Counterpoint: A Feeling of Loss–On Murals and Temples

I lived a significant portion of my life in Logan, Utah and frequently attended the temple during the time that I lived there.  I had a lot of beautiful and sacred experiences while doing so, but I also rarely attended that temple without experiencing some feelings of loss.  In the late 1970s, in order to introduce the use of filmed endowments to that temple, the building was gutted and almost all of the paintings, stained glass, chandeliers, furniture, and other furnishings were stowed away in archives in Salt Lake City or Provo, sent to other temple and Church office buildings for use, or given away.  The murals and the ornate “gold room” sealing room decorations couldn’t be removed intact and the parts that weren’t cut out as souvenirs were destroyed.  The temple they built inside the shell of the original was far more efficient, more structurally sound, and had better air conditioning, but lost most of what the pioneer Saints had lovingly contributed to the house of the Lord.  President Spencer W. Kimball reportedly expressed regret at the loss of the pioneer craftsmanship, which is the same reason I felt some feelings of loss when I visited.  To see the furnishings from the older iteration of the temple, I had to visit the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City rather than the temple itself (until that, too, was renovated and the section about historic Utah temples removed).[1]  While the recently-announced changes to the Manti and Salt Lake City temples are less dramatic, the loss of the murals is still a loss of beautiful Latter-day Saint craftsmanship that feels akin to the changes to the Logan Temple.

Admittedly, part of the pain from the announcement is the shock factor.  Most of the messaging and indications prior to the announcement were that we are in an era in which the Church values its past and architecture more than it did in the 1970s.  For example, when the Idaho Falls Temple was renovated a few years ago, they preserved the murals and room-to-room progression format in the temple even though they use the endowment ceremony films in that temple.[2]  Likewise, the Laie, Hawaii Temple’s 2008-2010 renovations were performed with the goal “to return the temple to its original beauty and bring it up to date with current temple standards,”[3] and part of the process of doing so was restoring the endowment rooms to their original appearance and room-to-room progression (while still using film).  These set a precedent for restoring or maintaining historic temples in ways that respected the contributions of artists while still improving the structures.

When President Nelson discussed the renovations to the St. George, Salt Lake City, and Manti temples in the April 2019 general conference, he gave every indication that this would be the case for those renovations as well.  He stated that these early temples “stand as monuments to the faith and vision of our beloved pioneers.  Each temple constructed by them resulted from their great personal sacrifice and effort.  Each one stands as a stunning jewel in the crown of pioneer achievement.”  He added that “it is a sacred responsibility to care for them” and that the renovations were being undertaken with that goal in mind and “whenever possible,” would include “preserving the inspiring beauty and unique craftsmanship of generations long-since passed.”[4]  When interior renderings were released for the Salt Lake Temple the following December, the Church’s news article focused on how the building would “be preserved and, in some cases, restored to its original design and feel” during the renovation, and that “this project will highlight and honor the work of past craftsmen. … Experts in preserving the historic stone, murals, plaster, wood and metal have been consulted in every stage of design.”[5]  Renderings released at that time showed that the plan was to preserve the endowment room murals, even while the seating arrangements were reformatted to accommodate film versions of the endowment ceremony.  Thus, the sudden announcement that instead of focusing on preservation and restoration to honor the craftsmanship of previous generations as part of a sacred responsibility to our beloved pioneers, the murals had been destroyed and removed to increase efficiency felt like a sudden about-face and a betrayal of what we were informed were some of the major intentions of the work being done on the buildings.

There are, of course, other reasons for my sadness and concern with the sudden announcement of the murals’ destruction.  The specter of destroying or selling off pioneer tabernacles and the gutting of the Logan Temple looms large in my mind as signs that the Church is unwilling to preserve our cultural heritage, especially as expressed in architecture.  While the Roman Catholics have the Cathedral of Saint Domnius (which has been in use for around 1700 years), or even the better-known Sistine Chapel, which has survived with frescos intact for around 500 years, we have very few buildings that we’ve chosen to hold onto and care for longer than 150 years without proclaiming that: “The Church is a forward looking church, not backward, we look and plan for future growth, when something from the past blocks the future, it must go,”[6] and then backing those words up with a bulldozer.  For the few that we have preserved, it feels like we keep changing and erasing much of what makes those buildings beautiful and unique inside.  As a Utahn and a Latter-day Saint, the murals in the Salt Lake Temple and the Manti Temple were a part of my heritage and culture and by losing them, something that I treasured about that heritage has been lost.[7]

Now, that being said, I recognize that the move to change the internal layout of the Salt Lake Temple has a purpose, and that there are good things that the people running the renovation intend to do.  The primary function of temples is to provide a space for performing sacred ordinances, and that has been the case since at least the construction of the original Nauvoo Temple.[8]  Similar to how the 1970s renovations to the Logan Temple increased the throughput of the temple, these renovations to the Salt Lake Temple will allow for the installation of two more instructional rooms, additional sealing ordinance rooms, and a second baptistry, all of which increase the amount of temple work that can be done there.[9]  Presumably the changes to the Manti Temple have the same goal in mind—allowing the temple to serve its primary mission more efficiently.   And (in the spirit of making the best of a situation that I am deeply saddened by, but have no control over), perhaps this will allow the temple murals to reach a wider audience by making the portions that have been preserved part of a permanent museum exhibit, along with some of the artifacts saved from the Logan Temple that used to be on display at the Church History Museum.  While the art would not be serving its original purpose or be displayed in its proper setting, the exhibit could function as both an opportunity to showcase pioneer craftsmanship and as a kind of ongoing temple open house without requiring the Church to decommission a temple.  In any case, as expressed above, the increased efficiency comes with a cost.

