his child buy a bike, or a railroad switch man.

    By the way, the question of the book and the map has never really been pinned down. There are other theories citing the East Coast, Bering Straight, Pacific Islands, Gulf Coasts, and Florida in addition to your Meso-American assertion. No one really knows. The macuahuitl may be historically relevant and it may not be. (People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.)

    The ‘racist’ title has been dropped a few times in this post and thread, insinuating that anyone who likens God and his people to themselves is racist. I don’t think that is the case. For example, if we look back at 14th, 15th, 16th century art,- essentially any western religious art up to the 19th century when the Gothic era of historical fascination began, figures from the bible were always dressed in the clothing of the day. So 17th century paintings of disciples, apostles, the virgin, Roman centurions, etc. were drawn with long flowing renaissance robes, suits of armor, etc. Artists depicted bible characters in clothes of the day! Were the medieval and renaissance painters so historically ignorant? Some say yes, and other art historians say no. Some art historians argue that medieval and renaissance painters were doing the same thing that a NYC artist in the 1980’s would do if he/she depicted Jesus in acid-washed jeans and a popped-collar with penny loafers and no socks. Shocking, isn’t it? The NYC artist took absolutely no care to paint Jesus in clothes from the ’20s, or from the pioneer day, even though he/she knows what those clothes were like and may be more “historical”. He/she is making a STATEMENT. So too were the medieval/renaissance painters. So too are many LDS artists, whether they do so unconsciously or intentionally or in the world in-between-the world of artistic creativity.

    I’m shocked seeing my Scandinavian heritage in BoM paintings because I know they should be Lamanite or Israelite. I have always been like that cheeky little primary boy who asked President Monson how he could get a pet goat like the boy in the painting with Jesus. Call it what you want, but seeing ourselves in older LDS art awakens something inside us.

    You might even say that this mirroring is a part of Western tradition- the same tradition that Friberg was born into. As Friberg painted Scandinavian men and women, he was painting himself, blending his culture with the other- claiming it as part of his faith narrative and emerging with art-fusion. I personally think God must smile on it, especially as that ‘fusion’ has expanded to many more cultures as the gospel has rolled out. I know I particularly enjoy the LDS International Art Competition wherein talented artists from all over the world do the exact same thing . . . they retell some story in Panamanian, in Ukranian, in Romanian, Japanese, etc. Each time artists blend cultures together to convey a message, something of the core emerges and the nationalistic elements become almost cliche. No, I don’t think artists are being racist, I think they are internalizing the stories and re-telling them through themselves.

    This is the same type of abstraction that makes me smile when I see young children paint Santa Clause as Black or Chinese. The fact that historians insist on historical accuracy in our art and realism as a mode for conveying it is a type of artistic censorship. No, I take that back, it isn’t censorship, it is an attempt to completely eradicate ART and the elements of art:

    “. . . faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.” ( Francis P. Church- ‘Yes Virginia There is a Santa Clause’ 1897).

  19. Jesus is the ultimate “Rorschach test”- we highlight his attributes that most closely align with our most core values and self perceptions. That being said, was Mary really black haired as historians are leaning toward now, or as Josephus said- medium brown hair with golden highlights? If Josephus was right (and I realize that some of his work has been found to be incorrect) Jesus probably wouldn’t look like the Popular Mechanics face in your post. (That photo always bothers me because the very earliest art and narrative descriptions of Jesus describe him with an oblong face and long nose.) Why was the oldest source material ignored?

  20. Mortimer my complaint isn’t with Friberg the person but rather how we are using his art. I fully agree we have to cut the guy some slack given the atrocious way people read the Book of Mormon for most of the 20th century. However that doesn’t explain why such misleading art is still in missionary versions of the Book of Mormon nor featured prominently in many meeting houses and ward libraries.

    The point that artists don’t have a responsibility for how people respond which you and a few others have suggested I just don’t buy in the least. But even if that’s true of the artists, it’s not true of those who use the art to teach the gospel. And it’s those people using the art that my ire is primarily directed.

    Whether the text takes place in mesoAmerica or not, I think we can safely say that the Nephites were Jews from Palestine and not Vikings from Sweden. And whether it takes place in mesoAmerica or not, we know they weren’t using Roman gladii as swords. And artistic license notwithstanding, Joseph didn’t translate the Book of Mormon by reading it. Del Parson’s art simply ends up teaching false doctrine there. The point is that what people tend to remember of history isn’t what they read but the pictures they see. The Church ought act accordingly.

    Again, I’m not restricting art. I’m critiquing how art is used. If artists want to paint wildly unrealistic things that’s completely fine. Hey, my favorite art is abstracts. So I’m not exactly committed to a realistic aesthetic. However if that’s the case stop using that art to teach religious history. You’re misleading people. Art that is used to teach history in Sunday School or Primary probably ought to get the basics of the history right.

    To the Popular Mechanics story, clearly they just found something representative of Jews from that period. It doesn’t reflect the range of appearances. While it’s possible Jesus was well within the modal appearance of the era it’s also possible that he was unusual in his appearance. Indeed that might well fit with Isaiah’s prophecy of his appearance. I’m just confident he’s not a narrow nosed pale skinned Irishman. Given the place white skin has culturally I think it’s quite important to portray his more as a darker skinned Jews rather than his more typical appearance as a long haired American suburbanite worried about skin cancer of Irish or nordic descent.

  21. If I’m understanding you correctly, your gripe is that we use art as illustration, when in fact, the aims and goals of the two are in fact, quite separate. Art is intended to convey and create an emotional response. Illustration is supposed to clarify the text.

