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Mormon ‘gospel art’: Kitsch or classic?

At the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ visitors center in Salt Lake City,  “The Baptism of Jesus” by Harry Anderson presents John baptizing Jesus as though it happened between two mountain men in the valleys of the American West, reinforcing the early church’s idea of its history as a very American story. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston
Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

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.

Ten life-sized paintings depicting the life of Jesus are a focus of the main floor in the North Visitors’ Center in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Ten life-size paintings depicting the life of Jesus are a focus of the main floor in the North Visitors’ Center in Salt Lake City. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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.

Sermon on the Mount, by Harry Anderson. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Sermon on the Mount, by Harry Anderson. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

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.

The North Visitors’ Center is full of works that tell the story of the Old and New Testaments with a Cecile B. DeMille feel. The Church History Museum across the street has its share, too — much of it depicting scenes from the life of Joseph Smith, the New York farmer who founded the church in 1830 after an angel handed him the Book of Mormon on plates of gold. The church’s nearby Conference Center houses a collection of paintings of scenes from the Book of Mormon — battles, baptisms and strapping warriors on an epic scale.

At the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ visitors center in Salt Lake City,  “The Baptism of Jesus” by Harry Anderson presents John baptizing Jesus as though it happened between two mountain men in the valleys of the American West, reinforcing the early church’s idea of its history as a very American story. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

At the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ visitors center in Salt Lake City,  “The Baptism of Jesus” by Harry Anderson presents John baptizing Jesus as though it happened between two mountain men in the valleys of the American West, reinforcing the early church’s idea of its history as a very American story. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

These images and many like them have graced church publications  for generations. Reproductions, available from the church’s online media library and from the online retailer LDSArt.com, hang in Mormon homes and church buildings around the world. They are something almost every Mormon sees, every day, everywhere — a kind of backdrop of the faith.

Very little, if any of it, would find a home in a non-Mormon museum, except perhaps for its historical value.

“You don’t have to mince words for me,” said Ashlee Whitaker, curator of religious art at Brigham Young University Museum of Art, when asked about the North Visitors’ Center art. “Sometimes the quality is not the finish I would hope for.”

But, she continued, the art on display here is intended first to teach and then to inspire.

“They give us an opportunity to understand the divinity of Jesus better, to teach ourselves more about Jesus Christ,” she continued. “That is a priority for us, to seek these teaching moments that give us an opportunity to grow spiritually. These images are a springboard for that in a very real way.”

David Morgan, a professor of religion and art at Duke University who has written about Anderson’s works, is blunt: “Yes, it is kitsch, but so what? They are not about artistic expression, but about community, about prayer, about devotional feeling. Theses images are the intimate symbols of the community of feeling to which (Mormons) belong.”

This art, Morgan said, “is the mental furniture” of the Mormon faith.

Abinadi before King Noah (Abinadi Appearing before King Noah), by Arnold Friberg. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Abinadi before King Noah (Abinadi Appearing before King Noah), by Arnold Friberg. Photo courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The development of ‘Mormon art’

“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.

“We are a very visual people and we want paintings of these religious ideas that matter to us,” said Anthony Sweat, a professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and a trained artist. “Art is another teaching tool for us.”

The church’s interest in art goes back to 1847. Artists were among those who made the church’s epic trip from Nauvoo, Ill., to the Great Salt Lake Basin. They drew landscapes of the “new Zion,” as Mormons dubbed Utah, that were used to proselytize for the new faith.

Their “romantic landscapes were linked to their religious faith,” church scholar Richard G. Oman wrote. “They saw the face of the Lord in nature and Zion in the purity of the western wilderness.”

By the 1890s, the church was sending “art missionaries” to Paris to train. With the outbreak of World War I, this crop of Mormon artists brought its talent to New York.

In the 1950s, Arnold Friberg, a Mormon artist who taught at the University of Utah, was commissioned to create a series of paintings from the Book of Mormon. They became so popular outside the faith that DeMille put Friberg to work on scenery for his film “The Ten Commandments.” Friberg won an Oscar, which cemented his idealized, mid-20th-century style within the church. Visually, they have a lot in common with the children’s book illustrations of N.C. Wyeth and the pre-Raphaelite works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

Sweat often uses Friberg’s art to conduct an experiment with his students. Close your eyes, he asks, and picture the story of King Noah and Abinadi — a story from the Book of Mormon. How many picture Noah as an overweight man on a throne, he asks, and nearly all hands shoot up. How many see Abinadi as a shirtless, elderly man with an excellent physique? Again, nearly all hands rise. And what kind of pet does King Noah have? The class shouts as one: “Leopards.”

