The motivating impact that visual images of Christ have on members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cannot be overestimated. Such images often induce feelings of faith and devotion in responsive viewers. For example, Church member Lisa Gemperline of Kaysville, Utah, wrote to the Ensign saying:
Passing a local art gallery one day, I paused, struck by the beauty of a painting of Jesus Christ on display. My heart was touched as I looked at the face of the Savior, and I wished I had had the painting in my own home. Afterward, I found myself thinking about the impact that painting had had on me. I wanted those feelings to linger, to become an everyday occurrence in my life.
A young female student who attached a small picture of Christ to her locker at school also wrote of the emotional response she felt when looking at the image: “There it would stay as my continual reminder to always stick up for what I believe in and to ‘stand for truth and righteousness.’”A young man wrote of the influence that a picture of Christ hanging in his room had on his behavior: “When I awake in the morning, I look at that picture. Because of my testimony of the Savior, I consciously make a decision to honor his name during the day. Of course when I make mistakes, I look at that picture and wonder how I could have let him down.”
In addition to their motivational function, religious images serve as a tangible manifestation and affirmation of doctrine. Because of their powerful ability to communicate and validate ideas, visual media are readily accepted in the realm of popular religious devotion.Indeed, the importance of visual image making in enforcing religious ideologies and practices is broadly acknowledged by art historians and critics, who note that popular artistic representations of Christ often mirror a Christian group’s culture. In this sense, one may examine a work of art as a cultural document, a visual text from which trends and patterns of belief can be deciphered. As David Morgan, professor of art history at Valparaiso University, states in his recent work on popular religious art, “Many popular images operate in tandem with an oral culture or printed text: devotional literature, Bible passages, hymns, prayers, and teaching guides.” The relationship between culture, image, and text is indicated in this recommendation by historian Erwin Panofsky:
The art-historian will have to check what he thinks is the intrinsic meaning of the work, or group of works, to which he devotes his attention, against what he thinks is the intrinsic meaning of as many other documents of civilization historically related to that work or group of works, as he can master: of documents bearing witness to the political, poetical, religious, philosophical, and social tendencies of the personality, period or country under investigation.
Similarly, the making of religious images by Mormons has not, by any means, been void of reflected values, particularly in portrayals of Deity. Over the last century, the use of many religious images depicting Christ has been an effective didactic and inspirational mechanism of Latter-day Saint expression and of the formation of cultural identity. Such attempts at depicting Christ, for example, obviously strengthen the central LDS belief in the plurality and, indeed, the corporeal nature of the Godhead.Such observations invite the thoughtful viewer to wonder about other, more subtle, questions. How have Mormons visually perceived Christ? Over time has the physiognomy of Christ changed in the art promoted by Mormons? What aspects of Mormon culture and beliefs do these images convey? These and many other questions guide the explorations pursued throughout this article.
Biblical Literalism and Higher Criticism
Latter-day Saint visual perceptions of Christ throughout the last century were images born out of a form of biblical literalism.Mormon literalism disregarded the skepticism of textual scholarship in favor of studies that supported the LDS canon of scripture. Consequently, official Latter-day Saint publications adopted images from a large body of Western art that substantiated Christ’s ministry as a historical reality. In later decades of the twentieth century, Mormons continued to display a strong affection for historical realism, manifested by their choosing artists who work in a highly realistic manner. Contemporary renderings of Christ in Church periodicals—although diverse—were consistently naturalistic in approach, echoing the attention to the realism of fin-de-siecle religious art.
To appreciate more fully Mormonism’s choice of realistic visuals depicting Christ, one should look at the Church’s concomitant response to higher biblical criticism during the period from about 1880 to 1930. As early as 1898, Church authorities began to seriously consider an authoritative stand in the debate about how the Bible should be viewed. Extensive discussions on man’s origin and his relationship with God were passionately argued by LDS theologians like James E. Talmage, John A. Widtsoe, B. H. Roberts, Joseph Fielding Smith, and William H. Chamberlin. Although they positioned themselves along a wide spectrum of polemical responses, their shared purpose was to harmonize the chasm between critical scholarship and religion.
In refuting critics who cited differences and inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts, LDS scholars of that period asserted their allegiance to the texts while dismissing problematic parts as corruptions of an inspired work. Mormons shared a belief with evangelical Protestants in that they believed in the relative consistency of the biblical narrative. Above all, regardless of textual discrepancies, Latter-day Saint scholars maintained their faith in the King James Bible, since it affirmed the historicity and divinity of Christ. Conservative scholars such as Roberts, Talmage, Smith, J. Reuben Clark Jr., and, later, Bruce R. McConkie ardently defended the indisputability of the scriptures. To these LDS scholars, the scriptures were the word of God and were impermeable to higher textual criticism.
Perhaps no other work influenced the Mormon perception of Christ more than James E. Talmage’s book Jesus the Christ (1915), which focused on Christ’s antemortal existence, his ministry, and his godhood. A semiofficial response to questions regarding the historicity of Christ—the book was written on assignment from the First Presidency—Jesus the Christ came on the heels of Albert Schweitzer’s seminal book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), which challenged Victorian orthodoxy by demythologizing Jesus and representing him as a figure designed by rationalism. While Talmage borrowed concepts and methodology from Victorian biographers of Christ, he did not create an “aura of mystery surrounding the Savior.” Rather, he described Christ as “a rational manipulator of eternal laws that were incomprehensible to man.”By framing Christ within a setting of natural laws, Talmage affirmed the LDS belief in Christ’s literal corporeal appearance, a belief that concomitantly sustains the comprehensibility of Jesus. Talmage also emphasized that “Christ combined within His own person and nature the attributes of His mortal mother, and just as truly the attributes of His immortal Sire.” Confluent with this belief in the divine and mortal attributes of Jesus was the use of images of Christ that visually corroborated his bodily nature.
During this period of conflicting approaches to scriptural study, Christian art was characterized by a realistic manner that sustained the historicity of biblical characters and events. Given the interest in science and rationalism, Christian sentiment of that time was unresponsive to mysticism in religious art. The affection for highly realistic art, then, reinforced a literal view of the scriptures.
Evidently, for early-twentieth-century Mormons, most of the artists that best conveyed this literal approach to scriptural interpretation came from the German realist tradition. For example, Heinrich Hofmann’s Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane (1890; fig. 1) often appeared in LDS periodicals and children’s readers early in the century. Hofmann’s prayerful Christ is shown kneeling at a large stone and wearing a tunic, which is spilling to the ground. The illuminated profile of Christ is placed high on balance of his triangularly shaped form, giving weight and stability to the overall composition. Hofmann’s painting Christ and the Rich Young Ruler (1899; plate 1) also captured the literal quality that Latter-day Saint scholars sought to portray in their New Testament scholarship. In this visual narrative, Hofmann has captured Christ and the young man in the critical point of their dialogue. Hofmann’s realistic manner and his convincing use of costumery resemble a static photograph (a still), giving currency to the work.
Depicting Christ as an incarnate man with whom the worshipful viewer could identify, the paintings of other German and northern European artists such as Bernhard Plockhorst, Anton Dorph, Fritz von Uhde, and Herman Clementz embodied similar traits of realism. The unambiguous but charming quality of Plockhorst’s Good Shepherd (ca. 1895; fig. 2) substantiated the historicity of Christ in the eyes of Latter-day Saint children when it was frequently used as a visual aid, a flannel-board cutout (fig. 3), and a Children’s Friend illustration.
A Danish artist who has found respect among Latter-day Saints is Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834–90). The popularity of Bloch’s work among Latter-day Saints is due in large measure to Doyle L. Green, managing editor of the Church’s Improvement Era from 1950 to 1970. Green’s series of readings on the life of Christ, serialized in the Era between 1956 and 1958, was published by Deseret Book as He That Liveth (1958). The book was illustrated with ten plates from Bloch’s life-of-Christ series (plate 2, 1870s; plate 3, 1872). Green commented:
[Bloch’s] fascination with detail, his powerful use of light and shadow, his dramatic animation and heroic vision, his accurate draftsmanship and the all but perfect structural qualities of his figures, combined with the skillful use of vivid color, give a highly realistic quality to his paintings. His buildings, trees and shrubs, clothing, general terrain, and even walls and rocks create a remarkably accurate impression of the Holy Land area. . . . These paintings of Carl Heinrich Bloch tell a story of the Savior that can be understood by all. It is hoped that they will bring much inspiration, joy, and understanding to homes and classrooms throughout the Church.
