The Sacred Made Real: Mormonism, Iconography and the Passion of Christ

February 9, 2010
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A few weeks ago I attended an exhibition entitled ‘The Sacred made Real’ at the National Gallery in London. The collection was focussed on Spanish hyper-realism (painting and sculpture) between 1600-1700. Some of the more famous artists included in this collection were: Velazquez, Zurburan and de Mena. The intent of these artists was to provide life-like depictions of the suffering of Christ in order to invoke feelings of sympathy and awe in the observers. These artists wanted to create a form of spiritual devotion through the simulated presence of the Passion. I was surprised at my own response.

Having served my mission in Ireland, I am familiar with the Catholic iconography that is present in many of their Churches. Having been raised Mormon I am familiar with the critical attitude toward these types of statues and paintings; and yet as I surveyed these works of art, some of them had a real impact upon me. Statues of the lacerated Jesus or of the dying Jesus or the crucified Jesus forced me to hold back tears for fear of embarrassment. Even a bust of the Virgin Mary moved me deeply. I sensed that it is a real loss to Mormon culture that we do not readily engage with these products of devotion.

Much of the LDS art that I have seen of Jesus seems banal and insipid. We see a calm, collected and/or kind Jesus; and yet he is rarely depicted in any of the extremes of suffering or joy that was surely part of the humanity of his life. I am aware of exceptions; but even these pail in insignificance to what these Spanish artists created. I believe that Jesus was, at times calm, collected and kind; but I also believe he experienced the full range of human emotions (good and bad). I believe his model for living was abundance.

More confusing to me is that the LDS ‘Lamb of God’ video is different. It makes an explicit attempt to evoke this type of passionate response in the audience by alluding to the vicious suffering of Jesus. Why is it that film is more acceptable as a means of presenting this kind of devotional material? Is this merely a cultural distinction, an anti-catholic hangover from Nineteenth century America, and if so is it not about time that we extend Priesthood legitimacy to all worthy forms of Art.

Perhaps Eugene England was right when he said that Mormons do not experience the ‘tragic’ as frequently as others because of the success of our religion, but I doubt it.

Yet this raises another question, why do we need to use these different media to help us connected with Jesus and his suffering. Are we more able to sense the visceral reality of his wounds if they are shown to us? Can we more easily believe in the atonement if we can see the suffering of Christ? If this is so, would not these type of ‘passion’ iconography be a useful medium to help latter-day Saints explore their relationship to our Lord?

Perhaps Mormons need to more fully explore the spiritual artistic heritages that are rooted in other faiths as well as trying to promote our own. I certainly feel that my faith has been enriched by some of what our extended Christian heritage has produced.

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31 Responses to The Sacred Made Real: Mormonism, Iconography and the Passion of Christ

  1. February 9, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Great thoughts and cool exhibit. My wife and I regularly take our daughters to the National Gallery to enjoy the masterpieces on display. I hope they will grow up with a strong artistic sense and ability to appreciate the tragic and the beautiful as expressed in every nuance by so many masters of past and present. To the extent that some Mormons reject art in and of itself because it can and does evoke certain emotions, this should be resisted by the rest of us who see true value in such expression.

    As to iconography and statues such as those displayed in the Sacred Made Real exhibit, I hope that we can appreciate them as devotional art without feeling obligated to imbue them with any inherent religious or supernatural power. My own tastes on this particular front are more protestant, perhaps, in the sense that I am not a fan of the graphic depictions and statues etc. of the tortured Christ. I am, admittedly, genetically Mormon. But as someone who is genetically Mormon, I hope that I naturally reject the extremes of protestant iconoclasm to the same extent I can resist summary rejection of such Catholic works of art and find the beauty and tragic in them, even if my personal preferences go in a different direction.

