Recently I spent a pleasant evening with one of my sisters in a Catholic church, taking in the smell of the votive candles, the prominently placed mosaics depicting aspects of Jesus’ ministry, and the statuary, and I got to wondering about the way both sacred space and images operate in Mormonism.
It’s clear that text, whether verbal or printed (or both), liturgical or scriptural (or both), can be sacred to Mormon thought. But while visual representations of the divine are certainly not lacking in Mormon services, homes, or publications, our attitude toward pictures is significantly more ambivalent. Although the subject may be holy, it’s not clear to me that particular images themselves, strictly speaking, can rightly be deemed holy in the Mormon thoughtworld (though some images perhaps tread the line of canonization). Where a picture of Jesus on a living room wall is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged, seemingly our most sacred spaces–chapels and celestial rooms–are deliberately, starkly aniconic.
When it comes to statues, especially life-size or larger, my impression is that to the Mormon mind they generally smack of paganism and idolatry. Except for one: a copy of the Christus graces a number of visitors’ centers on LDS temple grounds.
Finally, turning from the still images of statuary and paintings to moving pictures: as with text, movies can unequivocally occupy the category of “sacred,” authorized by the magisterium and component to sacred space. Does something more than happenstance account for the different attitudes toward still pictures and moving pictures? As a thought experiment: would the temple experience be qualitatively different if worshipers viewed a series of canonized holy images as the liturgy was conducted, rather than a movie (or actors)–a format parallel, for example, to the Stations of the Cross?
It’s not at all clear to me exactly how Mormons read the second commandment (as Protestants count them), and I doubt our attitudes toward representation flow directly from this prohibition, or even that they’re codified, but in practice we seem to steer a nebulous middle way between the geometric art of some strict Muslims, for example, and the ubiquitous icons of Eastern Orthodox services. What makes still imagery vaguely suspect? It’s hard to reconcile the idea that our suspicions rest simply on the fear that pictures shape our imaginative conception of the divine even in the absence of an artist’s visual encounter with the divine realm (thus, that they are “false” to their subjects), or that the divine is invisible or incomprehensible and representing it visually is sacrilege, since movies surely occupy a higher register of verisimilitude and are nevertheless permissible in our canon and in our holiest spaces.
How does visual representation function in Mormon worship, and what is its relationship to sacred space? In the Catholic church we visited, one of the uses of visual imagery was, I believe, to create an ambience conducive to what I’m going to call here a “shrine”: ecclesiastically controlled space available for private, individual devotion. In stark contrast, Mormon meeting houses simply host Mormon meetings, instances of communal worship; when the meetings are over–when the business of the day has been conducted–we go home. Rarely if ever does anyone stop by the chapel for silent personal devotion, reflection, or prayer, and nothing in the spartan atmosphere of a Mormon chapel lends itself to such. In short, Mormon chapels do not function as “shrines.”
But it’s not that such sites are entirely lacking in Mormonism. There are two different species, as it were, of Mormon shrines: temple visitors’ centers, especially those in which devotees are drawn visually and spatially to a larger-than-life Christus where reflection is encouraged; and celestial rooms, which, though lavish, are, in contrast, strikingly aniconic. In one instance sacred space is unrestricted, uniquely graced by statuary, and free of liturgy, and in the other instance–literally right next door–sacred space is restricted, image-free, and the culmination of a liturgical event. How do we make sense of these differences?
On the one hand the ritual (including both visual representation and individuals representing deity) that conveys people to the sacred space of the celestial room perhaps in some ways performs a similar function to that of the Christus in its own space, rendering an image of that type superfluous. Conversely, an “empty” celestial room, denuded of its preceding ceremony and open to the public, would be less comprehensible in that it would seemingly be unmarked as belonging to the realm of the sacred at all.
Additionally, the Christus makes a deliberate public (and perhaps ironic) statement that Mormon worship centers on Christ–ironic not because Mormon worship does not center on Christ, but only because statues are not an ordinary apparatus to that focus in Mormon thought.
Does anything more than chance and circumstance account for the distribution of visual representations in Mormon praxis, or is there some overarching theological model for making sense of this apparent hodgepodge? Is it fair to say that instead of icons, we have dramatic rituals, in which we ourselves assume the identity of players in the cosmic saga?
Is it possible to imagine shrines set up in Mormon churches, where people could sit in silent contemplation before a figural representation of the divine, or is this role preempted by temple worship, and would the unrestricted availability of such spaces depreciate the value placed on temple attendance?
And would a Christus be out of place in a celestial room? What about cherubim, apparently sphinxlike composite creatures transcending mundane experience and pointing to the ineffability of the divine realm, such as are described atop the Ark of the Covenant (and thus in the Holy of Holies)?
- 15 March 2009