Because of the paintings’ “utility for Church publications,” in 1990 representatives of the Church approached officials of the Frederiksborg Museum, where the paintings are housed. The managing editor of the Ensign, Jay M. Todd, remembers:
We desired to rephotograph the paintings and asked if it would be possible for the scenes to be taken from the walls to receive better photographic lighting. Museum officials accepted the request, concluding also that while they were down, the paintings should be cleaned to again make vivid colors that had been dimmed by a century of accumulating dust while on public display.
Another artist whose art has been prolifically reproduced in Latter-day Saint periodicals is James Jacques Tissot (1836–1902). Although he comes from the nineteenth-century tradition of French salon painters, his paintings of the life of Christ have been well received for their historical and cultural accuracy (plate 4, ca. 1880s).Their appeal is due to what art critics have called art pompier, or Bourgeois Realism. These paintings are distinguished by a balance between technique and content, a visible interest in the narrative genre, and increased attention to detail. And while they depict sublime religious narratives, they are composed of naturalistic representations of beings and objects. Between 1886 and 1897, Tissot visited the Holy Land, making sketches and photographic references. The result was his three-volume illustrated New Testament, The Life of Our Saviour Jesus Christ (1899), which attempted to bring authenticity to the scriptural record. “Every work, no matter what, has its own ideal,” Tissot wrote. “The ideal of mine was truth, the truth of the life of Christ. To reproduce with fidelity the divine personality of Jesus, to make Him live again before the eyes of the spectators, to call up the very spirit which shone through His every act, and through all His noble teaching.”
The “True Likeness” of Christ
As a result of his extensive investigations into the Renaissance depictions of Christ, Victorian religionist Thomas Heaphy determined that artists used a “recognized” or “authenticated” type as a reference. The Renaissance artists, he discovered, “worked in accordance with certain specified information.”Heaphy surmised:
These works afford sufficient evidence that the particular traits—such as the hair parted in the middle, flowing to the shoulders, and beginning to curl or wave from the ear downward—the thin beard, the hair upon the lip, and the oval face—were recognised as distinguishing characteristics of the true Likeness, even at that early period.
Such information may have been supplied in the somatic profiles of Christ found in various Byzantine renderings, such as the apocryphal letter of Publius Lentulus, the Mandylion image, and the Turin Shroud accounts.The varying texts of the Lentulus letter, for example, differ in their prefatory notes but are similar in the many details of Christ’s physical appearance:
[Christ was] a man in stature middling tall, and comely, having a reverend countenance, . . . having hair of the hue of an unripe hazel-nut and smooth almost down to his ears, but from the ears in curling locks somewhat darker and more shining, waving over (from) his shoulders; having a parting at the middle of the head according to the fashion of the Nazareans.
The letter further described a man with a pleasant countenance, having “a face without wrinkle or any blemish” and “a full beard of the colour of his hair, not long, but a little forked at the chin; having an expression simple and mature, the eyes grey, glancing . . . and clear.”Presbyterian clergyman and reformer Henry Ward Beecher subscribed to the description of Lentulus and in 1872 urged that, rather than present a “formidable being, terrible in holiness,” depictions of Jesus reveal the traits of “irresistibility” that made little children and mothers, the rich and poor, and the lettered follow him. The Mandylion, or Image of Edessa, dating from the tenth century, was the impetus for an iconographic tradition of the Eastern Church, which featured a haloed head of Christ with a beard, a straight nose, and hair parted in the middle. Later images appear to have been derived from the Mandylion, also called the acheiropietos (not made by human hands) type. The well-known Turin Shroud of the thirteenth century, believed to have been Christ’s burial cloth, also depicted Christ with a bifurcated beard and straight nose. This acheiropietos image type continued through the eighteenth century, as was documented in the painter’s manual or Hermeneia kept by the Greek monk, Dionysius of Fourna.
Except for brief narratives of some modern visitations of Christ, such as the account of the First Vision, Mormon descriptions of Christ have been limited to general characterizations of his divine qualities and magnanimous nature. According to German convert Alexander Neibaur, Joseph Smith had simply described Christ as having a “light complexion” and “blue eyes.”James Talmage never took up the subject of physical appearance, referring in his study only to Christ’s adolescent years as a time of development “spent in active effort, both physical and mental.” Later in the work, though, Talmage observed that Jesus had a “submissive yet majestic demeanor” while standing in the presence of Pilate. In 1877, Elder Orson F. Whitney received a sublime dream or vision wherein he witnessed the suffering Christ in Gethsemane, where Christ “was of noble stature and majestic mien—not at all the weak, effeminate being that some painters have portrayed; but the very God that he was and is, as meek and humble as a little child.”
A subtle curiosity in the “true likeness” of Christ persisted through Mormon intellectualizing. But speculation on the matter fell short of describing Jesus’ face as more enigmatically perfect than that of his contemporaries. By 1900, Latter-day Saints had been introduced to an eighth-century descriptive sketch of Christ written by John of Damascus as well as to the apocryphal description attributed to Lentulus.The letter of Lentulus, for example, was read in LDS general conference proceedings on three occasions between 1926 and 1957. “Whether authentic or not I do not know,” said Spencer W. Kimball of the letter in April 1956. “But it may stir our imaginations.”
Although they viewed Jesus as a model of mental and physical perfection, more conservative Latter-day Saints believed that Christ would not have appeared remarkably different than those around him. Such reasoning followed the scriptural passage that he would appear without “comeliness,” indeed having “no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). Bruce R. McConkie gave passing attention to the question of Christ’s likeness in the first installment of his multivolume Messiah series. In it, Elder McConkie reported:
We know very little about the personality, form, visage, and general appearance of the Lord Jesus. Whether he had long or short hair, was tall or short of stature, and a thousand other personal details, are all a matter of speculation and uncertainty. We suppose he was similar in appearance to other Abrahamic Orientals of his day, and that he was recognized by those who knew him and went unheeded in the crowds by those unacquainted with him.
Although Mormon scholars have avoided taking an authoritative stance on Christ’s physical appearance, the subject of how the Savior has been depicted has been broached. In 1925, Janne M. Sjodahl, Church scholar and editor of the Deseret News, wrote that in the Gospels “the Evangelists have studiously avoided to draw any picture of the physical features of the Master, while they have placed before us a character, the divine features of which are unmistakable.”Accordingly, Sjodahl believed artistic representations of Christ’s lineaments historically varied, inspired by spurious descriptions of Christ’s visage like the Lentulus letter and the legendary Veil of Veronica. “On the ground of these descriptions,” he noted, “arose a vast number of pictures of Christ which are divided into two classes: the Salvator pictures, with the expression of calm serenity and dignity, without the faintest mark of grief; and the Ecce Homo pictures of the suffering Savior with the crown of thorns.” Sjodahl was quick to favor the noble qualities of the former of these two classes. Early Christian representations, he maintained, were associated with Christ’s state of humiliation and suffering, taking as their inspiration Isaiah’s description of the suffering Messiah: “He was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3).
In Sjodahl’s estimation, representations of Christ dating from the fourth century typically rendered him disrespectfully revolting and base. Constantinian and Gothic artists often depicted the suffering Christ with twisted limbs and an attenuated torso. Calling these base images “mean and repugnant,” Sjodahl called for a “higher order of spiritual beauty” in depictions of Christ, saying, “all the facts of his life speak convincingly of that strength, and endurance, and dignity, and electric influence, which none could have exercised without a large share of human, no less than of spiritual gifts.”