  2. February 9, 2010 at 8:40 am

    Thanks John for your thoughts here. I agree that they should be given any supernatural power, although I can certainly see (now at least) how some of these statues were attributed divine power, the bust of Mary was particularly life-like (with a solitary tear) and moving. I too was very much like you in your approach to catholic art and thus my surprise at my response. I am unsure whether and how such art could become part of LDS worship or instruction, but perhaps merely pursuing this on a personal level is enough.

    btw, my absolute favourite was the Painting of Saint Francis of Assissi by Zurburan. I was planning on doing a completely separate post on that painting.

  3. Mike S
    February 9, 2010 at 9:13 am

    I agree with your sentiment. I think our chapels are boring. I think our art is boring. I like going to other denominations just for the beauty and feelings I feel in their buildings.

    I also think it would be nice to have an “icon”, a simple and subtle way to express faith (sorry, a CTR ring just doesn’t do it for me). A Christian (except us, though we claim brotherhood with Christians) can have a simple cross. A Jew can have a star of David. A Buddhist might have a lotus flower or an eternal knot. These are all simple forms with multiple layers of deep meaning behind them. We obviously have symbolism with our garments, etc., but I’m not going to parade around in them.

  4. AndrewJDavis
    February 9, 2010 at 9:44 am

    I think Mormons don’t often do well with symbolism, in any form. I’m most familiar with music, but it applies here to the art as well. I wonder if it has to do with the practicality of Mormon doctrine and culture. We focus so much on the reality of blessings and of our doctrine (e.g. Each member of the Godhead look human because Joseph saw two of them, and said the Holy Ghost has a spirit body of the form of man.) Therefore, we don’t do well with songs where Christ is represented as an animal, or where the Holy Ghost is in the form of a dove (regardless of whether its doctrinally correct, it conveys meaning). We focus on the practical blessings of the Atonement (you get forgiven) that we miss the emotional context often in our lessons.

    Perhaps in the next lesson I teach on the Atonement, we’ll all have a big group cry.

  5. February 9, 2010 at 10:40 am

    #3 – I think there is some of our art that is good, it just tends not to be in our chapels. I think Givens’ book ‘People of paradox’ has some great examples in it.

    Although I agree that some physical icon would be good I sense that these should emerge rather than be proscribed.

    #4 – Perhaps you are right, it might be a wider trend within western culture. I recall an interesting presentation at Sunstone where a non-mormon was discussion Blake Ostler’s work in light of trend toward a technologically proficient culture in america. She was arguing that symbolism has become increasing less-prevalent in our discourse and that this is manifest in particular types of theology as well.

  6. February 9, 2010 at 10:43 am

    I can live with boring Mormon art, but our music really lessens the spirit of Sacrament meeting. By the time the congregation and organ wallow through a hymn, my spirituality has declined a couple of notches. Even the good hymns are dragged out into a mournful monotomy. Maybe paid musicians is not such a bad idea.

  7. AndrewJDavis
    February 9, 2010 at 11:33 am

    “Maybe paid musicians is not such a bad idea”

    where can I go to sign up? 20 bucks for sacrament meeting, 30 bucks and you can request the hymns (and tempos) yourself!

  8. james
    February 9, 2010 at 11:58 am

    I guess im in two minds with this.

    I never have bought into the LDS thing on the cross ie. if your son was shot by a magnum would you want that on your wall and the same is with God he doesn’t want us to have cross’s in our houses.

    I actually think when you go into another church and see the crossthat makes you think of christ. I rarely think that or get that immediate focus in an LDS church. On the other hand when the statues are too graphic it focuses your mind but it also makes it a sad disturbing place to worship IMO

  9. Mike S
    February 9, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    #6: It’s even worse now that we’re on some sort of kick in our ward to see EVERY verse of a song, even the words at the bottom. It goes on forever

    #8: I don’t particularly like the overly graphic depictions of the Crucifixion, although perhaps that’s just me trying to shelter myself from reality. But I think the empty cross is a beautiful depiction of the fact that Christ overcame death and the cross and is now resurrected.