  22. Mortimer, I think most would have fewer complaints about white northern European depictions of people in the scriptures if we didn’t have such a sordid past when it comes to race.

  23. Northern Virginia…
    Just whose parents some are you attempting to heap upon us here?

    After you heaping the sordid past but of some white people on all white people now,?
    Are you heaping the sordid past of Mormonism (obeying god and his prophete’s wrt the priesthood ban).

    Some liberals believe in a new form of “original sin” more hideous than the first…
    Every culture in the world paints God in their own image…only the liberals manage to lambast only white European culture for doing so…

    Hypocrisy much?

  24. “Misleading art abounds.” As do misleading translations in the Book of Mormon and misleading (in contemporary English) translations in the KJV and misleading abuses of scriptural language in some general conference talks.

    I have been appalled at the displays in the north visitors center on Temple Square. The most appalling to me is the manner of the continued display of a painting of Joseph translating while tracing characters on the gold plates with one hand. I would have thought that someone would have sense enough to at least post an explanation that this is an artist’s attempt to convey the concept of translation and does not represent contemporary records of how it was done. Displaying, in addition, a painting of Joseph with his head in a hat and the plates nowhere in sight could also be useful. In my view “the” problem is not so much the art as it is the use made of it.

    Even little children drawing their families as stick figures in bright, unreal colors can understand that art or illustration can convey a concept and should not be expected to show historical realism like an untouched photograph. It is not hard to teach adults to understand that. It is not Arnold Friberg’s “fault,” e.g., that his paintings have been misused. “… Friberg painted such key figures as Nephi, Alma, Ammon, and Captain Moroni in a hypermasculine, almost superhuman fashion, explaining that ‘[t]he muscularity in my paintings is only an expression of the spirit within … I’m painting the interior, the greatness, the largeness of spirit.’ ” The “Book of Mormon”: A Biography by Paul C. Gutjahr

    In teaching the Gospel Doctrine class I used a great deal of art as part of an effort to place our teachings in a larger context as well as to keep the attention of a number of visually oriented people. We viewed an discussed artistic representations of scriptural events or stories that ranged from stick figures, through cartoons, to reimaginations of those events in terms of various cultures (Native American, African, European) and time periods, to abstracts. This could even be done with children including small children adept with their own abstracts. It is not hard to find that variety of art on the internet. Among many others I found Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) quite useful. See
    As is Akiane’s portrait of Jesus (which may well be more accurate than the “reconstruction” pictured in the post above. See

    The art-critical aspect of the post reminds me of another common LDS abuse of the arts – it is quite common to hear that if the listener is not inspired by the talks in church it is the listener’s fault, while if one is not inspired by the music, it is the musician’s fault. I believe there is room for improvement all around, preferably beginning with the realization that the listener/observer contributes quite a lot to the perceived meaning of what she hears or sees. Why not teach that?

  25. “…it is quite common to hear that if the listener is not inspired by the talks in church it is the listener’s fault, while if one is not inspired by the music, it is the musician’s fault…”

    A thought-provoking comment…

  26. JR, I applaud your use of art as a teaching tool, and think that it would be beneficial for more Lds students to both analyze and attempt creating art in order to “read” LDS art. Since LDS paintings are not illustrations, but like almost everything else in Mormonism, a highly symbolic and reflective art form, another solution to the problem posed in the thread (which is real and worth taking a big pause) we need to learn how to “read” it. Just as scripture study is rarely helpful when only literally read, so too is our lds art, music, sculpture, poetry, architecture, literature & theatre, etc.

    Artists are frequently under-estimated, snubbed by academics from other disciplines, derided by the narrow constraints of the thinking of the day. As Emperor Joseph II said of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seralio “there are too many notes”. Everyone is a critic. Yet art is future-forward, art transcends, art speaks beyond current space and time. (Good art that is.) If we stopped looking down our noses at talented LDS artists we might learn something from them.

    We could insist that they give up the abstraction and symbolism and insist that they merely illustrate or paint in the style of John McNaughton, using such mind-numbingly-obvious and simplistic political messages (that incidentally would never pass as a political cartoon), but that nonetheless are toiled over as oil paintings it in the realistic style.

    I don’t want that, none of us want that. Instead of criticizing, perhaps the historians could begin interpreting our art using their skills and developing new artistic eyes?

    By the way, the Emile Wlison Batik-like painting above doesn’t excite or impress me artistically or historically. Neither does the creepy smiling Jesus with orthodonticly-perfect teeth (a variation of Del Parson’s Jesus in the red robe).

  27. Ender2k, right on. In Teichert’s “First Vision” which I saw a few years ago at Wilkinson Center gallery, the Father & Son have sharp Eastern faces. No ridiculous bland baby-faced blond blued-eyed Scandinavian-Utah Jesus for Teichert. These guys look like they’ve just stepped out of Arabian Nights. In another time and place they would look very natural cradling AK-47’s and flying Hezbollah colors.

  28. CLARK: “Here I’m don’t mean to push the mesoAmerican setting as the only way to read the Book of Mormon. It’s certainly the most popular among scholars. The problem applies equally to nearly any other American setting for the Book of Mormon though. The point is we should not be seeing Nephites as Vikings nor Romans.”

    MORTIMER: “By the way, the question of the book and the map has never really been pinned down. There are other theories citing the East Coast, Bering Straight, Pacific Islands, Gulf Coasts, and Florida in addition to your Meso-American assertion. No one really knows.”


    Given this perfect uncertainty, maybe Friberg was on to something after all?