During the first three decades of the twentieth century, Latter-day Saints avoided images like the Gothic Andaechtsbild, or the morbid images of the passion, the crucified Christ, or pietà. Nor did they adopt stagnant images such as the great Pantocrator likeness of Byzantium.Mormons adopted the more sentimental Lentulus type familiar to most Western Christians. This type has continued to be the basis of all Mormon depictions in the twentieth century. For example, after surveying the many artistic interpretations of Christ, along with the historical accounts, LDS artist Gary E. Smith concluded that “there is a special type which is persistent and we recognize as the Christ image.” Referring to the apparent type used by artists as the true image of Christ—a type explained by Sir Wyke Bayliss in his Rex Regum, Smith concluded that “the ‘Rex Regum’ builds a strong case for the image and is one which I, personally, drift toward believing.” The tradition of following the Lentulus description can be seen, for example, in a portrait of Christ by C. Brosseron Chambers (fig. 4, n.d.) that was used in Church manuals for several decades. More recently, LDS artists have also followed this type, as can be seen in portraits by Harold T. (Dale) Kilbourn, Robert T. Barrett, and Del Parson.
No study of LDS visuals depicting Christ can adequately cover their selection, use, and dissemination without touching upon the subject of race. Images of Christ created by Latter-day Saints reveal their worldview of Christ’s Jewishness and thus their perceptions of Semitic physical attributes in general.
Latter-day Saints have generally believed in a fair-skinned Christ. Like their Protestant counterparts, Latter-day Saints have observed the scriptural description of Christ’s youthful forebear, King David, as “ruddy, and of a fair countenance” (1 Sam. 17:42). In fact, it is commonly held that the early Nephites, who came from Judea as did Christ, resembled Europeans in facial features and skin color. Referring to the Gentiles (Europeans), Nephi wrote that “they were white, and exceedingly fair and beautiful, like unto my people before they were slain” (1 Ne. 13:15). A desire to portray cultural accuracy or realism appears to be a greater factor in choosing suitable “true likenesses” of Christ for Church publications than trying to capture the darker physical traits commonly associated with modern Mediterranean peoples. American Latter-day Saints, in light of their own descriptions of Christ, have perpetuated the traditional image of him as having a fair complexion.
George Reynolds, a member of the First Quorum of Seventy and the Deseret Sunday School Union Board, commented in a 1904 Juvenile Instructor article on the personal appearance of Jesus, noting the misconceptions in past artistic representations. The old masters, he wrote, “painted Christ as a red-haired, bare-headed man marching through the streets of a German village, or seated by an Italian villa with the utmost complacency; they put stoga boots on the feet of the disciples and armed the Roman soldiers with blunderbusses.”Disregarding the obvious European influence in the accompanying illustration, Reynolds did not object to Jesus’ Nordic or Germanic facial features but referred to the work as one of “the rather better class of the ordinary picture” even though it contained a number of the “foolish inaccuracies above referred to.”
Bertel Thorvaldsen’s neoclassical Christus (1821; copy, fig. 5) was held up by Reynolds as “a very dignified example” of the conventional perception of the Christ figure in visual art.The formal order of Thorvaldsen’s work exemplifies the symmetry and balance admired by mainstream Church members. This high regard for Thorvaldsen’s formal classicism coincided with some Mormon authors’ regard for Germanic physical attributes.
Given that Jesus is the son of an “exceedingly fair and white” mother (1 Ne. 11:13), Mormons have continued to envision a fair-skinned Christ in their visual art. The persistence of this phenomenon can be seen in depictions of a fair-complexioned Christ in Church-commissioned paintings by Harry Anderson and in Ensign and Children’s Friend illustrations by Barrett, Parson, and Gary Kapp (see, for example, plates 5–14).
Christ’s Image as Exemplar
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, American religious educators found that pictures were useful in teaching children moral values. One writer, Henry E. Jackson, stated that religious paintings “impress deeply on the mind and heart some great truth or Biblical scene which has made only a slight impression before.” Jackson remarked that “whether we will or not, the child will visualize the stories he hears. He makes images of the characters and incidents of the Bible.”In 1922, Albert Edward Bailey, a professor of religious art and anthropology at Boston University, expressed a similar notion:
Jesus is not a myth, he was a man. If he was a man, he lived somewhere and at some time; he did things, he went to places, he talked and walked with men and women. Where did he live? What did he do? How did he look when he did it? and what did his companions look like? These are all legitimate questions in the mouths of boys and girls.
According to Bailey, the average religious picture does not answer these questions. However, he wrote, “The questions can be answered correctly by two types of pictures, one of which at least we shall have to classify as art—the work of certain nineteenth-century artists like Tissot, Hunt, Siemiradski, and others—and actual photographs.”Jackson concurred: “To render [a child] the best service, in this process [of visualization], only the best pictures ought to be put into his hands. Poor pictures will do more harm than good, for they will give false notions which must later be unlearned.”
In the production of educational material in nineteenth-century America, sectarian uses prevailed. Mormons themselves were known for their locally published children’s readers, such as Edwin Parry’s Simple Bible Stories, which were profusely illustrated with traditional engravings of biblical narratives.By the early twentieth century, such readers had become canonized as an official component of the Church’s Sunday School and Primary programs. James Tissot’s paintings of the life of Christ, for example, were first introduced to Latter-day Saints in 1908, when they were used to illustrate the Primary lessons in the Children’s Friend of that year. Primary officers urged, “It is expected that these pictures will be used as much as possible in the lesson work, and assist in the aim of the lesson.” Later that year, the “Tissot Pictures” were recommended as a teaching aid to the lessons and were offered as a set of 120 pictures available at the Friend office for one dollar. William A. Morton, a Salt Lake City author of children’s readers, wrote The Life of Christ in Simple Language for Little Children (1916), which contained reproductions of the ubiquitous works of Plockhorst, Hofmann, and others and added the Joseph Smith story illustrated with paintings by Lewis A. Ramsey.
In 1922, the Sunday School Union published Bible and Church History Stories, illustrated by lithographic reproductions of paintings by Hofmann, Plockhorst, Rembrandt, Joshua Reynolds, and William Hunt.Quarterly lesson bulletins published by the general board of the Primary Association from 1933 through 1936 contained the artwork of Plockhorst, Hofmann, and others, which was meant to accompany teaching lessons.
In 1946, Kenneth S. Bennion, a member of the Junior Department Committee for the Sunday Schools, issued his study manual, The Life of Christ, illustrated with forty-eight color plates showing events in Christ’s ministry. The illustrations included work by Plockhorst, Hofmann, Otto Stemler (fig. 6, n.d.), Alexander Bida, Martin Feuerstein, Alf Rolfsen, and Paul Thumann. Seven years later, Franklin L. West, then Church commissioner of education, published his text, Jesus, His Life and Teachings (1953), which contained nearly all of the illustrations used by Bennion. A later edition of Bennion’s manual (1957) was more diverse, including works by Rubens, Vogel, Vermeer, and Armitage, while adding images by two LDS-commissioned artists, Goff Dowding and Arnold Friberg (table 1). This edition indicates the beginnings of a trend toward using distinctively “Mormon” art.