The students have all described one of Friberg’s most famous and most reproduced paintings, “Abinadi Before King Noah.” It has, Sweat said, formed their understanding of the story.

“It’s an image with such influence and widespread distribution that it has shaped these artistic interpretations into almost certain facts for an entire generation of church members,” Sweat writes of the experiment.

Friberg’s popularity set the stage for Anderson, a Seventh-day Adventist who created New Testament scenes for a church display at the World Fair of 1964-65. Millions of people — Mormons and non-Mormons — saw them at the fair. They have since hung in the North Visitors’ Center, which receives upward of 5 million visitors a year.

But are the works of Friberg, Anderson and a dozen other LDS artists whose works dramatize the faith any good? Do they deserve their reverence and place in the hearts and minds of Mormons around the world?

"Moses, Elias and Elijah" by Gary Earnest Smith shows a scene from early Mormon church history at the Church History Museum. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

“Moses, Elias and Elijah” by Gary Earnest Smith shows a scene from early Mormon church history at the Church History Museum. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

The ‘Mormon gaze’

Laura Allred Hurtado says they do.

As curator of the Church History Museum, Hurtado studies all kinds of Mormon art, which she describes as a thriving, diverse genre of which gospel art is only a small part. A good sample can be seen in the church’s triennial art contest, which attracted 944 entries from artists in 40 countries last year, and is displayed on the third floor of the museum.

To compare a work by Anderson or Friberg — or any other gospel artist — to a Michelangelo or a Rembrandt is a mistake, Hurtado said. The expectations we bring to them are different.

“It doesn’t have the same aesthetic burden as a Michelangelo because we come to it with a believing gaze, with a Mormon gaze,” she said. “We don’t interrogate them in the same way.”

That Mormon gaze, she said, “becomes part and parcel of the experience” of the art it beholds.

Morgan, the Duke professor, studied the effects of that gaze in “The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity.” Mormons are not the only religious group to bring a specific gaze to religious art, he said, but they bring one that is different from other Protestant groups that have embraced new forms of art and media.

“The images they had 50 years ago still carry a charge of authenticity for them that for many other groups didn’t survive,” he said. “It is their anchor in time they very deliberately do not want to let go of because it maintains their sense of identity.”

That identity includes the belief that Jesus visited America in resurrected form and that the Book of Mormon is “another testimony of Jesus.” Having a common set of images reinforces what Mormons see as their specialness.

To sit in front of the Anderson paintings is to watch that theory at work.

“Oh, look, it’s that picture,” a man, apparently in his 50s, said as he and his female companion approached Anderson’s “Sermon on the Mount” in the North Visitors’ Center recently. Both wore black name tags identifying them as LDS missionaries.

On a trip to the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, Jason and Mysha Denson of Springville, Utah uses the framed art to teach her daughters Ella, 7, and Rivers, 5, about church doctrine and history. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

On a trip to the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City, Jason and Mysha Denson of Springville, Utah, use the framed art to teach daughters Ella, 7, and Rivers, 5, about church doctrine and history. Religion News Service photo by Kimberly Winston

The man then explained the painting as if he were reading a graphic novel or comic book and filling in the missing speech bubbles. His female companion murmured along with him, then moved on to the next picture in the story.

At the Church History Museum, similar scenes were played out between families. Jason and Mysha Denson brought their three daughters to see the newly remodeled museum from their home in Springville, Utah.

Walking before a Gary Earnest Smith rendering of three glowing angels appearing inside the church’s Kirtland, Ohio, temple, Mysha tells the children a story all Mormon children learn — how the women there ground up their china to put it in the temple walls so they would sparkle.

“That’s sad,” said 7-year-old Ella.

“It’s not sad,” her mother said. “They were happy to give whatever they had for the church.”

Denson said she and her husband brought the girls to the museum specifically to see the art — much of which she and Jason remembered from similar visits with their parents and church groups. Asked if the quality of the art was important, she dismissed the question.

“It is so hard for kids to grasp these abstract concepts” like sacrifice and the uniqueness of the church’s history, she said. “But here, you can show them a picture and that makes it more real.”