  10. Refugee
    February 9, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Interesting discussion.

    For what it’s worth, I have a masters degree in organ performance, and for the last umpteen years have had weekend employment playing for worship services in other denominations. I have to admit it’s often rather painful when I hear the music in my ward. Don’t me wrong, it’s not that crave attention and wish I were playing – I just wish someone with competency were! But I’m not sure going the “paid musicians” route would a wise choice, as that opens up a whole other can of worms. And trust me, paid musicians aren’t necessarily better, especially in this era where trained organists are becoming a rather scarce commodity in many areas.

    What I do wish we could do in the church, however, is extend the seasonal specificity to our worship often found in other denominations. The commemoration of Holy Week, i.e., Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, prepare the worshiper for the joy of Easter Morning. Likewise, the quite contemplation of Advent, with emphasis on the prophecies of the coming of the Lord – including that coming which is yet to come – gives a whole new tone to the celebration of Christmas when it does come. I keep joking that as soon as I’m running things, we’re going to introduce both Advent and Holy Week to our worship schedule.

  11. wayfarer
    February 9, 2010 at 4:46 pm

    I’m not sure how this might work for a catholic,but as someone going through a particularly dreadful time in my life,I really appreciate the church’s focus on redemption,and really need to increase that focus in order to want to live through tomorrow.Having said that,clearly this iconography has worked for a suffering humanity-I just can’t manage the thought of such graphic suffering right now.I need the thought of compassion and succor,of someone who does not require my comprehension in order to love me.I simply cannot afford to have to understand my Saviour’s suffering right now,and surely this is part of what defines my Saviour,that he holds this for me.

  12. Blogginginsteadofstudying
    February 9, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Mormonism promotes reliance on individual spiritual experience. If each scriptural chapter, be it biblical of bookofmormonical, was cinematographised, we may no longer read the scriptures so much (assuming it is what iwe already do). Reminiscent of Plato’s cave analogy, the movie or sculpture project to our senses an interpreted experience that might be deviant from the reality of what it aims to represent. Our own life experience and needs will one day lend to Jesus the mark of the amazing son of God who suffered for us, on another the kindness of his behaviour…One can’t beat spiritual experience linked to imagination. However, I believe that there is something deep in each work of art or representation, and either the artist has been particularly blessed with the talent to represent materially a powerful feeling, or again our imagination and contemplation of the work may compensate for what we think the artist has not completely managed.
    Church is a very austere place, only beautiful when the members are in there. Once they’re gone, it is rather spooky. I don’t like being there on my own when it is night time. And art is exciting only when renewed. Always in your face, it looses its appeal somehow. I like most of the ususal paintings so widely used in our chapels (‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem!’, Christ at Getsemanhe…), but we could do with some touring exhibitions, some inovations in terms of musical items (Bishop to screen first)…
    Our lessons, our walls and our senses need something new, and there might be room here for local revolutions to spice things up. I would love to have a plantation of olive trees on the grounds of the yard, as, I have noticed with great spiritual feeling, the torment of the tronc of such tree symbolises Christ’s agony. I would like beautiful movie scenes incorporated in lessons, or adaggios played every now and again instead of this old hymn again.

  13. Thomas
    February 9, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    Interesting.

    A while ago, upon noticing that I might be treating the sacrament too casually (spending the time keeping four kids under eight under control has that tendency), I tried the experiment of approaching it the way a Catholic might (minus the whole literal transsubstantiation thing).

    Believe it or not, mouthing the words “Hic est enim Calix Sanguinis Mei” before downing the little plastic cup of water went a long way towards increasing my reverence.

    The shade of Elder McConkie is probably not amused, but I believe the overall spiritual effect of the exercise was positive.