Table 1. Illustrations Used in Kenneth S. Bennion’s Life of Christ (1950 Edition)
|Artist||Title of Image|
|Armitage, Edward||The Remorse of Judas|
|Barhydt, J. A.||On the Road to Emmaus|
|Bellini, Giovanni||The Flight into Egypt|
|Bolognese School||Christ Healing the Blind|
|Bolognese School||Christ Raising the Son of the Widow of Nain|
|Brown, Ford Madox||Christ Washing Peter’s Feet|
|Ciseri, Antonio||Behold the Man|
|Cole, Thomas||Expulsion from the Garden of Eden|
|Crespi, G. M.||The Marriage at Cana|
|Dowding, Goff||The Creation|
|Friberg, Arnold||The Wise Men from the East|
|Harwood, James T.||Come Follow Me|
|Hofmann, Heinrich||Christ and the Rich Young Ruler|
|Hofmann, Heinrich||Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane|
|Hofmann, Heinrich||Christ in the Temple|
|Hofmann, Heinrich||Come unto Me|
|Hofmann, Heinrich||The Sermon on the Mount|
|Manchola, Juan||The Good Samaritan|
|Mastroianni||No Room in the Inn|
|Matania, Fortunio||The Draught of the Fishes|
|Monroy, Luis||Christ Driving Out Them That Sold and Bought from the Temple|
|Murillo||The Return of the Prodigal Son|
|Plockhorst, Bernhardt||Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem|
|Plockhorst, Bernhardt||The Good Shepherd|
|Rolle, Henri Le||Arrival of the Shepherds|
|Rubens, Peter Paul||Christ Appears to Mary Magdalene after His Resurrection|
|Rubens, Peter Paul||The Tribute Money|
|Sieminadeski, H. S.||The Twelve Chosen|
|Tissot, J. James||The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes|
|Vermeer||Christ in the House of Martha and Mary|
|Vinci, Leonardo da||The Last Supper|
|Vogel, Hugo||Jesus and the Children|
|Zurbaran, Franciso de||Crucificion|
Although images were initially considered supplemental to customary teaching methods, pictures became an integral part of LDS religious instruction as the perceptual effects of pictures became more widely known.Latter-day Saint specialists in child development and education taught that, when properly selected, pictures “will materially determine many of the moral qualities that may be developed in a child. For example, the pictures of great men and women may inspire a desire to become like them.” The use of pictures could impress upon the mind of children the reality of Christ’s mortal mission. For example, in 1913, LDS artist J. Leo Fairbanks stressed the efficacy of picture study in Sunday School instruction:
It is through the physical that art is able to interpret our comprehension of what we feel, conceive, or see, and through the interpretation of this expression that later people gain the spiritual message. Art causes us to feel that Christ was a man, that He lived a physical existence, that He was mortal, sympathized with sinners, moved among beggars, helped the infirm, ate with publicans and counseled with human beings for their immediate as well as their future spiritual welfare. It is to art that we turn for help in seeing the reality of the facts of the religious teachings of this divine human.
The increasing use of images in Church readers, teaching aids, and periodicals added a new dimension to gospel teaching. Young children could be sensitized to form characterizations of the subjects they were studying at church and at home.
In an attempt to teach character, some Latter-day Saints adopted the pseudoscientific manner of character appraisal called phrenology. In keeping with this fascination with phrenology and the related discipline of physiognomy, Latter-day Saint children were informed that character could be determined by closely examining a subject’s facial attributes in photographs and pictures.Hence, a person’s lineaments could reveal desirable qualities consistent with individuals of high moral character.
In a popular Salt Lake City periodical for young people, The Character Builder (1902–40), phrenologists Nephi Y. Schofield and John T. Miller regularly contributed character delineations of prominent Latter-day Saint and other personalities.Schofield discussed the possibility of delineating character from a photograph. Conceding that it poses some difficulty in obtaining accurate measurements for a thorough and complete reading, he nonetheless believed that a photograph “will furnish abundant material for much that is interesting and useful.” According to Schofield, the “organs that represent force” are primarily located to the side and back of the head and cannot be examined in a photograph or, presumably, any other two-dimensional image. The examiner is then obliged to rely upon “physiognomical signs” that can be seen from the front of the subject. Supposedly, if children could apply this method of ascertaining higher character to photographic portraiture, they could also apply the method to paintings for determining the exemplary traits of Christ.
From about 1950 to 1955, course instructors were encouraged to use visuals supplied by the Sunday School Union or those printed in the Instructor, the official organ of the Sunday School. Articles published during this period emphasized the utility of appropriately selected pictures for building character recognition and memory in young students. Kenneth S. Bennion, member of the Instructor publication committee, regularly contributed articles that accompanied color pictures of Jesus and other biblical characters. Other articles spotlighted the use of pictures by ward Sunday School instructors.One teacher trainer, Alta Miller, promoted the use of charts to help students focus their attention on important points in a lesson. “To build ideas of Jesus,” a picture was placed on what she called a “sensitivity chart.” Statements about the “characteristics of Jesus” such as “Courage without reservations” were printed near the picture (fig. 7).
Christ as the Ideal of Masculinity
As part of a larger effort to curb juvenile delinquency, leisure-time activities for young people—both Mormon and Protestant—often set the boundaries of male gender roles.Out of this effort to reform delinquent youth arose a progressive masculine ideal that could be attained through social-gospel programs. A crusade to promote physical and spiritual well-being through organized recreational activities came to be known as Muscular Christianity, a movement that swept urban America during the 1870s and ’80s. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), perhaps the most influential of the youth organizations, promoted exercise, recreation, and education for “the development of the best type of virile Christian manhood.” Although the YMCA’s foundational principles included mental and moral as well as physical efficiency, its supporters believed that “the full development of Christian character and sturdy manhood depends upon proper and adequate physical training.”
Early-twentieth-century speeches and articles by Latter-day Saint authorities often correlated ideal manhood in part with physical strength and stature. An Improvement Era article of 1904 admonished young men to aspire to physical as well as intellectual and spiritual perfection. In fact, its author claimed, “the physical must stand first. Without a good body, all the powers and faculties will be blighted.” “The ideal young man, then, must be strong in body, and as near as possible physically perfect.”George Reynolds’s Juvenile Instructor article of that same year stated that Christ had been universally represented by the master artists as a
somewhat effeminate and sentimental young man with long flowing locks, a weakling in body and with few traces on his face of the strength of character within. All this is wrong, Christ was not red-haired, nor effeminate, neither was he a dyspeptic, nor a dreamy sentimentalist; the Being who drove the money changers out of the Temple was no weakling. . . . He would be a vigorous, deep chested, broad shouldered man, with well cut features and above the medium height, with his bodily energies developed through a life of youthful labor in Joseph’s carpenter shop at Nazareth.
Health and well-being were part of the Church’s program in teaching the young men practical religion. While the YMCA was exclusively serving its young evangelical Protestant membership, Church leaders adopted programs of recreation and health, which were implemented by the Church’s Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (YMMIA), established as an auxiliary in December 1876, and the Boy Scouts of America, with which the Church affiliated in May 1913.The athletic programs of the YMMIA, for example, were designed to provide wholesome leisure activities as a support to building testimony and character in young priesthood holders. YMMIA course manuals included lessons on the value of good health and caring for the body “machine.” The 1909–10 manual, The Making of the Man, emphasized a balanced approach to physical, mental, and social efficiency in manhood. “Physical manhood,” it affirmed, “consists in having a strong, symmetrical, well-trained body.”
In a series of lessons entitled “Health and Achievement,” the 1922–23 senior manual stated that “the man who preserves his manhood, conserves his vigor, his spiritual power, is attractive. His eyes are clear, his mind alert, and his body erect. He is respected, admired and loved by all.”To be successful, the M Men, as they were called, should endeavor to maintain the highest standards of health as well as character. “Keep in mind what the ‘M’ stands for,” the manual urged. “Manly men, Masculine men, Minute men, Mindful men, Mutual men, Merit men, Modern men, Modest men, Mighty men, and ‘Mormon’ men.”
In 1944, Levi Edgar Young, then President of the First Quorum of the Seventy, promoted this ideal physical condition as a significant trait of exemplary manhood. Quoting from Charles Eastman’s The Soul of the Indian (1911), Young described the Native Americans’ “fine conception of the importance of the body and its health and strength” as “supple, symmetrical, graceful, and enduring,” a “high ideal of manly strength and beauty, the attainment of which depends upon strict temperance in eating, together with severe and persistent exercise.” To this, Young added, “The perfect body was a part of Christ’s glory.”In 1955, David S. King, then second assistant general superintendent in the YMMIA, encouraged the young men to armor themselves with noble qualities and build their physical strength as well as their moral values. Righteous living, self-conquest, and obedience to the laws of health were viewed as being among the high ideals of manhood and virility.
King’s ideals echoed the tone of Bruce Barton’s best-selling book, The Man Nobody Knows (1924), in which Christ was portrayed as an outdoorsman, a sociable man, and an executive, one who called men from the lowest ranks and forged a perfect “business,” a kingdom and organization that “conquered the world.” In Barton’s mind, Christ was not “a pale young man with flabby forearms and a sad expression” but was a man whose “muscles were so strong that when he drove the money-changers out, nobody dared to oppose him!”According to Barton, “It requires only a little reading between the lines to be sure that almost all the painters have misled us. They have shown us a frail man, under-muscled, with a soft face—a woman’s face covered by a beard—and a benign but baffled look, as though the problems of living were so grievous that death would be a welcome release.”
