Art and Christ in Church Buildings

Yesterday, the Church released new guidelines about the appearance church meetinghouse.  The latest in the series of Christocentric reforms during President Nelson’s tenure, the intent of the guidelines is to help “create a feeling of reverence and dignity” in the spaces that “establish the first impression and feelings that individuals receive when entering a meetinghouse.”  In line with the recent strong emphasis on Jesus the Christ’s role in the Church that began with insistence on using the Church’s full name and continued with the shift from using the Angel Moroni to the Christus statue as the Church’s primary symbol, “framed artwork that focuses on the Savior should always be displayed” in these meetinghouse spaces.  Steps are to be taken to remove artwork, furniture, display cases, etc. that do not fall in line with these requirements (either to other parts of the building or from the building altogether) and a list of approved artwork has been issued.

In many ways, I feel that this is a good move on the Church’s part.  As indicated in the First Presidency letter, the entrances and foyers are the first impression people have of the meetinghouse interior and set the tone as they come in.  Removing some of the clutter provides a neater appearance.  The artwork will help focus attention on Jesus Christ.  Those will both be a good thing as we enter the building and are mentally preparing ourselves for the sacrament and other aspects of church meetings.  It will also potentially improve the image non-members have of Latter-day Saint church buildings, since these areas are the first and last things they see during their visits, and thus some of what they will remember most about the interior’s appearance.  The goals and intentions of the guidelines are good, and I think they will have some good results.

My main apprehension about the announcement is how limited the list of artwork to choose from is.  There are only 22 paintings on the approved list.  The majority are by three artists—Del Parson (7 paintings), Harry Anderson (4 paintings), and Walter Rane (3 paintings)—with only nine artists in total.  That leaves us with very little diversity to decorate entryways and foyers with.  The scenes are mostly drawn from the New Testament, with only seven exceptions—two depicting the post-resurrection ministry to the people of the Book of Mormon, two of Jesus with children, two paintings of Jesus with no particular setting, and one Second Coming painting.  I’m sure there are some economic considerations about mass production of quality artwork that went into creating such a limited lists of paintings to choose from, but with over 3,400 stakes and 30,000 wards and branches around the world, there must be thousands (if not tens of thousands) of church meetinghouses around the world.  While the artwork is all fine paintings, twenty two options is a very small variety to choose from in filling the entryways and foyers of those meetinghouses.

Perhaps more potently, I also feel a bit concerned about the lack of diversity depicted in the paintings.  Our membership is international and drawn from all ethnicities and races.  Yet, while the paintings are beautiful and Christ-centered, most of them are very Euro-centric and male-centric.  Both Jesus and his companions are almost entirely depicted as fair skinned.[1]  There is one painting of Jesus holding a black child with Acacia trees in the background (indicating an African setting) and one of the Book of Mormon scenes has individuals that are obviously non-Caucasian in appearances, but as far as I can see, those are the main outliers to the pattern.  Further, as MargaretOH pointed out at the Exponent II blog, of the 141 individuals depicted in the paintings that can readily be identified as male or female, 119 of them are male and only 22 are female.  All told, the limited number of approved paintings also reflect a limited diversity that doesn’t reflect the diversity or the modern, international nature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Despite my concerns about the limitations of the approved art list, I still believe the goals of this directive are good and will lead to positive results overall.  There is also always the possibility that the list of approved paintings will expand, potentially improving the process even more and allow for greater diversity.  I’m curious to see what you all think, though.  Do you agree with the Church’s choices in paintings?  Why or why not?  Do you feel like this will have an impact on your experience coming into our Church buildings (once you’re allowed to enter them again)?  Let’s discuss.

 

Footnote:

[1] I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of what the mortal Jesus looked like or what race he should be depicted as (before, during, or after mortality), but there is an interesting discussion that BBC put up several years ago that I always like to consider on the subject: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35120965.

13 comments for “Art and Christ in Church Buildings

  1. Wondering
    May 12, 2020 at 2:11 pm

    Any impact will vary by building. It will have no impact on the experience of anyone entering our building. The entrances that are used from the parking lots are at the ends of hallways as far as one can get from the foyers. Often the doors from outside the foyers directly into them are not even unlocked on Sundays. We already have correlated pictures of Christ in both foyers. As far as one can tell from observation before and after and during church meetings the pictures are not looked at. My 16 year old SS class also didn’t know what pictures were hanging in the foyers. In the foyers, people look at posters on easels advertising upcoming events. There is no place else to put them. Almost no one looks at ward, stake, RS, YW or Primary bulletin boards in the hallways.
    I don’t like the alternative choices of paintings. Their artistic quality ranges from poor to somewhat better than mediocre. They are all pseudo-realism which tends to be misleading. Their sameness is one thing that contributes to their not being observed or thoughtfully considered. Using other styles might contribute to learning symbolism or to thoughtful contemplation. There is no place other than the foyers for social and church business chatting. All other rooms are in use with stake offices, stake meetings, and 3 wards with overlapping schedules in a small building.
    There are other buildings where the commonly used doors to the foyers have those entering looking at a wall that could disply an appropriate picture. If one were to enter our building from the outside doors to the foyers, one would be looking at the doors into the gym, one end of a long hallway, and the janitorial closet.
    So, no, in our building this effort is meaningless.

  2. wayfarer
    May 12, 2020 at 5:52 pm

    In my childhood the church was distinguished by it’s lack of ‘graven images’. Sometimes I feel like I’ve seen it all, and I’m not engaged by it. Reality is that it makes me sad that we are soviet socialist realists.Makes me long for a bad boy Caravaggio, with his darkness and light.But, I’m in the wrong church for that.