  29. “The art-critical aspect of the post reminds me of another common LDS abuse of the arts – it is quite common to hear that if the listener is not inspired by the talks in church it is the listener’s fault, while if one is not inspired by the music, it is the musician’s fault. I believe there is room for improvement all around, preferably beginning with the realization that the listener/observer contributes quite a lot to the perceived meaning of what she hears or sees. Why not teach that?”

    I’m a firm believer that there really are bad talks and bad teachers and not just bad students. But I think there are bad students too.

    I think the difference is that I cut the teen playing music a lot of slack or the volunteer organicist. If they’ve earned money and been commissioned for a project that many will see I tend to think expectations should be higher.

  30. I think the problem with lds art is that it misleads and the church allows the deception to continue. Joseph, rarely if ever, had the plates near him when he was supposedly doing his work on the bofm. Also, he had his head buried in a hat instead of studying the plates. The church has know this for years and years yet allowed it to continue.

  31. asdf, not sure what you mean exactly. It’s uncontrovertible fact that we kept people of African descent from the blessings of the priesthood and the temple. We have now disavowed, if not the doctrine, then the explanations for that ban. When you do something like, the art of that era is going to be suspect. Doesn’t mean the art doesn’t have great value, but it does mean that the issue of race lingers in the background. If we didn’t have the racial ban, it’s less problematic.

  32. Clark: “I think the difference is that I cut the teen playing music a lot of slack or the volunteer organicist”
    Teens and volunteer organists are not the appropriate comparison and are not often the target of the complaint that “it’s the musician’s fault.” The target is sometimes the professionally prepared musician who happens to have chosen (with the bishop’s approval) a piece that inspires some, but not the complainer. This is seems to me a problem that the complainer who doesn’t respond to the piece assumes that his taste is the measure of the spirit, or that the complainer’s preconceived notions have made him incapable of perceiving what is happening for others. When this happens it is not so dissimilar to the false assumption by the viewer that visual art is intended to be a historically accurate representation or that it means just what that viewer sees in it. Consider, e.g., possible varied responses to John Granville Gregory’s painting entitled “Still Doubting,” its composition modeled on Caravaggio’s “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.” and the conflicting views of a blogger and the artist at
    “Still Doubting” is for some a riveting, thought-provoking painting in a “realist” style with no pretense of historical realism. While I dislike much of so-called Mormon art, I am not persuaded that “the problem” is its common lack of historical accuracy. Rather, for many, “the problem” is its misuse or misperception or misunderstanding.

  33. Until we know for sure on certain things its all conjecture as for what Nephites looked like, where they lived, etc. Its as much a dis service to portray them as mesoamericans than what we have now. Theres relatively good evidence by some that Nephite and lamanite events happened in large part down in Peru and surrounding lands. Maybe we should pirtray them as such. Theres also evidence they were in North America around the great lakes. Maybe we should pirtray them as such. The point is that it really doesnt matter.

    As for what Jesus looked like, Im sure we are not that far off from the paintings we have.

  34. No one has a clue about how Nephites or Jesus appeared. Hmmm… Did Jesus resemble his Father? So yeah, I think Clark is widely outside the mark with his criticism of Friberg or any other artist. FYI, Friberg simply utilized cultures he knew to approximate another culture. (FYI, Vikings did not wear horned helmets in combat!) His muscled heroic figures were, in Friberg’s words (I knew him), an attempt to portray “spiritual characteristics in physical form.” Adults in the 1950’s knew that. We know that today.

    Clark wants us all to adopt his vision of what Jesus should look like in art. Anything less is “misleading.” Does that mean that I can’t use Rembrandt’s paintings of Biblical scenes? They look oddly Dutch. So much for freedom of vision for creative artists. I know of no artwork in current use by the Church which is completely factually authentic by Clark’s standards. They all misinform us in some ways large or small They do so in a similar way in which film inaccurately treats historical events. Art is to enliven the senses and feed our souls. Some artists try to capture and convey our feelings about certain events or stories. I’ll still happily use and discuss such pieces in my teaching. Clark can happily blog along criticizing such artists and those who use their art. But if anyone desires to really change the LDS art movement, the best method is to purchase art one does appreciate.

  35. Old Man, I’m just saying he’d look middleastern and tanned. Portraying him more accurately would also have a profound impact on the many, many non-white members and investigators. Likewise, regardless of where the Book of Mormon took place, the Nephites would look much more like native Americans of north or south America than nordic Europeans. Again I think this would significantly help members and investigators but also help get rid of the remnants of a racist interpretation of the Book of Mormon that saw the Nephites as white like British rather than being middle eastern. The idea that this doesn’t mislead or privilege a certain whiteness seems hard to accept.

    The issue is less purchased art, although I think that does have a big impact, but also what is used as illustrations in the Ensign, on meeting hall walls, or in lessons. As I said, there’s a lot of evidence that people are remembering the art not the lessons with the influence of Del Parson’s Joseph Smith reading the gold plates to translate them being but one example.

    Rob you say you’re sure Jesus looked pretty much like the paintings (roughly an Irish appearance). Upon what basis do you say that? I hope not the urban legend of a GA saying Del Parson’s painting looked like him. (Which Parsons himself shot down)

    JR, “While I dislike much of so-called Mormon art, I am not persuaded that “the problem” is its common lack of historical accuracy. Rather, for many, “the problem” is its misuse or misperception or misunderstanding.”

    Again I return to having to know ones audience. The reality is that the audience of lay members isn’t trained in what you are expecting them to be trained in. Therefore presenting them with material that one has a very good reason to assume will mostly be misunderstood is the fault of those presenting it. Certainly that can happen with music as well. In that case those deciding on the music are at fault for not knowing their audience. I love Legiti but it’d be completely inappropriate for a typical Mormon audience during church.