  14. Rigel Hawthorne
    February 9, 2010 at 7:30 pm

    Interesting Thoughts Rico,

    I think there is a difference between a moving visual medium that is telling a story honestly and a still work of art that depicts suffering. The Passion of the Christ had a great concluding scene. Finding Faith in Christ/The Testaments had concluding scenes. These help the viewers find resolution of the grief they feel and put it in perspective. My youthful visit to San Xavier del Bac and other Cathedrals were more difficult to appreciate because the sculptures of Christ in suffering were not only religiously foreign to my personal experience, but difficult in their setting with my lack of maturity to find the resolution of grief. The darkness and reality of depicted blood loss was so intense as to overpower the rest of the Cathedral experience.

    I’m glad that my childhood religious culture filled me with images of Jesus wanting me for a sunbeam and inviting children to gather on his knee. When I took my junior primary-aged children to an LDS baptism and they were watching Finding Faith in Christ, I felt uncomfortable allowing them to watch the depiction of the nails being driven. I wonder what children feel when attending a Cathedral for church services where they see the suffering of Jesus depicted so graphically.

    Now that I have some years behind me, I can better appreciate the spiritual artistic heritages of other faiths. I think the exhibition you attended would be very moving.
    I appreciate Thomas’ thoughts on treating the Sacrament too casually. Thinking of passion iconography could help me refocus my thoughts. But I do reconcile that imagery with the visit of Christ to the Nephites with the Savior no longer darkened by blood but with wounds to testify of his atonement, with those witnessing his visit kneeling before him in love and gratitude.

  15. dmac
    February 9, 2010 at 10:38 pm

    14#- “My youthful visit to San Xavier del Bac and other Cathedrals were more difficult to appreciate because the sculptures of Christ in suffering were not only religiously foreign to my personal experience, but difficult in their setting with my lack of maturity to find the resolution of grief.”

    I tend to agree. While as an adult I have an appreication of religious art, as a child I found it extremely confronting. It is one thing to hear that Christ died for me, but an entirely different thing to see pictures of bleeding wounds, exposed hearts and Christ hanging on the cross. Spending much of my free time as a child in my catholic BF’s house was initially very disturbing. The prints that hung on the walls made for some bad dreams as a small child. I think to adorn Mormon chapels with such art may perhaps be of value to our adult members, but haunting for those who lack the years to reconcile these images of suffering and torture.

    But I too love the image of the empty cross. It evokes so many emotions related to the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. I don’t think I’d like it to be prominent on the spires of our buildings, but as a personal statement it is a symbol that can carry power and conviction.

  16. February 10, 2010 at 5:42 am

    #6 – Paid musicians don’t even help. We have some professional ones in our ward and the music is still bad because we as singers are not good and more than that the hymns are suited to low-experience and low-talent congregation singing.

    #8 – I agree that it can be disturbing but I wonder whether the shock can be a emotionally/spiritually productive experience. one that can lead us to Christ.

    #10 – I really like your insight about the seasons and music and think that would be a nice addition.

    #11 – I think your right about the role of Christ, in that he is open to multi-faceted interpretation. he can both be a king and friend etc. However, I think that these images of suffering helped people accept the compassion and love as demonstrated by Christ’s suffering. If that does not work for you that is great.

    #12 – I sense that the distinction between signified/signifier in statues is most accesible through a variety of expressions. I do not think this type of iconography is the only way to approach these issues but might be a useful one.

    #13 – Such helps I think are really valuable. I used to picture in my mind the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and imagine that I was being given the bread and water by the Saviour himself.

    #14 – Thanks for your thoughts. I completely agree that such images might not be good for children and so should not be used in our chapels.

    #15 – I agree and thanks for your thoughts

  17. Qualia
    February 10, 2010 at 5:48 am

    9 + 15 – I find it hard to see the beauty of the cross.
    I came across a piece of jewellery that was a tiny electric chair on a necklace. The description displayed underneath it was something like ‘What Christians would be wearing if Jesus had been killed in modern America’. A joke item of course but I cant help but see the serious side of it.
    The cross has come to symbolise Christ yes, but if thought about more, this instrument was not unique to his death. Crucifixion is an awful death and the cross an instrument of torture and so putting it up as a symbol of faith does seem absurd to me.