Another work that influenced Mormon perceptions of Christ was Harry Emerson Fosdick’s The Manhood of the Master (1914). Citing specific examples of Jesus’ magnanimous nature and virtuous qualities, Fosdick characterized Christ as a man perfectly balanced in his environment—social, even tempered, loyal, perseverant, and fearless—a man in whom both man and woman “should find their ideal.”
The impact of writers like Barton and Fosdick on Mormon concepts of Christ is immeasurable. Latter-day Saint educators followed virtually the same outline for lessons and character studies of Christ as those found in Barton and Fosdick and drew from Church-produced resource materials that portrayed Christ as the same successful role model and executive. For example, a series of manuals written by Bryant S. Hinckley for the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association from 1924 to 1927 focused on character-building and contained much of the corporate language of success used by both Barton and Fosdick.Hinckley’s A Study of the Character and Teachings of Jesus of Nazareth (1950), written as a course of study for the adult members of the Aaronic Priesthood, drew heavily on the writings of Barton and Fosdick. Hinckley’s chapter topics closely follow those of Fosdick’s Manhood of the Master. In fact, the chapter headings—such as “The Master’s Joy,” “The Master’s Indignation,” “The Master’s Loyalty,” “The Master’s Measure of Values,” “The Master’s Sincerity,” and “The Master’s Fearlessness”— include virtually the same phrases as those used by Fosdick.
The philosophy of social-gospel thinkers is as apparent in Latter-day Saint visual images as it was in youth instruction manuals. In keeping with the idealization of Christ, Mormons adopted the immensely popular Head of Christ painted by Warner Sallman in 1940 (fig. 8). Sallman’s portrait was seen by many Americans as asexual or effeminate, the long flowing hair and the submissiveness of Christ’s expression suggesting softer traits. But the artist intended the image to portray traits of manliness and male vigor.Accordingly, other Americans viewed the wholesome, handsomely chiseled face and clear eyes as embodying the expected physical characteristics of the perfect man, Christ. To many Latter-day Saints, though, Sallman’s painting not only represented the manliness described by Barton and Fosdick but also embodied a universally appealing attitude of supplication, an attitude fostered by Mormons as well as by other Christians.
Sallman’s Head of Christ could often be seen in LDS homes hanging on the wall or displayed on the mantle. Its popular reception is also evident from its widespread use in ward meetinghouses and libraries. The picture was regularly used to decorate Church meetinghouse foyers, chapels, and classrooms. Sunday School and Primary instructors used the Sallman image to exemplify the ennobling qualities of Jesus that the painting was perceived as portraying. Two photographic visuals by Ralph T. Clark featured the Sallman Head of Christ to help teach prayer and reverence (figs. 9, 10).
By the late 1950s, Sallman’s Head of Christ had entered the corpus of visuals that defined the image of Christ for Mormons (fig. 11). For example, a version of Sallman’s Christ, completed in 1948 by a popular artist in Tahiti, Edgar Leeteg, was enjoyed by many Polynesian Church members during the time it hung in the Hamilton New Zealand Temple and later in the Papeete Tahiti Temple.In addition, the Head of Christ and other Sallman paintings (fig. 12) were used on missionary calling cards and wallet-sized inspirational cards for LDS servicemen.
Christ as a Man of Virtue, Integrity, and Sensitivity
In 1961, the editors of the Improvement Era introduced the Gospel in Art series, a program offering Church members the opportunity to purchase frameable reproductions of the works of LDS artist Arnold Friberg for hanging in their ward buildings and homes. The first painting in the series, Peace Be Still (1961), showed Jesus commanding the stormy elements to subside (Matt. 8; Mark 4). According to a Church News article, the painting would help to “instill a love of art” and encourage viewers to follow “in the Master’s footsteps of living the Gospel.”
Friberg, known for his series of illustrations depicting square-jawed Royal Canadian Mounted Police, is regarded as a master artist who follows traditional academic methods of illustration to create monumental works of art. Friberg gained respect among Church members for his paintings of Book of Mormon scenes, which were commissioned by the Primary organization in 1952. Influenced as a child by Gustave Doré’s robust men and women of the Bible, Friberg’s artistic work shows an affinity for brawny, muscular forms—a symbolic feature that many viewers have come to recognize. Friberg has stated that his large, muscular characters are intended to physically portray the inward greatness of the men he depicts.
In 1963, Friberg completed another painting for the Gospel in Art series. The painting, Christ Appearing to the Nephites (renamed The Risen Lord; plate 5), depicts a resurrected Christ standing in the midst of Nephite worshipers. Dressed in a luminous white robe, Christ stands with his hands outstretched and his tunic open to his waist, exposing the wound under his lowest left rib. His radiant trilaterally shaped form is positioned in an erect, dignified posture against a darkened background, emphasizing the strength of his presence. When the painting was advertised in the April 1965 Improvement Era, Friberg’s Christ was described as “a noble figure,” “both manly and divine.” Church officials apparently disapproved of the bare-chested Christ, for the painting was never again advertised or used in Church publications.
Commenting on the painting, Friberg said:
In the absence of any known portraits of Christ, artists have pictured His face and figure in countless ways. I don’t believe that this multitude of interpretations especially bothers anyone, since artists are not painting a likeness, but an idea—a spiritual concept. . . . Jesus is neither a weakling nor a victim, but a commanding presence; one look at His eyes and men sacrificed everything to follow Him.
Friberg may have been subtly referring to the Church’s disapproval of the painting when he continued, “In my Scriptural paintings I need not be concerned with involved theological controversies. Instead, I try to bring into reality the stories so often taught in Sunday school. . . . Through my paintings, I bear witness to the truth as I understand it.”
Despite Friberg’s stand, the Church had become less inclined to idealize the physical virility of Christ, preferring instead to emphasize virtue and integrity as the measure of a perfect man. In 1964, Hugh B. Brown coined the phrase “consecrated manliness”—a phrase that would characterize the Mormon concept of manhood for the next three decades.The qualities of athleticism and perfect health were minimized in favor of sensitivity, goodness, and virtue. Thus the Mormon male, though he was to be a sturdy patriarch, would primarily champion all that is virtuous.
Anthropologist David Knowlton has written that “Mormons avoid the androgynous imagery of Christ as a somewhat effeminate nurturer and mediator between us and the heavens. Rather, we focus on the Christ ascendant as ‘man’ the conqueror.”Yet, judging by contemporary visual conceptions of Christ, the Mormon male is to invoke all His feminine nurturing qualities while manifesting all the demonstrable attributes that are typically considered masculine (authority, spiritual strength, resoluteness). If, as Fairbanks wrote, “it is going to take ‘Mormon’ artists to give the feeling and proper interpretation to ‘Mormon’ subjects,” then the proliferation in the latter half of the twentieth century of Mormon works depicting Christ shows a similar objective in interpreting a “Mormon” Savior. More recent LDS portraits of Christ depict him as a strong, but passive, shepherd type, one who sits reflectively overlooking the Judean landscape (fig. 13, 1995). The image of Christ as a wholesome man coincides with the Church’s policy regarding the portrayal of Deity in live performances. The Church Handbook of Instructions (1998) expressly states that “if the Savior is portrayed, it must be done with the utmost reverence and dignity. Only people of wholesome personal character should be considered for the part.”
Correlation and the Mormon Visual Image of Christ
Between 1960 and 1965, Church leaders began to systematize priesthood programs under the broad plan of priesthood correlation. With renewed emphasis on organization within the areas of home teaching, missionary work, welfare, and genealogy came retrenchment in the production and dissemination of the Church’s printed matter. Retrenchment was marked by a reassertion of doctrinal principles, economization, and systemization. Artwork, audiovisual resources, and publications were created by a corps of graphics and media specialists working under the direction of correlation officials. This arrangement resulted in a more homogenized selection of didactic and inspirational artwork.