(Kimberly Winston is a national correspondent for RNS) 

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

38 Comments

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  • When a Mormon Temple is built there is a period during which public tours are arranged before a consecration ceremony and the closing forever to all but Mormons in good standing. We lived in the vicinity of one such Temple and were among the few thousands of “Gentiles” (their term for Non-Mormons) to observe the inside a bit. It was a lavish production, one of the few times the authoritarian regime that is the LDS permits an unvetted eye to observe, well, at least their interior architecture, in part. As a Mason I was able to observe how like Masonic allegories there exist similarities to the Old Testament accounts of King Solomon’s Temple (some Masons say Joseph Smith stole the secrets of Masonry to found a religion, but that’s an argument for another day). Anyhow, they gave all us tourists a card of a very Nordic looking blonde Jesus and we still have ours somewhere. It’s gotta be the work of the same schlockmeisters, like Thomas Kinkade only worse and more overtly racist.

  • CMT, hi neighbor! I kinda feel badly that you condemned me to hell. What a way to say hello to the day! I wonder which bible you’re talking about, though, since the individual writings and letters weren’t compiled into any sort of book until hundreds of years after Christ died. My German bible as compiled by Martin Luther has different books in it than the King James version that I read in English. So do the Germans or the Americans go to hell for preaching things not found in one another’s bible?

  • Hi George, I’m glad you visited a temple. Every one is open to all public visitors before they are dedicated. We consider them sacred, but not secret: pictures of each of the temples’ rooms, architecture, and art are freely available for viewing, even from the church itself. I know the Jesus picture you’re talking about, and although I enjoy the positivity I sense from His expression, it’s true that he looks very “Nordic” to me as well. More than 1/2 of the church members live outside the United States, with many in Central and South America, West Africa, all over in fact. Having spent a lot of time outside of the U.S., I’ve seen a more concerted effort in church artists to more accurately represent Jesus and other members of the church. It’s a global affair these days.

  • CMT:: stuff and nonsense. One does not have to be Muslim to appreciate the beauty of Arabic calligraphy nor Catholic to be in awe of Florintine artworks.

  • Shall we dance? sHall we dance in the water? shall we dance?

    Schlock is schlock, whether religious or not. I Have a 3D wiggle picture I bought I Mexico 30 years ago. I pictures a bottle blond Jesus with red pouty lips, sort of like Shirley Temple, in closeup in agony on the cross. When you wiggle it, his eyes open and close.

    Schlock is schlock.

  • First, Mormons do not call non-Mormons “Gentiles” anymore, and I don’t know that they have since shortly after they arrived in Utah. Second, I don’t think depictions of religious figures that mirror the experience of the artist are “overtly racist.” Inaccurate, sure, but not racist.

  • It’s the Stakhanovite character of these paintings that has always struck me as regrettable. Kitsch doesn’t quite cover it. It is art for propaganda’s sake in which aesthetic considerations are secondary. Put it on velvet painting and it’s pure kitsch. Put it in your visitor’s centers and it’s not art, but illustration.

  • The purpose of these illustrations is not great art, but like most illustrations, to tell a story. If you wants to see some fine art in an LDS setting, the BYU Art Museum would be a good place to start.

  • “…all of the paintings seem set more in the lush, green valleys near the Great Salt Lake …”

    I got a good laugh out of that one! ;-). Clearly the author’s never been to Utah…!

  • Although she did interview people seeing the art there…so I guess I must have missed seeing those lush green valleys!

  • Rufalo: I had a laugh at that line also. I thought maybe someone was hiding something from me the number of times I’ve been out to a barren sand/salt scape called the The Great Salt Lake.

    Funny how Christ is the center of our religion, but we are mocked for not being Christians.

  • Because Mormonism’s “Christ” looks very little like the Christ shared from the full spectrum of belief and creedal affirmation among the faithful of the Church. LDS is not part of the Christian Church and is not Christianity.

  • Hi, Dave.

    Here too, huh?

    I disagree. Mormon/LDS teachings/doctrine has very much to offer those seeking to learn about the real Jesus.

    From the blog you have provided it is clear that your attempt to discredit Mormon doctrine is based on half-truths and un-official quotes from the 1800s taken out of context.