    To blame the audience in the cases when one fully knows how they’ll respond is completely irresponsible. I’ll fully agree in some cases the audience is at fault when one should expect they’d know. But I think that is the rarer case.

  36. Clark, The audience is not uniform. Yes, one needs to consider the audience, but it is not appropriate to limit what music or art one presents to the lowest, most ignorant, common denominator. Even in a small western American ward, we have a wide variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, a wide variety of understanding and responsiveness to both language arts, musical arts, and visual arts.

    Instead of insisting on so-called historical accuracy in visual arts, I think one could more profitably insist on the use of varied representations – across races, cultures, and times and on teaching. Again, the problem is the use of the art and the failure to teach. I believe you are right that the consistent use of nordic European (and similar) art in our meetinghouse libraries can be a real problem for some. To put it in terms of church music, in my view, the only consistent guidelines for our culturally mixed congregations are (a) try to inspire each person sometimes, and (b) try not to offend (or bore) the same persons all the time. This isn’t going to happen with visual arts by insisting on someone’s current view of historical accuracy, but we might get closer by insisting on varying the white WonderBread diet commonly offered. I am not able to blame the artists when they are producing what the Correlation Committee, Church publication editors, Deseret Book, and others want from them.

  37. JR, I think the problem with paintings though is what the typical person is ready for. You are suggesting the majority are capable with just a few ignorant. I suspect the level of ignorance in most wards is simply higher than you suggest. Now we can try and educate people. But given the level of scriptural knowledge most people demonstrate (relatively low information) I suspect it’s unrealistic to expect that people would pick up an appreciation of composition, style or the like of either painting or music better than they do scripture.

    To your second point, again, I think it is just that the audience isn’t really prepared for that. There’s straightforward reasons why most lay members prefer art that is realistic and (many artists would say) of questionable quality. Again, I can appreciate why you might wish it to be otherwise. But I’d lay good odds even around BYU where there’s a fairly well educated populace that most people would misinterpreter such things. Move to the more typical ward and I think it’s extremely predictable most would.

  38. “Portraying him more accurately would also have a profound impact on the many, many non-white members and investigators.”

    Clark, are you claiming to know what Jesus looked like? Given His parentage, would you care to describe that? Why not just stick with the more accurate analysis that every artist’s depiction is exactly that, an artist’s depiction? I’ve seen Joseph Smith portrayed as a Thai, a Filipino, a Navajo and as a Latin American. I’ve seen Jesus depicted as African. The depictions of Jesus have evolved throughout the centuries. The depictions were all beautiful in one way or another. They were good art. I’d use them in Church and I’d love to have a conversation about each work. Why not relax and let the artists make the decisions?

    Or… and don’t take this wrong, but if you want a historically “accurate” depiction from your personal view (though for the life of me, I have no idea what that would be), grab a brush or commission an artist, no one is stopping you. You could even convince some other financial backers. If you believe that the art you envision would be edifying to the Church members and beneficial for investigators, what is stopping you?

  39. Old Man, private Mormon art commissions are how we ended up with the Arnold Friberg Book of Mormon paintings in the first place. They were commissioned as an individual effort by a member of the primary general board, who mortgaged her home to pay for the series. The Tom Lovell (restoration) and Harry Anderson (new testament) paintings were backed by the Church.

  40. Old Man, I feel fairly confident that he would have looked like a typical first century Palestinian. There’s obviously a range in there. I’m very confident he didn’t look like a pale northern European. I’m surprised that’s even controversial. Again I’m of Swedish and Saami background and my skin is darker than most of these paintings of Christ preaching in the desert.

    I can understand those with a fondness for existing art out of nostalgia. But these things really do make it harder for non-whites to feel a part as well as tending to promote views we’re trying to put behind us. In many ways they are a remnant of a culture that has been doctrinally rejected by the Church.

    Again, my issue is with the art used to illustrate lessons. So the point you make about taking up my brush is somewhat beside the point. I could of course do that but I doubt anyone would want to use them. The issue isn’t me as artist but what the Church commissions. We already know the Church is very focused on improving accuracy – thus the various essays they’ve put up at We also know how art tends to solidify misunderstandings. So I’m simply suggesting the Church should make historic accuracy a big component of what they commission. Also I think they should commission more art to replace a lot of the misleading art.

    Admittedly one problem in the past with Church commissioned art and video are too many chefs in the kitchen. I wish though that one or two apostles might take up the issue and direct them.

  41. Clark,
    It probably wouldnt mean that much to you but I have seen Jesus in dreams and the paintings in LDS culture are pretty close. And, in fact Jesus has whiter skin than most think. The Lehites themselves were very fair and light skinned when they left Jerusalem.

  42. Clark,
    I honestly don’t care what color of skin Jesus is depicted as having. You do. But no enough to actually support LDS artists you approve of. You are the one with the sensitivity, not me. You are the viewer bringing their baggage to the art world. You are the one claiming that Latter-day Saints of color (or, um, desert sun tans) find a Christ depicted with a light skin somehow a barrier. I think Latter-day Saints are more than capable of discerning what art they like or find edifying or not. You are the one demanding an apostolic panel to resolve this weighty issue and establish an art creed on how Jesus is depicted and why.

    Art is capable of invoking an aesthetic experience. Art is not a peer-reviewed paper. Art dictated by committee loses so much. I hope no one in Salt Lake takes up the issue. The arts should be reflective of the true feelings of the artists. You may offer advice and advocate, but that is all.