Instructors were encouraged to use the Church-approved pictures uniformly issued in teacher-training materials or produced by contracted printers such as Wheelwright Lithography Company, Providence Lithograph Company, and Standard Publishing Company. Commercially produced images to supplement lessons on Christ’s ministry and other Bible stories were available in the CTR Pilot Picture Set, the Guide Patrol Teaching Aids, and the Top Pilot Picture series. These didactic images featured the illustrative work of non-Mormon artists such as Harold Copping, Griffith Foxley, Karl Godwin (fig. 14, n.d.), Hubbard Ortlip, and Elsie Anna Wood.
In the years leading up to the Mormon Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1964–65 and the 1968 Hemisfair in San Antonio, the Church commissioned artwork to better reflect its own Christ-centered mission.LDS artist Sidney E. King completed a twelve-part mural on the life of Christ, and a replica of Thorvaldsen’s Christus was sculpted by Aldo Rebichi (see fig. 5). Non-LDS illustrator John Scott was commissioned to paint a large mural depicting Christ’s visit to the Americas. East Coast artists Kenneth Riley and Tom Lovell were hired to do several paintings depicting Book of Mormon scenes and events in Church history.
Although Arnold Friberg was billed as the “finest illustrator in the Church,” after the disapprobation of his Risen Lord he would not accept a commission to paint scenes of the life of Christ for the fair or the Gospel in Art program. On behalf of the Church, advertising agent Richard J. Marshall then approached Harry Anderson, a well-respected Seventh-day Adventist artist who had done work for the Pacific Press Publishing Association. Anderson took on the commission and over a sixteen-year period completed several paintings on the life of Christ for the Mormon Pavilion and for the North Visitors’ Center in Salt Lake City.LDS artist Grant Romney Clawson reproduced Anderson’s work in twelve large-scale murals for display at the visitors’ center and the Church Office Building.
Bruce R. McConkie commented that the Anderson murals serve “as an introduction to the Lord Jesus.” “They deal with some of the crowning experiences of the mortal life of the Blessed One,” Elder McConkie wrote, “and may be used by us as our initial response to His gracious invitation: ‘Come . . . learn of me’ (Matt. 11:28–29).”When Anderson was asked what his intent was when creating his paintings, he reportedly said, “I look at Christ as very loving. He was loving. So loving that He gave His life for us, without any hesitation. This is what I like to represent.”
By the mid-1980s, Harry Anderson’s paintings would define the modern LDS visual perception of Christ as a compassionate ministering servant. Anderson’s works were perhaps some of the most reproduced and highly recognized depictions of Christ during that period (figs. 15, 1976, and 16, 1979 ; plate 6, 1973). Out of 373 images of Christ appearing in the Ensign from 1971 through 1985, 153 images (41 percent) were created by Harry Anderson or a reproducer (table 2).
Table 2. Number and Composition of Images of Christ in the Ensign, 1971–1999*
|Year||Vol.||Birth/ Youth||Baptism||Teacher/ Leader||Servant/ Healer||Brooding Shepherd||Commanding Figure||Sufferer||Crucifixion||Resurrection||Portrait||Total|
*Does not include sculpture, stained glass, textiles, other types of three-dimensional media, or actors/performers.
Beginning in 1971, the official publications were changed to meet the needs of a growing Church. Church magazines such as the Improvement Era, the Children’s Friend, and the Instructor were discontinued and replaced by slicker, more colorful magazines—the Ensign for adults, the New Era for young adults, and the Friend for Primary-age children. Taking advantage of the improved look of Church publications, Ensign editors reinstituted the Gospel in Art program, which had languished since 1965.In an article accompanying the Gospel in Art prospectus, Church members were encouraged to use uplifting pictures to create a more spiritual atmosphere in the home. In the article, University of Utah art professor Ed Maryon concluded, “It stands to reason that if, for example, a beautiful print of Christ were in a home, thoughts would be turned to him more often.”
Maryon observed that a lack of religious art among Church members was related to “the unavailability of fine prints and paintings. . . . Fortunately, quality ‘Mormon’ oriented art is becoming more available.”Indeed, Church magazine editors were able to draw upon a host of non-LDS and LDS artists to achieve the aims of publication. Since the early 1970s, the Ensign and other Church magazines have regularly featured the work of Mormon artists who focus on Christ as their subject.
In recent decades, the visual depiction of Christ in printed Church materials has been largely by authoritative consensus—a system of review conducted by General Authorities assigned to the priesthood committees that oversee media production in its various forms.In the early 1970s, the Church’s Internal and External Communications Departments supervised the use of art in magazines and related advertising media. The Child Correlation Review Committee was instituted to review media and course materials produced for Latter-day Saint children. Through the ’80s and ’90s, Church leaders supervised the selection of visual materials through the Church Curriculum Department and Priesthood Executive Councils. Church publications’ staff and graphic artists choose from a file of approved visuals of Jesus Christ as well as from other scripturally based illustrations available at the Church’s Visual Resources Library and Museum of Church History and Art.
A seeming effort to formulate a more distinctively “Mormon” representation of Christ has resulted in moderating the use of portraits that might be interpreted as unfamiliar or less than aesthetically tasteful to the Latter-day Saint viewer. For example, the portrait of Christ by non-LDS artist Chambers (see fig. 4) has rarely been used in Church publications since 1980, presumably because of the split beard and angry eyes. And while images produced by Tissot, Doré, Alexandre Bida, and William Henry Margetson are still being used, images by LDS artists such as Barrett, Parson, Kapp (plate 7, 1996), and Greg Olsen have appeared more regularly as Ensign covers, magazine vignettes, and instructional illustrations.Other images by non-LDS artists—Hofmann, Anderson, Bloch, Wood, Cleveland Woodward, Griffeth Foxley, Frances Hook (fig. 17, 1962), and Ralph P. Coleman—are frequently represented but often appear as cropped insets or as minor elements in larger illustrative visuals.
Contemporary depictions of Christ by LDS artists are carefully rendered to closely align with the expectations of mainstream Church membership. For example, LDS artist Keith Eddington’s 1994 version of He Is Risen has noticeably changed from his original 1960 version of the painting, entitled The Ascension of Christ (plates 8, 9). Although both versions feature the centuries-old tradition of stigmata and halo, Eddington appears to have consciously employed visual devices in the latter version to downplay the somberness of Christ’s death. The 1960 version, used for Church publications and tracts, includes the hill of Calvary and crosses on the horizon; in the 1994 version, painted for the Joseph Smith Memorial Building’s Legacy Theater, the Calvary crosses were deleted.Eddington’s use of dark, drab blues in the original version allude to the Crucifixion, in contrast to the warm fiery colors of the newer He Is Risen, which emphasize the triumph of Christ overcoming death—a more potent event according to Latter-day Saint belief.
In recent years, Mormons have placed a greater emphasis on the Atonement by representing images of the Creation (plate 8, 1996), Resurrection, Ascension, and postmortal visitations of Christ. In contrast to the Catholic and Protestant focus on the symbolism of the cross, Mormon renderings of Christ avoid the imagery of Calvary and instead draw the viewer into a path of spiritual rectitude modeled, as much as is artistically possible, in the image of Christ.
Even though the images used in official Church publications fall within certain traditional expectations, Church creative programs encourage broader cultural and ethnic approaches to depicting gospel-oriented subjects. As part of the Church’s effort to embrace an increasingly diverse membership, since 1987 the Museum of Church History and Art has regularly sponsored an international LDS art competition, calling upon artists of all ethnic backgrounds. Participating artists have contributed a wide variety of images of Christ in their own expressive manner while assimilating recognizable traits that suggest the influence of or contact with the Anglo-American body of the Church. Submitted entries have been done in indigenous media such as batik and collage, and some of the art pieces include Native American or other ethnic motifs. But some submissions borrow from images by artists such as Anderson and Parson.
Images of Christ approved by Church correlation appear to concentrate less on cultural authenticity and more on scriptural accuracy and the idealization of wholesome character. The more favored artistic depictions of Christ, such as Thorvaldsen’s Christus (see fig. 5), suggest a more inviting posture, accentuated by thematic phrases like “Come unto Me” or “Come unto Him.” Although the original was created by a non-LDS artist, the Christus embodies the appealing qualities of the all-powerful but sensitive and loving Savior who is sought by many Mormons. This entreating figure, a physical depiction of what theology professor Douglas J. Davies has characterized as the “proactive Christ of LDS faith,”symbolizes the Mormon identification with a Christ who acts decisively, controls events, and offers salvation to those who follow him. To advance this view of Christ, the open-armed Christus has been reproduced for many LDS temples throughout the world.