    The link you shared at the end of the blog does in fact connect to the official LDS church website’s primary lesson manual (a children’s Sunday School class lesson) (true). But how dare you claim that we teach that Joseph Smith is greater than Jesus Christ. We have never taught that, and never will. The lesson’s topic is on the doctrine of the restored gospel in these latter days – a key doctrine on our religion. Joseph Smith is the prophet of this restoration. So, obviously the lesson speaks about him. Jesus Christ has always been the cornerstone of the LDS Church.

    You should be ashamed of yourself, Dave.

    Dave doesn’t speak for the LDS Church…

  • Wow, Cranmer.
    I couldn’t disagree with you more. Let’s have a discussion about Christianity.

    Most likely, we all need a clarification on what your exact definition of “Christianity” is. I’ll let you answer that one yourself.

    The LDS Church teaches that Christianity is acknowledging and accepting that Jesus Christ is the literal Son of God; that Jesus is our Lord, Savior, and Redeemer; and that we strive to follow His example.

    After Jesus’ apostles were killed in the 2nd century, early Christian theology became mixed with Greek philosophy, which gave rise to many confusing and inaccurate creeds – one of which is that God and Jesus are both of the same substance.

    So yes, Mormonism’s Christ is very different (thankfully) from the post-Old Testament creedal Christ. LDS doctrine teaches that the Godhead (Trinity) consists of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Each of these 3 being distinct individual beings, one in purpose.

    Different,…

  • Other than the fact that some Christians wonder if John didn’t die, none of the Apostles lived until the 2nd Century. They all are reported to have been martyred within a few decades of Jesus’ crucifixion.

  • You really have to blame other Christians– the Real Ones, not the fake ones– for that. We atheists, agnostics, spirituals, Unitarians, UCC, Quakers, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Sikhs, and Hindus, for a few, don’t really care.

  • Great intro article.

    Something to perhaps look into is how the Mormon church uses art as a subtle way to rewrite its own history for its members.

    The main example is all the paintings the church has published of Joseph Smith translating the plates at the table, which the church has recently been forced to acknowledge are inaccurate. The plates weren’t used in translation, but rather a stone in a hat (like the South Park episode). Yet the church still publishes the inaccurate, but more plausible, version of the translation.

    Paintings of The First Vision revolve around only one of the many conflicting accounts Smith gave of the event.

    Paintings of the witnesses handling the plates aren’t accurate according to witness testimony, but rather follow the testimony that Smith wrote himself.

    No painting shows Smith with any of his 43 wives other than his first and legal wife Emma. These other 42 women were proud to be his wives, yet are left out of the narrative for…

  • Jared.

    The multiple accounts of The First Vision maybe slightly different in every detail, but the overall story remains consistent. Some accounts were recorded by Joseph Smith first hand and others were recorded by his contemporaries. Different settings and different audiences naturally result in different aspects and details shared about the experience. Please reference: https://www.lds.org/topics/first-vision-accounts?lang=eng

    Do you also discredit the various biblical accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus or what the different Apostles saw on the Mount of Transfiguration? Do you tell a significant event in your life to everyone you share it with, exactly word for word with no variation?

  • Should a denomination with worldwide aspirations have art that looks uniformly like a gathering of people who look very Scandinavian-American?

    Not that there’s anything wrong with looking Scandinavian American (writes the Norwegian-American), but much of the world, and much of the United States, doesn’t look like us. A real worldwide religion’s art should reflect that.

    A Scandinavian Jesus or two is good…only Scandinavian whatever the plural of Jesus is…perhaps not.

  • How about a Cambodian one?
    https://history.lds.org/exhibit/iac-2015-tell-me-the-stories-of-jesus?lang=eng#mv63

    Most of the Art above comes from a period when the vast majority (~90%) of the Members of the church were Americans living in Utah of primarily Anglo and Scandinavian descent.