  43. Old Man, I think my point is that many do. I actually only care because it affects these other people. I just fundamentally disagree that the artist’s feelings are all that matter in these matters. I recognize that many artists think that their art is purely about themselves. And that’s fine. But there’s a certain selfishness if we don’t worry about what we are communicating to others.

    Rob, you’re right in that I just can’t really say much about that. Just as I don’t expect my own private religious experiences to convince others of anything. I’d just say that dreams often use our expectations rather than necessarily reflecting the actual history. i.e. make ample use of our expectations

  44. I tend to agree with the OP here, but that’s just me. Clearly I’m in the minority because I like my art that is used as a medium to portray historic events to be as accurate as possible. Go figure.

    The whole argument that Friburg was trying to portray spirituality through muscle mass is despicable to me as well. It’s no different that being a card holding member of the prosperity gospel. Nephi could be small in stature and still be in tune with the Spirit. King Noah could be physically attractive and still be a jerk.

    I’ve heard somewhere that good art imitates life. I don’t find that in much Mormon art.

    I’d comment on my thoughts on what Jesus may have looked like, but how can I compete with Rob’s dream?

  45. Chadwick, scripturally Nephi was large in stature able to physically restrain Zoram, break his bonds, and subdue his brothers. Another Friberg painting might be a better example.

    But your comment disturbs me on a broader scale, because the insistence on historically accurate painting reduces art to illustration. (Assuming that we know enough to be historically accurate in the first place.) Good art is emotion and symbolism. It moves the viewer. St. Peter is frequently depicted with keys, not because he always carried keys historically, but because the symbol identifies him. Heck, St. Thomas (who tradition holds was skinned alive) is sometimes depicted with a pelt of his own skin casually draped over his arm.

    I’m not advocating that symbolism makes great art (McNoughton is a example of how to do it wrong), but great art always involves color choices, symbolism, and composition decisions that don’t reflect historical reality. Renaissance paintings of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well nearly always depict a stone-walled European well, rather than the pit-type common in the near east. Historically inaccurate? Yes! But they also allow the viewer to more easily relate the story and the lessons taught to their actual situation.

    Nativity sets are available from virtually every culture. Jesus is depicted as black, white, latino, asian. The animals likewise. Some are extremely stylized, others more realistic. But no one insists that the only “true” nativity set is one with middle-eastern clothing, or that the wise men and camels be removed as historically inaccurate.

    I think everyone on this thread agrees that claiming historically inaccurate art is a true-to-life representation of actual events needs to be corrected, and that Gospel art should have a broader representation of cultures and ethnicities. But calling the basics of symbolism, color, and composition as misleading or despicable reveals more about the viewer’s education than the artist’s.

  46. One need look no further than this thread (or even casual observation in any ward) to see that “the audience is not uniform” whatever the state of “ignorance” of the majority. The OP and The Other Clark and others (including myself) are right that any implied claim that “historically inaccurate art is a true-to-life representation of actual events needs to be corrected.” But there is clearly a difference of opinion on how to go about correcting it. I see correction of the implication as more likely and ultimately more uplifting than rejecting art that is or is currently thought to be historically inaccurate. Some who know exactly what historical accuracy is seem to think otherwise. :)

  47. The Other Clark:

    Ansel Adams took pictures of the California wilderness to inspire. Some people take pictures of the California wilderness to document it their trip there in a slide show. Art can be about evoking emotion; it can also be used as a medium to convey information. The Grapes of Wrath can help us emotionally experience the Dust Bowl era, and a text book can give us the facts of the Dust Bowl era.

    I believe that art used in the actual printing of The Book of Mormon is meant to represent the story first and foremost, and a great artist will be able to inspire at the same time he educates. Art about the Book of Mormon on display in a gallery can be used for other purposes. This is my opinion, and I shared it on a blog.

    You got me on the “viewer’s education” though. I didn’t study art at the Sorbonne. If anyone’s opinion that differs from yours immediately leads to a discussion of credentials, however, I find that unfair. Some quite famous artists in the world never studied art. I don’t like Friburg’s painting. I’m allowed not to like everything.

    As an aside, I don’t recall Nephi breaking his bonds. I recall the Lord through Nephi’s faith breaking his bonds in the desert, and I recall Nephi never breaking his bonds on a boat but rather being released from his bonds by his brothers. His brothers also beat him up in the wilderness. And his tackling Zoram probably had something to do with catching Zoram in a moment of confusion. So I’m not totally convinced Nephi’s stature is all you think it to be.

  48. In 1 Ne 2:16 and 1Ne 4:41, he describes himself as being “large in stature” and also “having received much strength of the Lord.” Incidentally, Mormon also describes himself as large in stature (Morm 2:1) although the scriptures are silent on whether he actually wore a horned Viking-style helmets into the final battle.

    Of course you’re allowed to have your own taste in art. If my comment came across as a personal attack, I apologize.

  49. Nativity sets are available from virtually every culture. Jesus is depicted as black, white, latino, asian.

    No one objects to back, latino, asian, or other nativity sets — only the white sets are objectionable.

  50. Hi again Clark,

    Many do? Who? My LDS friends and associates of color tend to have more conservative tastes in art than I do. They hang the pictures you dislike in their homes. One I just chatted with, was shocked that race should be an issue with Jesus. I think your “many” may be far fewer than you suppose.

    “There’s a certain selfishness if we don’t worry about what we are communicating to others.” So much so that you want the Church to correlate LDS art to your own sensibilities or the sensibilities of some minority? (Odd to see you jump on the correlation bandwagon!) How is that not selfish as well? Why not just explain that cultural expectations of the Savior have changed over the centuries and that we all have to grow up and look for the good and beautiful in artistic images throughout the ages? You know, practice understanding and tolerance.