    On the flip side I also think the LDS church not having a physical symbol is great. Constantly adorning a symbol, or putting it up as a standard, seems too tribalistic to me and can be a barrier.

    Good post as usual Rico. That type of art isn’t usually to my taste but then again I haven’t seen much up close so maybe Id experience the same turn around.

  18. February 10, 2010 at 7:47 am

    #17 – Thank you for you kind comment. I think we do have some physical symbols, so of them are not so explicit. But temple garments, TR’s in general and the sacrement table (altar) are all meaningfull symbols for Latter-day Saints that create divisions between us and them. If anything, I would suggest that our symbols are more exclusive.

  19. mj
    February 10, 2010 at 10:25 am

    I disagree with the explanation that is often given as to why we don’t use crosses. It is nothing like wearing a crumpled up car around ones neck to remember a loved one who died in a wreck. There was a time in my life when I used that comparison as an explanation, but as I have gotten older I realize how wrong of an analogy that is. The cross represents the pinnacle of Christ’s suffering, a reminder that he took everything upon himself, our sins, and all that any of us have suffered or ever will suffer. It is the symbol that reminds me the most of why Christ understands us and is our mediator, and how death was overcome. A crumpled up car is not even remotely close to the cross. I don’t like depictions of the crucifixion – but when I am taking the sacrament, I often imagine him on the cross because if it weren’t for that crucial event there would be no point in taking the sacrament. What bothers me is the negative feelings I always had about the cross growing up, and for all the wrong reasons. It is a beautiful and deeply meaningful symbol.

  20. Thomas
    February 10, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    #17 and 19 — I’ve read some things that suggest that the LDS allergy to the symbol of the cross is a relatively new thing, and that early LDS leaders occasionally used cross symbolism.

    There are plenty of scriptures in the New Testament reverencing the symbolism of the cross. It is a recognition that ultimately, suffering (Christ’s, and ours with him) is the means of salvation.

  21. February 11, 2010 at 5:20 am

    #19 – Thank you for your thoughts about the cross. It is certainly accurate to say that the cross has been more prevalent in the past that in the present. It used to be included on Mormon Chapels.

    [http://www.mormontimes.com/studies_doctrine/doctrine_discussion/?id=10632]

  22. Mike S
    February 11, 2010 at 9:25 am

    I think our (non-)use of the cross is another vestige of simple comments, where one leader happened to mention his personal feelings on the subject and it got elevated to near-doctrinal or doctrinal status – ie. Coke, rated-R movies, blacks and the priesthood, number of earrings, tattoos, using white bread for sacrament, wearing white shirts to church, etc.

    Once a leader mentions something like this, all of the other leaders mention it wanting to be seen as “supportive” of the original talk. After a while of hearing talks, the point achieves the “doctrinal” status that it does, even though it’s not actually based in doctrine but in someone’s feelings. After this, no one wants to be seen as not “supporting” their leaders, so it is actually incredibly difficult to change. Look at the effort it took to change what BY started with his feelings on blacks and the priesthood. It took literally years of behind the scenes work to get to the point where people would accept a change in something that made absolutely no sense to anyone.

  23. Qualia
    February 11, 2010 at 10:30 am

    Well it looks like my view is the minority then but I read through Rico’s source (21) and found Hinckley saying “But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the living Christ.” So I’m in good company at least.
    Whilst i see others point that it has come to represent Christ’s sacrifice I don’t agree that it represents the pinnacle of his suffering. The real suffering was in taking on humanity’s sins, not the physical pain of crucifixion which many others also experienced.

  24. February 11, 2010 at 11:03 am

    #22 – I also expect that within the Church it serves as an important marker of religious distinction (thus we also retain standardized building plans). What is interesting to me about this art issue, is that the cross aside, even when we had artist missionaries there seems never to have been a time when this kind of art has been used in our Chapels and worship. I am curious as to why this, surely some catholics joined the church and wanted to bring aspects of their faith them, in the same way that protestants did.

