Come ye, with all your gold, and your silver, and your precious stones, and with all your antiquities; and with all who have knowledge of antiquities, that will come, may come, and bring the box-tree, and the fir-tree, and the pine-tree, together with all the precious trees of the earth;
And with iron, with copper, and with brass, and with zinc, and with all your precious things of the earth;
and build a house . . .
I’ve been thinking about the real place that art can have in Mormon life. Yesterday I talked about how Church art shows around a theme transcend the individual works. The show displays the artist not as an individual, but as a Saint among Saints, and thus speaks to our lived experience of testifying and covenanting together. The show is the work, a collective work.
Although rare, we have no monopoly. The cathedrals of Europe are also collective work, and very beautiful. Like Chartres or Santiago de Compostela, most took lifetimes to build. Renovations or later additions sometimes radically changed the cathedral, as at Notre Dame in Paris. The painters and sculptors were numerous. Even the common people famously would turn out on festival-like occasions to haul materials to the site, as an emblem of their participation. No one master hand can be said to have created the cathedral and its beauty. The cathedral was the creation of a people. Because they were driven by faith, in a real sense it could be said that, vox populi, vox dei, the cathedral was the creation of God.
Paul Johnson claims that societies of “universal access to and participation in culture” are those make the finest art. He means that such places produce good work. I see a second meaning to it: a work becomes finer and more true when the high and the low alike are pierced by it, when wood frames the canvas and a people and their aspirations and daily lives frame the work and are tied to it, when beauty is in the beholder and not just the beheld. Cathedrals were such works in their time, more than stone. For those of us who have wrapped ourselves in the tatters of Western Christianity, some vision of their grand spiritual masonry remains.
Our temples now can be like those cathedrals then. They aren’t all anymore the design of many, but the Church has returned to employing many artists to stain temple glass and paint temple walls, and the vision of the temple is still as always that the nations of the world will come up, bringing themselves and their dead as an offering to the spiritual structure and their precious things to the building of the physical shell. We are those nations; we have made ourselves a part of it by tithes and offerings. So temples are a beautiful because, like the church art shows, they reflect our sense of talented individuals and plodding ones alike subsuming themselves in a community which is at the service of God. Temples are more beautiful because, unlike the art shows, they do more than reflect back our vision of unity. They bring it to pass. The temple and its paintings and other arts in a temple are not merely decorative or even a vision of beauty. They define the community that has access to them and thus have unparallelled opportunites to work their beauty into the lives of every Saint. I wish I were a painter with a protean talent and a Garden Room.