    BYU has sponsored an art exhibit on the changing artistic image of Christ through the centuries. LDS artists from across the world express themselves in an annual art show sponsored by the Church Art Museum depicting gospel and restoration themes. These works are frequently shown in the Ensign. We can all be edified by this multiplicity of ideas and variety of images.

    And I still don’t believe you have wrestled with how the mortal Christ really appeared in the 1st century. Respectfully, I suggest you are as clueless as I am. The Church teaches that Jesus was the progeny of a mortal, 1st century, Jewish woman and… God. Are you really so sure that historic Jesus appeared as you claim? We can’t even begin to describe Jesus’ genotype. You seem to be highly confident in projecting a phenotype.

  51. Old Man, the twitter threads that prompted all this were various people complaining about these very sorts of things. I linked to the hashtag in the original post although reading it is a deeply depressing experience. Note though I wasn’t just talking about Jesus but much more about how all paintings are of white people in most lesson illustrations as well as paintings in meeting buildings. I also noted that in some ways things were improving and even inlinked a picture from that seemed to be the very sort of thing we need to be doing.

    As to Christ’s appearance I just disagree although I’m not sure what more I can do but repeat myself. He was a Palestinian Jew who worked with his hands and then became an itinerant preacher spending considerable time outside. The idea that he would be pasty white doesn’t make sense even if God somehow gave him Swedish genes. But note the argument you’re making. You’re trying to downplay the likely characteristics he would have (which would resemble his apostles) to justify pictures that make him look Irish or nordic. Your argument for this one single portrayal we find in our illustrations is that you don’t think we know his appearance due to not knowing his father’s DNA. Do you really think that’s a good argument?

    The argument that we don’t know therefore we should portray him in many different races makes more sense and is at least a bit more defensible if you pursue that logic. But again I’d simply note that isn’t being done. Go to your warehouse library and I bet you won’t find a single illustration of Jesus as black nor will you find a single painting of him as black or asian on a meeting house wall. So quite apart from undermining my argument you’re actually making a stronger argument against the art we use to teach.

    The main reason I pushed for a more “realistic” view was because that appears to be the way most lay members want their art. They first off don’t interpret it figuratively even if people might want them too. Thus my constant pointing to how people remember Del Larson’s painting of Joseph translating rather than the text in manuals about translation. Likewise if you visit many homes you quickly see that people vastly prefer a more realistic style – as you can see from the link to one of the more popular LDS art stores. Given that reality and I think the dismal record for educating people against their will, I think adopting a realistic art style that is historically accurate to the most likely recreation of historical appearances is the wisest tact to take.

    So again realize, I really, really don’t like the popular style. Most of the popular contemporary LDS art I find very unappealing. I’m much more about abstract or impressionist styles. Likewise I don’t really use art to interpret the text it accompanies. But I’m unusual in that. Most people want a realist style and remember the art rather than the textual information. That has big implications for teaching history and doctrine as well as propagating certain racial views.

    JI, if you think I’m objecting to white nativity scenes you’re missing what I’m arguing. Let me turn it around. If race doesn’t matter, when was the last time you saw an LDS nativity scene in a church setting that wasn’t lily white?

  52. You wouldn’t expect to see fair skinned or red heads in Afghanistan or Iran, but they are there. So stop getting all worked up by it.

  53. As valuable as the conversation about Christ’s appearance has been, I think Clark’s point about the use of misleading art to instruct is still valid. I came up in the Church prior to the Internet so much of my mental picture of the Restoration was through Church media, specifically paintings. Nowhere have I seen a Church-sanctioned painting of Joseph Smith using a seer stone or even the Urim and Thummim.

    While I eventually learned about seer stones (long after entering adulthood), seeing pictures of one of Joseph’s seer stones was still a bit of a shock. I have no idea whether the release of those photos contributed to some other members to have a faith crisis, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

    Ditto for paintings of Joseph’s visions, including the First Vision. The paintings give the impression of physical visitations which, the more I read of Church history, seem to have been the exception rather than the rule (I welcome correction on this point if I’m wrong). Thus, when I read modern scholarship on the showing of the plates to the Three Witnesses that sound more like guided viewing directed by Joseph (not sure what the proper term is) than a heavenly visitation, I can’t help feeling disenchanted.

    I don’t hang this all on the art, and I don’t blame the artists. Either they were commissioned to paint something specific, or they may have not had access to the most accurate historical records, or they may not have been going to historical accuracy at all. It’s the Church that chose the art that it did and the manner in which the art was presented. Can’t we do better?

  54. Northern Virginia what I think is frustrating is that the text always shared the appropriate information. Although I’m not quite sure I’d agree with your interpretations of the First Vision or witnesses. I’d say it was a vision and not a visitation where they interacted with the angels but I’m not sure “guided viewing” is a good way of putting it. There’s still a lot of going back and forth among historians on the issue. I’d also quibble a bit with how much the artist contributed. But we do know that for commissioned art the Church could have given explicit guidelines to be closer to the historical facts. That they didn’t emphasize accuracy is on them.

  55. Clark, thanks for the link to the article. I’m happy to be wrong with regard to physical visitations by heavenly beings. That said, I stand by what I typed with regard to the seer stone. People in my (and probably your) generation and the previous generation simply weren’t prepped by the Church at all to account for folk magic (not to give it a negative connotation) in our religious views. Misleading art didn’t help the issue. Maybe we should pass the hat around to start a “historically accurate Church history and scripture art fund.”