Since the inception of the Church’s correlation efforts in the 1960s, the physiognomy of Christ as it is rendered by LDS artists such as Kapp, Olsen, Parson, Barrett, and Derek Hegsted has appeared closer in view, and the images attempt to connect more familiarly with the viewer. Built upon the studiolike portraiture of Sallman, these artists’ illustrative depictions of Jesus often appear posed in formal studio settings or in familiar head-and-shoulder formats, much like framed photographic portraits. Unlike Sallman’s three-quarter views with eyes directed away from the viewer, LDS artists have tended to fix the gaze directly at the viewer. Barrett’s Jesus of Nazareth (1992; plate 9) is a representative example of this recent trend to draw the viewer into the subject’s line of sight. Christ’s penetrating gaze, his smile, and the casualness of his posture are pleasantly entreating and encourage an intimate response to the image.
Other portraits by Kapp, Parson (plate 10, 1998), and Hegsted (plate 11, 1994) encourage the same level of closeness. Several examples of their work show Christ and nearby subjects, most typically children, in the crook of his arm or in a warm embrace. These portraits have made the image of Christ as familiar as that of a family member or friend. This effect has been enhanced by framed posters and postcard images, which have popularized the visual image of Christ for a Mormon mass audience.
The visuals of Christ reproduced in Church magazines reveal an inclination toward images that are not troubling or disruptive to the viewer’s sensibilities. Minor subjects are well groomed and neatly dressed in garb resembling fitted costumes. Figures are often carefully placed within a shallow depth of field, along the picture plane, so as to offer a more advantageous view of Christ and all the surrounding subjects and their facial expressions. Conspicuously avoided are any symbols and visual devices that would be associated with the traditions of the Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and Protestant faiths. These elements, taken together, suggest a uniformity resulting from Church correlation’s reviews of the images.
Artwork that is officially produced and disseminated is useful in gauging the Church’s increased focus on Christ and the gospel-related images with which Church leaders hope members and outsiders will identify. An examination of the number and composition of images of Christ reproduced in the Ensign from 1971 through 1999 reveals that images selected for publication generally depict him as a teacher, leader, or resurrected being. Relatively few images depicted him as the victim of crucifixion. Nor was he depicted frequently as the awesome, commanding Jehovah of the Old Testament. The sensitive, ministerial Christ familiar to most Latter-day Saints was depicted in an increasing degree toward the end of the twentieth century. Interestingly, for the entire year of 1971, only 5 images of Christ were reproduced in the magazine, in contrast to a total of 119 in 1999. Portraits have appeared more frequently since 1995, many of which have graced the front and inside covers. The predominant number of non-LDS-created images gradually diminished in the mid-1980s until LDS-created visuals dominated at the end of the century (fig. 18).
Other visual media often portray Christ in related ways. Representative of the turn-of-the-century official portrayals of Christ is a film shown at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building entitled The Testaments: Of One Fold and One Shepherd, which depicts the life of a fictional Book of Mormon character, with scenes of Christ’s mortal life and His visit to the Americas. As in other Church-produced films, Christ is shown in various scenes of his ministry and among followers and children. Film director Kieth Merrill told the Deseret News that President Gordon B. Hinckley “gave specific direction about how the film should ‘depict (Jesus Christ) in ways that (Christians) understand and in ways familiar to them.’”In a recent online article, Merrill explained further, saying, “We were promised by blessing that we would find the right person to play the Savior.” After screening several actors, Church convert Tomas Kofod of Denmark was chosen to fill the role. Merrill observed that “the images of classic Christian art, the paintings of Karl Bloch and the etchings of Gustave Dore came into my mind and became the inspiration for the visual depiction of Christ.” Film producers were then advised to use several paintings by Bloch, Hofmann, Tissot, Doré, Olsen, and Clark Kelly Price as image sources for scenes of Christ’s life. According to Alisa Anglesey, a casting assistant, over ten scenes shot for the film were meant to directly re-create paintings and engravings by these artists.
Del Parson’s Lord Jesus Christ
A phenomenally popular portrait of Christ by Del Parson, entitled The Lord Jesus Christ (1983; fig. 19), has been described as “the most reproduced Latter-day Saint picture of Christ,” replacing previously used images by Anderson and Sallman as better fitting “the Church’s image of the Savior.”The painting, which first appeared in a spring 1984 issue of the Ensign magazine, is now displayed in many Latter-day Saint homes and LDS Church teaching materials. It features a head-and-shoulder portrait of Christ, who is dressed in a red robe and white tunic and is intimately gazing toward the viewer. A 1996 article in the Salt Lake Tribune stated, “This depiction of Christ has the potential to become at least as renowned as Warner Sallman’s familiar ‘Head of Christ’ popularized throughout Christianity after World War II.”
According to Parson’s wife, Lynette, “Del’s purpose in painting the Savior was to create an image in which the members of the Church could project their feelings of the Savior. He has been pleased that he seems to have succeeded in achieving that purpose.”A female LDS high-school student revealed how the Parson image reinforces her own perception of Deity: “He just looks so peaceful. I’ve seen this one so much that that’s how I imagine him to look. The other pictures of Jesus don’t look like him to me.” She noted, “I see it a lot. . . . It’s the picture hanging in my seminary room [in Utah, LDS seminary buildings are frequently constructed next to junior and senior high schools]. I also see it in kids’ lockers at school. They put it there to remind them of Christ and to do what’s right.”
The popularity of the painting has given rise to several legends regarding its conception and acceptance as the semiofficial Latter-day Saint portrait of Christ. One story deals with the painting’s purportedly inspired conception. The common elements of the story are that Parson made repeated attempts to achieve an accurate depiction of Christ’s physical appearance. In most versions of the story, these attempts at accuracy are under the direct guidance of Church leaders, often that of the General Authorities or the Church President. According to one informant, “they [the General Authorities] were working with him the entire time he was doing the painting.”And, not surprisingly, the leader or leaders proffer specific instructions with regard to Christ’s physical features. Such an idea would not seem foreign to the believing Latter-day Saint. Mormon doctrine provides that “every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am” (D&C 93:1).
In another version of the story, the prophet corrects the artist by saying, “His eyes aren’t brown, they’re blue.”Such legends often reveal common threads of belief and values shared among the groups of individuals hearing them. For example, the preceding comment affirms the belief that LDS Apostles hold a priesthood office that carries “as a distinguishing function that of personal and special witness to the divinity of Jesus Christ” and that these witnesses know of “the divinity of the Savior by personal revelation.” The supposed correction is often interpreted as implying that Mormon leaders are, by the nature of their calling, privileged to have a personal, firsthand knowledge of Christ’s physical attributes.
Unfortunately, religious stories labeled as legends are sometimes perceived as untrue and thus without merit. This perception, however, dismisses their value in expressing worldviews and popular belief. As folklorist Jan Brunvand has pointed out, “To say that such stories are legendary is not necessarily to say that they are of doubtful veracity, for folklore may be true as well as false. Thus, such a legend . . . may be believed, but unprovable, or it may be supported by historical record.”As Brunvand writes, legends’ “dissemination is largely oral and some of their motifs are traditional.” The same can be said of Mormon legends. In the case of Parson’s painting of Christ, a number of Mormon cultural values are expressed in the legends that circulate regarding it.
Interestingly, Parson has admitted to doing several versions or initial sketches before the finished painting was approved. However, this commission was done under the direction of Warren Luke, art director of the Church Graphics Department. Parson did several (five to six) sketches, as he typically does, in pencil on brown craft paper.His wife, Lynette, describes how the painting was conceived:
Del thought the best way to get a pleasing image of Christ was to find the perfect model. (Bearded men were pretty scarce near our home in Rexburg, Idaho.) At our stake conference he found a member of our stake who served as his first model. He sent in a couple of sketches of this model. The sketches were returned, asking him to try again.
