Ten years ago, I got to spend a whole day in Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City, wandering about the gorgeous gardens and visiting all the sites that a non-Mormon could get into. I enjoyed the tranquility and the snapshots of Mormon history I’d known nothing about. I watched various bridal parties approach the main temple and pose for photos and I watched a few films chronicling the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The art in the main visitors center fascinated me, even though I knew it was highly idealized at best. For instance, why do painters constantly portray Jesus as the only person in the crowd wearing a white robe? No first-century carpenter would have dressed like that, so I knew instantly these were not meant to be realistic.
A recent Religion News Service story shows that I am not the only journalist asking these kinds of questions:
SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) -- Enter the North Visitors’ Center in Temple Square here, home of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and you can’t miss them: 10 life-size oil paintings that march along a curving wall.
The paintings illustrate the life of Jesus. Here is John baptizing Jesus, there is Jesus gathering disciples from simple fishermen. Another shows Jesus entering Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, and in another he is crucified between two thieves.
In all of the paintings, there is little room for interpretation about who is being depicted: Jesus glows with an otherworldly light.
But if the message is hard to miss, so is something about the medium. Everyone is spit-spot clean and all of the paintings seem set more in the lush, green valleys near the Great Salt Lake than on the dry, brown shores of Galilee.