  3. Wondering
    May 12, 2020 at 6:43 pm

    OK, Wayfarer, Maybe I’ll sneak reproductions of

    “Resurrection” by Don Thorpe
    http://www.donthorpe.com/mormon/christ/19.html
    and
    “Touch Me Not” by Minerva Teichert
    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/media-library/images/jesus-chirst-mary-magdalene-teichert-203743?lang=eng
    and
    “Still Doubting” by John Granville Gregory, 2010, after Caravaggio
    https://mattseyeshaveseen.wordpress.com/tag/john-granville-gregory/
    https://www.christianart.today/daily-gospel-reading/100

    into some corner of our building.
    :)

  4. Ethan R
    May 12, 2020 at 7:09 pm

    More of the campaign to turn Mormonism into a mainstream Christian church and deemphasize Mormon distinctiveness and emphasize imagery more in line with the mainstream. And then there’s temples, the bad expansion of which (even in Dubai) seems to go against the current to make it mainstream.

    It can’t go mainstream. Mormonism was built on a solid rejection of Protestantism and Catholicism and claimed to restore all of these lost elements. It’s not like it was just a different interpretation of the Bible (yes, there’s that, but so much more).

  5. Taiwan Missionary
    May 12, 2020 at 9:56 pm

    Having grown up in a nominally Protestant family, and having become an Evangelical Christian as a young adult, before I was baptized into the Church, I still remember how utilitarian and spare Mormon chapels first seemed to me, compared to Protestant and Catholic buildings. I was struck by the LACK of art, whether standardized or not.

    I understand the desire, as Christ’s Restored Church, to project a Christ-centered message through art, but good art doesn’t always follow a strict budget. I would suggest that it could be done with more diversity of expression. I personally find the sameness of Church paintings depressing. I spent two weeks in 2018 visiting Frankfurt, Berlin, Stuttgart, Munich, and London. There was an incredible variety of Christian architecture and paintings that I loved

  6. May 12, 2020 at 10:33 pm

    I was surprised there were no Teichert paintings in the list. My response after seeing the ones they did have was, “what a bland bunch of pictures.”

  7. Wondering
    May 13, 2020 at 7:58 am

    When I taught Gospel Doctrine New Testament I used a lot of art in power point presentations to focus attention and prompt discussion. The styles ranged from medieval through “realism,” impressionism, expressionism, cubism, abstract, other modern styles, and cartoons (in the modern sense) and included pictures from the Jesus Mafa series from Cameroon. See, e.g., http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48389 and various oriental and native American styles. We had good discussions of New Testament stories and doctrines, varied viewpoints, and some broadened understanding of God’s human family. There were no objections from the class or the bishopric or visitors to the diversity, though there were some normal expressions of dislike of some art by some individuals. As far as could be determined, only one class member had a problem getting past the notion that the function of art was to show exactly what the original events actually looked like.
    It could be a good thing if our foyers were not decorated with such a “bland bunch of pictures”. But I suppose Correlation and the older and Utah-centric leadership are not ready to use such cultural diversity to direct our attention to the principles behind the depictions.

  8. Mortimer
    May 13, 2020 at 8:06 am

    I lament the subject matter and art that was looked over, but am glad that there are only two pieces in the collection of 22 that fall into “Mormon Kitsch”.

    We have a heckuvalotta bad art that is unskillfully slapped together. The fact that we don’t teach figure painting anatomically (no nudes at BYU!) leads to figures having proportional issues (eg Mary & Martha painting) or highly digital works (Jesus and the black baby). Then there’s the cheap emotional art, the “not-so-subtle-symbolism” art (a young boy looking in the mirror and seeing a grown missionary), the “MormonAd” art, the crappy meme art like “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it” over Jesus’s picture, the “we like to pretend we’re all GA-rich art” that includes pictures of little girls playing a big black grand piano in a McMansion living room in fancy dresses, or Mormon fan fic art (missionaries dressed in suits of armor, Youth praying circled by warrior angels, young women in Greek dresses flying virtue flags, etc.), country cute cartoons with doodle scribbles And hearts over the letter “I”, and not to be left off the list, the Frieberg weight-lifting Nephi.

    Just think- we could have had some of that.

  9. John Taber
    May 13, 2020 at 9:51 am

    At least Friberg’s “The Prayer at Valley Forge”, the largest picture in my meetinghouse and stake center, will be coming down.

  10. p
    May 13, 2020 at 1:23 pm

    Hmmmm no mention anywhere of that ubiquitous Mormon abomination, the fair-haired, blo-dried, blue-eyed Scandinavian Jesus who graces many an LDS chapel. These are so bad they’re good. Here’s one vote to keep them in the foyer where they belong!

  11. wayfarer
    May 13, 2020 at 5:23 pm

    Great to be signposted Wondering. And bring back the kitsch Mortimer!
    I have a no mo friend who loves catholic iconography, which I also find strangely moving and spooky at the same time. I think maybe I’d prefer nothing in the chapel and more personal taste expressed outside. Trouble is, personal taste has long been equated with personal righteousness.

  12. E.C.
    May 13, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    While I appreciate the idea behind this new directive, and even agree that our entrances ought to reflect our focus on Christ, I agree with previous commenters that the selections on the list are quite anodyne. In my local temple on the way to the dressing rooms, there is a picture of a very Jewish-looking Jesus holding the hand of a shy Native American girl that I think would be striking in any church foyer. I don’t know the artist, but it’s a beautiful piece and quite distinctively LDS and Christ-centered. Why they didn’t include it on this list is a mystery – if they can hang it in a temple then surely it’s appropriate for a foyer?

  13. Ryan Mullen
    May 14, 2020 at 3:45 pm

    Wondering brings up an excellent point that unless the artwork is changed with some frequency, it will fade into the background and go largely unnoticed. Maybe it’s time to hang flat screens in the foyers?

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