He found his second model, (this time a bearded one) at the Rexburg Demolition Derby. This sketch was also returned. Our family visited the Eastern Idaho State Fair on Labor Day with the purpose of looking at people until we could locate a model. We found another bearded man whose eyes were most helpful in the next sketches.
Curiously, a few specific revisions were asked of him. According to Lynette’s account, “Del started the painting, which took about 9 days. He sent it to the Church, and it was returned for 2 small changes: one eye made larger and the neckline raised.”Although it may be assumed that the Church’s Correlation Executive Committee reviewed the painting in its various stages of completion, the artist does not know who approved the work in its final form.
In another story and its variants, Parson or another individual gives an inspirational talk at a Mormon fireside or at a sacrament meeting. Parson’s painting of Christ is displayed, whereupon a young girl, having been through a near-death experience or having witnessed a parent’s death, recognizes the man in the portrait as the man who saved or comforted her.Again, this story apparently serves to reaffirm the LDS belief in the physical nature of Christ and in modern-day visitations by otherworldly messengers or beings. It also seems to provide assurance that children in danger of physical harm are watched over by a loving, comforting Savior.
Some of the common elements of this story are, according to Del Parson, based on a factual occurrence. Parson did, in fact, speak to a fireside audience. By his recollection, it was a Relief Society fireside. In that fireside, he related several comforting experiences he feels were given by the Holy Ghost, experiences he had after his first wife was killed in a tragic automobile accident. A related experience that Parson told was a story of a young girl who witnessed her mother brutally murdered by the girl’s abusive father. Some time later, the girl was in a Primary gathering where an unspecified picture of Christ was displayed. The Primary teacher asked, “Does anyone know who this is?” The little girl immediately recognized the person in the picture as the man who came to comfort her at the moment her mother’s life was taken by her father. Approximately two months after the fireside, Parson received a telephone call from an LDS bookstore in Idaho Falls. The proprietor asked for permission to distribute a written version of what Parson calls the popular stories being circulated and told as miraculous incidents related to The Lord Jesus Christ. In an attempt to stop or correct the story, Parson found that an individual who was present at the fireside correctly related Parson’s talk, only to have it changed and modified in subsequent retellings.
Although certain key elements have been incorrectly linked, a number of the story’s common components are still included in the legendary accounts: the young girl, the witness or experience of a fatal or near-fatal tragedy, the comforting visitation of Christ, and the girl’s recognition of Christ upon seeing a painting of Him. These components, the successive stages in a sublime recognition pattern, serve, as stated before, to support Mormon belief in the corporeal nature of Christ and to support characteristic cycles of adversity or tragedy, miraculous intervention, and redemption or recognition often found in LDS scripture and teachings.
The other anecdotes told in relation to Parson’s painting of Christ deal with the image as an inspirational object. In one case, the painting was used almost as a medium of prayer. Apparently, after suffering affliction, a woman “was looking at this picture and asking for comfort. And then the picture gave her comfort.”Mormons would argue that images are not venerated as icons or devotional objects. In this story, however, the painting becomes, in a subliminal sense, a physical manifestation of Christ, the only tangible item within the woman’s visual range through which she could project her distress and receive comfort.
In another story, the painting is said to be figuratively divided in half. The left half, or “the wrong side,” stresses the “frowning” expression of Christ. Conversely, the right side, or “good side,” is characterized by a happy Christ. That this story may have been told in a Mormon youth function is, in itself, revealing. One interpretation of this perceived semiotic device is that it underscores the Latter-day Saint call to members—particularly young people—to “Choose the Right.”
When visual imbalance is seen where symmetry is expected, the viewer compensates by appropriating meaning to the visual infraction. This example of the perceived usage of a hidden visual device in Latter-day Saint art, although it was not the intent of the artist, is a meaningful sanction of Church-commissioned images.
The favorable acceptance of Parson’s Lord Jesus Christ among grassroots LDS members resulted in several variations on the head-and-shoulders portrait. By placing the same head on a figure shown in different situations, Parson has found success in disseminating a likeness for every occasion (fig. 20). Clearly, Parson’s Lord Jesus Christ is now doing for Mormon visual culture what Sallman’s Head of Christ did for members in earlier decades.
Decorative Images of Christ
In response to the Church’s growing consumer market, decorative images of Christ and of related gospel themes have achieved popularity at the grassroots level. Mass-produced posters, bookmarks, cards, and prints featuring the work of amateur as well as professional artists have culturally defined—and, in a behavioral sense, affected—Latter-day Saint home decoration and family religious practices. Frequently, the focus of Latter-day Saint living spaces is not traditional Catholic-type wall shrines and objects of devotion but rather framed posters and full-color prints. In addition to portraying traditional gospel themes, these popular images often illustrate Book of Mormon narratives and Christ’s visit to the Americas, setting their image apart as identifiably Latter-day Saint.
The 1997 retrospective exhibit of LDS artist Minerva Teichert’s colorful and energetic paintings of scenes from the Book of Mormon have reintroduced her vision of Christ to a younger generation of Church members. Two of her paintings, issued as frameable reproductions, have gained wide popularity in Latter-day Saint home decoration. The fine-art reproductions of Teichert’s Christ in the Red Robe (1945; plate 12) and Jesus in the Home of Mary and Martha (1941; see fig. 1 in “What Think Ye of Christ?” in this issue) are representative of her painterly manner and are sold in some LDS bookstores, the Museum of Art (Brigham Young University), and Museum of Church History and Art (Salt Lake City) and through BYU’s bookstore and merchandise catalogs.The growing interest in fine-art interpretations such as these reveals a countertrend to the popularity of the illustrative, studiolike images and paintings reproduced in Church magazines.
More emblematic LDS art assimilates designs, slogans, and symbols from popular American culture, showing an affection for national voguish trends. Mormon bumper stickers and souvenirs have appropriated variations on the pisciculi or Christian fish symbol by replacing the Greek acrostic with Latter-day Saint slogans.Casual clothing styles sold in the Mormon marketplace have imitated popular corporate and designer logos, including Calvin Klein, Hard Rock Cafe, Tommy Hilfiger, and Nike Corporation. One of the most ascertainable purposes these images serve is the inculcation of Latter-day Saint viewers with visual devices that support Mormon masculine and feminine ideals.
Over the last century, the visual image of Christ, as seen by Latter-day Saints, has been an integral part of larger currents of belief and doctrine. The various ways in which these images have been used reflect LDS worldviews on biblical literalism, race, masculinity, athleticism, and family worship practices. A persistent affinity with a highly realistic manner of depicting Christ has coincided with the Church’s literal approach to the scriptures, along with a belief in the historicity of Jesus’ life and ministry. Moreover, these images function in tandem with official discourse, published manuals, and Church teaching methods. Courses of study on character-building have included the supplementary use of such images as visual affirmations of Christ’s physiognomy, manhood, and magnanimity.
Perhaps even more revealing is these images’ increasing importance within the Church. In the mid-1960s, a noticeable shift toward more Church-commissioned likenesses of Christ came in preparation for the 1964–65 Mormon Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair. Since that time, Church correlation efforts have to some extent homogenized such artwork in Church publications. These portraits and narrative paintings call for a more intimate visual connection with a kinder, more wholesome Savior. During the 1980s and ’90s, Church members witnessed an astounding increase in the number of Christ-centered visuals in Church magazines. By and large, Church members are seeing a larger number of prominent images of Christ as the “consecrated,” visualization of ideal manhood. At the same time, new, trimmed-down media resources for home decoration, family worship, and Church education codify the last three decades’ shifts toward retrenchment.
The truly Mormon image of Christ may lie in what the individual LDS viewer perceives the image should be like. Even though measuring viewer response is difficult, at least some LDS viewers have shown approval of these images through their devotional behavior and by their own written testimonials. In addition, the impact of LDS visuals that confirm personal expectations of Jesus Christ contributes to the Church’s visual-image-making mechanisms. And an ever-increasing number of LDS bookstores and independent marketing groups that merchandise Mormon-related media products will likely propagate further the Latter-day Saint visual perception of Christ. However, the ultimate Mormon visual likeness of Christ will be determined by the reception given by the new century’s believing Church members.