    #23 – The link provided was merely to illustrate that the history has not been one-sided. Moreover, this may result in a threadjack, but the garden of gethsemane was equal to the cross, if we are to believe BRM, Robert Millet and others. Although, we as Mormons have emphasised this aspect because again from a desire to solidify the community. tehologically speaking at least it does not seem to be accurate.

    That the cross has become to be seen as the pinnacle is as incorrect as seeing the garden as the pinnacle, something we have seen too much of in Mormon art. That knife cuts both ways.

  25. Qualia
    February 11, 2010 at 1:28 pm

    24 – I just looked back and realised it looks like I made out your link was completely sympathetic to my view, this was not intended, I just found that quote in there and liked it. Your link and others views here that the cross could have come to be more prominent of LDS faith does seem to hold weight but I still stand by the view that I’m glad it isn’t.
    That is new and interesting to me about Gethsemane. But that wasn’t necessarily the direction I was coming from.

    The best way I can think to put it is that the act rather than the means seems to me should be the focus. Not a cross (that was not unique to the event) and similarly not Gethsemane.

    I can understand the want to associate elements of the event to represent the act (which in a way comes back to your point in the actual post that the graphic art brought the reality home) but I don’t think it necessary to use an object that seems to have replaced the act.

  26. Mike S
    February 11, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    At the end of the day, I have felt very inspired in various other churches and cathedrals throughout the world as various types of art and icons helped me refocus my thoughts on Christ. To me, an LDS chapel is just a brick room that does nothing of the sort. I wish it were different, but that’s just a personal opinion. I don’t ever see it changing.

  27. February 12, 2010 at 6:12 am

    #25 – Your point about an object replacing the act is interesting. However, I am not sure that I can accept it primarily because our thoughts, the sacrament and the hymns are all intended to help us focus on the event itself, in the same that this type of art was intended. I don’t want to seem like I am arguing that everyone should enjoy and use this type of art in their worship. My point is more that the mechanisms that we see in some Church media (like the Lamb of God) utilises the same techniques as this form of art. Therefore we should, i think, dismiss it out of hand.

    I certainly agree that neither of the ideas should be important, but they help us focus. The same way that a garden tomb is iconic (an image President Hinckley has invoked) to symbolise or represent the ‘living Christ’.

    #26 – I agree that our chapels can seem banal and boring, but I think we could make more of an effort to decorate our chapels with inspiring art (we are allowed to showcase local art) and the church supplies through Church distribution other more thought-provoking pieces that are outside the mass-produced gospel art kit. Moreover, I have seen other art from LDS artists that has been displayed with no concern.

    I think we as members should try and take more ownership for the artistic-based forms of worship in our wards.

  28. February 13, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Great blog post, Rico. Some comments have mentioned my research on the topic of Mormons and the cross, giving a link to the “Mormon Times” story http://www.mormontimes.com/studies_doctrine/doctrine_discussion/?id=10632 Here also is a link to an article from the SL Tribune: http://wildernesschristianity.net/info/LDS/The-Cross.html
    And a podcast interview that I did with Mormon Expression: http://mormonexpression.com/?p=274
    I’ll also mention that John Whitmer Books and I have negotiated a contract for a book deal, to publish my thesis (revised and expanded) as early as May of this year. John Hamer’s cover design can be seen at the following link: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4036/4264292708_cb917c5112.jpg

  29. Qualia
    February 13, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Oh yeah I agree to an extent about the art etc. Its just the cross as a representation of faith that I have issue with, but there we go. Cheers for the replies, i look forward to the next post.

  30. February 13, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Thank you also. This is why we are here, to present, discuss and hopefully develop a greater appreciation for Mormonism and the other people involved in it.

  31. February 13, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    Mike Reed. Your comment got lost because of the links. Congratulations on your thesis nad good luck with your future work.