Yesterday, the Church released new guidelines about the appearance church meetinghouse. The latest in the series of Christocentric reforms during President Nelson’s tenure, the intent of the guidelines is to help “create a feeling of reverence and dignity” in the spaces that “establish the first impression and feelings that individuals receive when entering a meetinghouse.” In line with the recent strong emphasis on Jesus the Christ’s role in the Church that began with insistence on using the Church’s full name and continued with the shift from using the Angel Moroni to the Christus statue as the Church’s primary symbol, “framed artwork that focuses on the Savior should always be displayed” in these meetinghouse spaces. Steps are to be taken to remove artwork, furniture, display cases, etc. that do not fall in line with these requirements (either to other parts of the building or from the building altogether) and a list of approved artwork has been issued.
In many ways, I feel that this is a good move on the Church’s part. As indicated in the First Presidency letter, the entrances and foyers are the first impression people have of the meetinghouse interior and set the tone as they come in. Removing some of the clutter provides a neater appearance. The artwork will help focus attention on Jesus Christ. Those will both be a good thing as we enter the building and are mentally preparing ourselves for the sacrament and other aspects of church meetings. It will also potentially improve the image non-members have of Latter-day Saint church buildings, since these areas are the first and last things they see during their visits, and thus some of what they will remember most about the interior’s appearance. The goals and intentions of the guidelines are good, and I think they will have some good results.
My main apprehension about the announcement is how limited the list of artwork to choose from is. There are only 22 paintings on the approved list. The majority are by three artists—Del Parson (7 paintings), Harry Anderson (4 paintings), and Walter Rane (3 paintings)—with only nine artists in total. That leaves us with very little diversity to decorate entryways and foyers with. The scenes are mostly drawn from the New Testament, with only seven exceptions—two depicting the post-resurrection ministry to the people of the Book of Mormon, two of Jesus with children, two paintings of Jesus with no particular setting, and one Second Coming painting. I’m sure there are some economic considerations about mass production of quality artwork that went into creating such a limited lists of paintings to choose from, but with over 3,400 stakes and 30,000 wards and branches around the world, there must be thousands (if not tens of thousands) of church meetinghouses around the world. While the artwork is all fine paintings, twenty two options is a very small variety to choose from in filling the entryways and foyers of those meetinghouses.
Perhaps more potently, I also feel a bit concerned about the lack of diversity depicted in the paintings. Our membership is international and drawn from all ethnicities and races. Yet, while the paintings are beautiful and Christ-centered, most of them are very Euro-centric and male-centric. Both Jesus and his companions are almost entirely depicted as fair skinned. There is one painting of Jesus holding a black child with Acacia trees in the background (indicating an African setting) and one of the Book of Mormon scenes has individuals that are obviously non-Caucasian in appearances, but as far as I can see, those are the main outliers to the pattern. Further, as MargaretOH pointed out at the Exponent II blog, of the 141 individuals depicted in the paintings that can readily be identified as male or female, 119 of them are male and only 22 are female. All told, the limited number of approved paintings also reflect a limited diversity that doesn’t reflect the diversity or the modern, international nature of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Despite my concerns about the limitations of the approved art list, I still believe the goals of this directive are good and will lead to positive results overall. There is also always the possibility that the list of approved paintings will expand, potentially improving the process even more and allow for greater diversity. I’m curious to see what you all think, though. Do you agree with the Church’s choices in paintings? Why or why not? Do you feel like this will have an impact on your experience coming into our Church buildings (once you’re allowed to enter them again)? Let’s discuss.
 I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of what the mortal Jesus looked like or what race he should be depicted as (before, during, or after mortality), but there is an interesting discussion that BBC put up several years ago that I always like to consider on the subject: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35120965.