Responding more directly to Jonathan’s post, comparisons between Hezekiah destroying brass serpent to the destruction of temple murals in our day is a false equivalency to me.  Hezekiah destroyed the high places, pillars, sacred pole, and brass serpent because they were objects used in worshiping gods and goddesses other than Yahweh (Jehovah), “for until those days the people Israel had made offerings to [the brass serpent].”[10]  I attended endowment session in the Salt Lake City Temple many times and I can say with fair amount of confidence that I never observed temple patrons using the murals as a focal point for making offerings to Asherah, Egyptian snake goddesses, or other pagan deities.  I’ve also not detected more subtle forms of worship aimed at the artistry itself rather than the temple ceremony in my conversations with temple patrons, even considering the strong expressions of grief, frustration, and anger displayed by many individuals in online discussions about the First Presidency’s recent announcement.  Primarily, I’ve heard appreciation for the beauty of the murals and what they contributed to the experience of the endowment ceremony in those temples.  The murals were created to serve the temple, and they did that job well.  The experience will have lost that added element of beauty and thoughtfulness for losing the murals.

 

Footnotes:

[1] See http://ldspioneerarchitecture.blogspot.com/2015/07/logan-temple-interior-renovation-and.html and http://thetrumpetstone.blogspot.com/2011/01/logan-temple-then-and-now.html for glimpses into the changes to the Logan Temple.

[2] See https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/church/events/idaho-falls-idaho-temple-open-house-and-rededication?lang=eng#:~:text=The%20public%20is%20invited%20to,org%20in%20the%20coming%20weeks for images of the renovated Idaho Falls Temple, with murals intact.

[3] “Laie Hawaii Temple Closes for Renovations,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/liahona/2009/03/news-of-the-church/laie-hawaii-temple-closes-for-renovations?lang=eng

[4] Russell M. Nelson, “Closing Remarks,” CR April 2019, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2019/04/57nelson?lang=eng.

[5] “New Renderings Released for Salt Lake Temple Renovation,” 4 December 2019 and 15 January 2020, Church Newsroom, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/new-renderings-released-salt-lake-temple-renovation.

[6] Remarks of Ogden stake president Keith Wilcox about the demolition of the old Ogden Tabernacle.  Quoted in Garth R. Liston, “The Geographical Analysis of Mormon Temple Sites in Utah,” BYU Master’s Thesis, 1992: 113-115

[7] Ardis Parshall beautifully expressed some of the feelings that I have felt in a recent post: “Our Best for the Glory of God,” Keepapitchinin, 17 March 2021, http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2021/03/17/our-best-for-the-glory-of-god/

[8] For a brief discussion of that topic, see my essay “Sextuplet Endowment Rooms: What Does It Mean?”, Chad’s Random Musings, 23 March 2013, https://chadlawrencenielsen.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/sextuplet-endowment-rooms-what-does-it-mean/.

[9] See “A First Presidency Update on Historic Temple Renovations,” Newsroom, 24 March 2021, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/salt-lake-manti-temples-update-march-2021#murals, accessed 3/29/2021.

[10] See 2 Kings 18:1-6, NRSV.

4 comments for “Counterpoint: A Feeling of Loss–On Murals and Temples

  1. If we understand temples as houses which hold the symbolism and language of the everlasting, eternal covenant, then the symbolism which translates this covenant–-art–-matters.

    Do you think there is a risk with LDS temples themselves becoming “objects of worship” after the pattern of our own Israelite heritage?

    If LDS did misplace worship at the temple, what would it look like? (How would we know?)

  2. This brings back to mind the problems I had when the temples shifted from film projectors to video. In the Las Vegas temple the video projectors on the ceiling emitted a high frequency tone which I found quite unpleasant. Perhaps my older ears would be deaf to it now. More emotionally disturbing was returning to the Washington DC temple after its projectors had been replaced. The new equipment didn’t have enough resolution and the images were notably inferior to film projection. This was only a few years after the 1990 film production had taken a large step forward in including artistry in the presentation of the endowment, which was something like Sister Teichert’s murals in 1947 replacing the worn murals that preceded hers. I felt very disheartened that beauty was being diminished in the temple, where everything should be as carefully done as possible. The blurriness in the Washington DC temple didn’t have to be there, because weeks before it hadn’t been there. My memory is vague as to how long it took for better video projection to come to the Washington DC temple.

    When I consider the spare, rapid-fire, anti-contemplative slideshow that our prophet-surgeon gave the church in 2019 as the current presentation of the endowment, I have a hard time imagining it presented within the current rooms of the Manti temple, not just its World Room, but also the Garden Room, and the Terrestrial Room. There would be two jarringly different visions at play.

    Much as wish the Salt Lake and Manti temples could remain as they have been, I will say that I don’t care much for the notion of temples as monuments to those who built them. They are monuments to the Lord.

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