  56. Well I think how well prepped people were for folk magic is very much region dependent. In rural areas I think a lot of folk traditions like dowsing persist. I notice that the Twin Falls rural region of Idaho has a lot more folk traditions or their more modern equivalents. Ditto in many parts of southern Alberta and I’d expect most places where there are old Mormon communities without a lot of inflow of new members. In areas that are more cosmopolitan you have the adoption of cosmopolitan values and culture and so such things are much more alien. Although heaven knows there’s no shortage of people perfectly comfortable with such things along the Wasatch Front. It’s just that if you haven’t encountered such people — either the Mormon or many non-Mormon varieties — it can be jarring especially for people from more secular culture.

    I think this is an important point although we’re going on a bit of a tangent now. I think many that come (as do I primarily) from a secular university type culture (which honestly includes BYU) look askew at such views. For people who didn’t already know the history then the influence of folk traditions both in early Mormonism but also during the influx of British saints to the early Utah period is jarring and uncomfortable. Much of this is honestly just due to a lack of familiarity. That’s why I don’t like to use the term magic as it has a pretty pejorative sense to it. We label “folk magic” David Whitmer’s views of spiritual beings but not say when we hear missionary folk tales of missionaries encountering running men in Navajo regions of Arizona in the late 20th century. Traditional Catholic views of communion seem no less magical than Pentecostal views of spiritual gifts nor early Mormon conceptions of priesthood honestly.

    To your other point, again I think the three witnesses saw in vision rather than an appearance. I just think the “directed” part is vastly overstated. Also some, like Vogel, tried to push the eight witnesses into that category but I think Anderson does a great job arguing against that.

    But I completely think you’re right. I think seer stones were in a surprising number of church texts prior to the recent photos and essays. It’s just that, as you note, people interpreted it based upon art – especially that Del Parsons painting – rather than what was written or said. I knew about seer stones as a kid in the 80’s but I probably read more than the typical teen. Likewise when the salamander letter came out (later shown to be a Hoffman forgery) it was widely distributed in our stake by authorities.

  57. Just to add one last thing and that’ll probably be my last word on the subject. There were two articles in the Tribune today that made several points similar to what I was trying to get at in the above. I recognize that given my own place, perhaps my voice doesn’t have the relevant set of experiences. But these were the voices of black members who do feel a lot of the problems I pointed out.

    The first is a story primarily about the state of things 39 years after the priesthood ban ended. This section in particular I thought was important.

    One of the issues for many African-American Mormons is their invisibility in their faith community.

    There are black general authorities, but no black apostles, no blacks in the general presidency of the women’s Relief Society, few in the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir or as faculty at BYU. LDS art often features a Scandinavian-looking Jesus and the biblical Adam and Eve are most often depicted as white.

    Nor are their contributions to Mormon history recognized by many fellow believers.

    That’s why it was gratifying for black Mormon genealogist Alice Faulkner Burch last month when a Mormon pioneer slave was honored.

    Now callings are up to God. But the rest we can have a huge effect upon. People are feeling marginalized for a reason.

    The next story was suggestions made by black members. Not all the suggestions are doable (As much as I like Genesis I don’t think making it a formal auxiliary necessarily should happen) However most of them are fantastic and I hope get implemented. Not just for blacks, but for many other groups like polynesians or other groups. The first two suggestions seemed very relevant to my original post.

    • Cast a black Adam and Eve (or an interracial couple) in the film shown to faithful members in LDS temples.

    • Use more African-American faces in church art and manuals and display more artwork depicting Christ as he would appear: as a Middle Eastern Jewish man.

  58. Clark, I think we essentially agree. It’s fair to say that some Mormon populations were/are more readily accepting of folk beliefs in Mormonism, but that’s not the same thing as the Church including examples of folk practices in an correlated curriculum, and it’s fairly indisputable that the Church in the 20th century attempted to erase the history of folk practices in early Church history from the curriculum (same with Joseph and plural marriage – just imagine portraits of all of Joseph’s wives in an official Church publication).

    For example, there’s no reference to seer stones in the Our Heritage book issued to all members 12 and up nor is there any reference to plural marriage or polygamy in the Kirtland, Missouri, or Nauvoo chapters. That book was touted as a big deal (at least where I lived outside the Mormon corridor) when it was first released in 1996.

    We’re getting far afield from art, but I just checked to see if there were any new paintings of Joseph and saw one (at least new to me) by John Luke entitled, “Remembering Nauvoo and Impressions of a Prophet.” Joseph appears in the painting to be reading the gold plates. No seer stone or Urim and Thummim (not sure how they would be represented) are visible.

  59. Yes, although Anthony Sweat did paint the picture of Joseph looking into his hat. It’s in his article on the problem of art from From Darkness Unto Light that I linked to. I think it’ll take time to update all the illustrations. Possible a decade or more. But it is happening. Sweat in his article also mentioned a more accurate painting in the Nov 1988 Ensign on page 46. (Not online sadly — only the text is) Quoting Sweat, “in that painting Joseph Smith is wearing the breastplate and seems to be holding a pair of spectacles, or what could be the Urim and Thummim, in his right hand.”

    There have been some great paintings in the Ensign going back quite a few years. But most of them don’t pop up during searches and may not even be on How much of that is due to having limited rights and how much is just due to art & illustrations not being a focus (yet) at I can’t say.