    There hasn’t been a lot of time for other aesthetics to permeate the Church yet but we are trying.

    https://history.lds.org/subsection/international-art-competitions?lang=eng
    https://history.lds.org/exhibit/conversion-in-the-book-of-mormon?lang=eng

    This is my favorite from this years competition
    https://history.lds.org/exhibit/iac-2015-tell-me-the-stories-of-jesus?lang=eng#mv34

  • Relevant to this discussion generally, but specifically to the illustration of the Translation is Anthony Sweet’s essay “By the Gift and Power of Art” (Full text Here https://s3.amazonaws.com/deseretbook/misc/free-downloads/From%20Darkness%20unto%20Light.%20Appendix.pdf review here: http://www.mormoninterpreter.com/telling-the-story-of-the-coming-forth-of-the-book-of-mormon/)

    Sweet observes “True art and true history rarely, if ever, fully combine,” because “the aims of history and the aims of art are not aligned, often pulling in entirely different directions”

    He also relates two attempts to depict Joseph translating looking into a hat. First by Walter Rane at the request of the Church which never cam out well and was scraped. Second by himself which was also not successful in the early stages which, according to Sweet, “didn’t communicate anything about inspiration, visions, revelations, miracles, translations, or the like — just stomach sickness” Though he did finally…

  • This article is pretty fair. However Moroni did not hand the plates to Joseph Smith. The Angel Moroni appeared to Joseph and Joseph was shown in a vision where he could find them. Joseph was not allowed to take them until after several more years of instruction.

  • You just can’t stomach the idea that Mormonism’s claims (that Jesus is the Savior of the world and that Christ restored his one, true church through the prophet Joseph Smith) are true, can you? Might I suggest the following idea?….not everything that you think you know is true. Or in other words, what something “appears” to be is often not the case. Here’s another idea: appeal to God for Him to teach what is true and real. See James 1:5. Good day.

  • I love Mormon art, both for it’s technical aspects (I’m a very visual person) as well as it’s spiritual aspects. (I know for myself the LDS church’s claims are true.) One of my very most favorite pieces is of Joseph Smith praying in the Sacred Grove. Copies of that limited edition print now cost over $2000 but someday I plan to buy a copy. Art is timeless if it is truly beautiful.

  • “…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.”

    Has the author ever been to the Great Salt Lake? I’ve been to both the GSL and to the Sea of Galilee and I can tell you without a doubt that the area surrounding the Sea of Galilee is much more green and fertile than the areas surrounding the GSL. A one-minute search online will show you the same thing.

    Oh, and the art? Yes, definitely kitsch. But it’s unifying and teaches a lesson.

  • For how long? Well, we were at 15,634,199 at the end of 2015 so I assume we’ll hit 16 million in the third quarter of 2017. Not long now, hang in there.

    thanks for asking
    🙂

  • I don’t appreciate the condescending tone of this article. As one example, the author slams Harry Anderson (who can’t defend himself) for including “American” wildflowers in Anderson’s paintings of Christ’s ministry. She is mistaken. Buttercups (Ranunculus)? There are no fewer than 22 species of Ranunculus native to Palestine. Lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis)? It’s a Eurasian native, not an American wildflower at all except where it has escaped cultivation. Bluebells? Scilla hyancinthanoides is native to Palestine, and not to North America. Utah has some native bluebells (genus Campanula) but these are found only at higher elevations than the hills near Utah’s Sea of Galilee (Utah Lake) or the Great Salt Lake. That’s not to say that I find perfection in Anderson’s work. My main complaint is that he fell for the Renaissance fallacy of portraying Jesus with long hair, contrary to Paul’s comment (indicative, at a minimum, of the fashion of the times) that “Doth not nature even teach you that if a man have long hair, it is a shame unto him?” 1 Cor. 11:14. But his work is sensitive in other respects and so far beyond anything that I could ever hope to achieve that I would never call it “kitsch.”

  • Art is in the eye of the beholder. An a atheist like the author can never appreciate the the spiritual impact of a painting. Having come recently from Paris and all of the religious art from the 17th and 18th century you have to be pretty blind to criticize Mormon Art.

  • All art has purpose for its time and place. Out of context, works by Da Vinci, Picasso, and Rothko can seem ridiculous. Using the word “kitsch” is problematic. It was regularly employed by Modernists as a slur against art that was deemed by them to be unserious. (Some have called Modernists the “puritans of the art world,” telling others what is good or bad according to their own, extreme views.) Work by Degas used be called “kitsch;” so was Norman Rockwell —a contemporary and friend of Harry Anderson. Calling something “kitsch” not only dismisses the very serious philosophy and skill employed by the artist; but, it makes the person labeling the art “kitsch” seem ignorant, dated, and adolescent. Looking at Mormon art — just like looking at Tibetan prayer scrolls or Benin bronze sculpture — requires the skills of a social anthropologist more than a Modernist art critic.

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