    While’s media library is still a little wanting in many ways, fortunately Google Image search works well and I think many people actually use that first. (I know I do)

    I’m not sure the church attempted to remove all folk traditions in the 20th century. There have been a few articles touching on issues like that such as non-heirarchal use of seer stones. Some of the initial papers haven’t necessarily been well thought of though and there hasn’t been as much focus on those issues outside of Quinn that one might expect. One theory on the topic of seer stones that was in the old book Women and Authority in the 90’s was that as the apostles felt the need to centralize authority such folk traditions were found threatening. I’m not sure how well that thesis has stood up though. (That’s primarily due to just not having the time to research since I got married)

    Certainly in some areas folk traditions persisted, although often constrained by social norms. The folklore collection at BYU used to have a lot of collections of these – at least they did when I was there and had friends working on it. The Hoffman forgeries and then Quinn’s book brought a bit of focus on it. I think a lot of these things remained more persistent than most assume though.

  60. Clark,

    I’ve seen plenty of nativity sets at LDS church settings that were other-than-white. They were all welcome, including the white ones. They were all for devotional purposes, not for historical re-creation purposes. I even saw a nativity set made of bears once.

  61. Clark,

    What if the artists draw Joseph looking into a black felt hat to make you happy, and then the historians say Joseph probably never owned a black felt hat?

  62. Ji,
    Bears are definitely the wrong species. Historical accuracy is what Clark is advocating for all art used within the Church. Of course there would be no nativities with Magi in the same scene as the shepherds. Such traditional forms would be correlated out of existence.

    I guess we could sponsor more digital illustration in the Church. We could change skin color, apparel, body type, objects, etc. with some clicks of a mouse. Decisions could be based on the latest historical research. If an item or something in a work was controversial or suspect, it could be earmarked noting the issue.

  63. ji, please tell me your tongue was firmly planted in your cheek when you made your statement about black felt hats. I would feel much differently about the issue of Church art if the Church in the 20th century had been open and honest about early Church history (and by open and honest, I mean teaching history in official, widely-available Sunday School curricula). For example, I’ve heard of no hand-wringing about the Urim and Thummim which were openly taught and talked about in both the introduction to the Book of Mormon and the various lesson manuals but which were rarely, if ever, depicted in widely-circulated images of Joseph translating the golden plates. The same is not true about seer stones being placed in hats.

    Old Man, you are also misconstruing Clark’s statements. Not all art needs to strive for historical accuracy. For example, I seriously doubt Christ ever stood around with His arms stretched out like the Christus statue, but I’m pretty sure Clark isn’t petitoning to have the Christus statue removed from Temple Square. Nor do you need to toss away art that depicts Semitic people as white Europeans. However, when you have an instruction manual teaching about an event and the lesson asserts the event to be historical, the accompanying art should attempt to be representative of the event, especially where we have details about that event (see e.g., seer stones in hats). I’m more emphatic about this when it comes to Church history than other issues, mainly because we have less certainty about what things looked like. Similarly, if the Church wants to commission a piece of art depicting the Savior, can you admit that having a Semitic Jesus rather than a northern European Jesus might have a very positive impact on many members of the Church?

  64. (edit to my comment above – Second to last sentence should read, “mainly because, for Biblical and Book of Mormon events, we have far less certainty about what things looked like.)

  65. Northern Virginia,

    I have written a few hyperbolic statements to emphasize some points, but I don’t believe I am misconstruing what Clark is saying. Clark has made some great points, but his conclusion is that all church art used in teaching (which is practically every church experience, including the temple) adhere to a protocol of historical correctness. I believe that such a conclusion is wrong. It places an unwieldy burden on artistic expression and the use of art in teaching.

    Why exclude the Christus statue from discussion? The Christus statue is obviously a white European depiction. Unsurprisingly, Jesus’ physical characteristics reflects the cultural norms and ideals of the artist. The Christus statue fits that traditional depiction of Jesus that Clark wants ended or curtailed by a committee of artistic correlation. Christ is wearing a toga-like robe typical of classical sculpture. Jesus never looked like that. But that is not the point. We both agree that it is a spiritually powerful piece that should remain on Temple Square and be used as a teaching tool by the Church.

    And I am well aware that variations in artistic interpretations of scripture and history do (and should) happen. I have already noted that I appreciate most of them. Free artistic expression is one way we grow as a people. I don’t want Clark or even an apostle establishing a creed of what is appropriate for future art works. Let faithful and thoughtful LDS artists interpret the scripture and history and convey their testimonies in their respective media.

    I really believe that all Latter-day Saints need to grow up and appreciate the art of our past and present. Art (even scientific illustration) is never completely true to reality. That is like claiming a hymn needs to be completely historically accurate. If we uncovered a document that revealed it was probably cloudy on the day of the First Vision, would we refrain from singing “How Lovely was the Morning?” There are aesthetically and spiritually powerful pieces in various genres and styles both within and and outside of the LDS movement. They should be considered by members in lessons and openly discussed. I do not oppose differing or new interpretations, I oppose discarding and discrediting the old in some move to be politically correct. I oppose believing that Clark’s (or anyone’s) current or future historical interpretation is a complete reflection of reality. In the end, that is not fully possible in history, and it is often not even the main objective in the arts.

    I believe that a church-sponsored artwork depicting Jesus as a tanned Semite would do very little to alleviate the alienation minorities sometimes feel. But freedom of artistic expression can help. I don’t want to see the correlated view in an art piece. I want to see, hear and feel the testimony of minority artists in their works. Their voices. Their thoughts. So we can all look past the cultural and racial differences and see fellow brother and sisters we are united with in Christ.

  66. I confess I don’t think the Christus looks particularly nordic. I’d have assumed the model for the statue was Greek and Roman statues. I know a big influence for Thorvaldsen was Raphael.

    Also my point about historical accuracy is about things that I think are important. To me when all the characters in all illustration are white that’s an important issue. But my primary focus was on significant inaccuracies like the translation pictures.

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