Zelophehad’s Daughters

Shrines and Icons in Mormon Thought

Posted by Kiskilili

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)?

19 Responses to “Shrines and Icons in Mormon Thought”

  1. 1.

    Thanks for this post. It’s hard for me to get back into reading here because I have to read every paragraph twice (or more). Your brilliance is astounding.

    I’ve been reading Strangers in Paradox by the Tuscanos, and the last chapter about the endowment suggests that when we enter the Celestial room, we symbolically are Christ. Just like we take His name upon us at baptism and are reminded of it during the sacrament. That was what I first thought of when you mentioned the lack of Christ images in the Celestial room.

    Perhaps that is what you meant when you said this,

    “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.”

    Lastly, I do wish we had a shrine of some kind. It would be nice to worship in a way that is more personal, a sacred space. For me, it’s always been the Mother’s lounge. There’s a beautiful painting of Jesus appearing to Mary outside the tomb (it’s the most common one that’s been around forever). However, I would prefer a shrine that didn’t reek of smelly diapers.

  2. 2.

    Interesting thoughts, Kiskilili. I appreciate your analysis–I’ve never thought about any of this in any depth.

    Regarding this:

    or is there some overarching theological model for making sense of this apparent hodgepodge?

    I’m reminded of your excellent comments on another area where our beliefs are a hodgepodge. I would guess that there’s no more overarching theological framework here than there is in the case of patriarchy-equality.

    A random thought to throw in: Since we believe that God is embodied where most other Christians do not, you might expect us to have more religious icons than anyone else. After all, it’s a lot easier to make a statue (or paint a picture) of a god who has a body than of one who is without body, parts, or passions, isn’t it?

    Jessawhy, I love your last line in particular.

  3. 3.

    Trust me, Jessawhy, the fact that you have to read every paragraph twice is an indication that I have no idea what I’m talking about and am wandering in circles! I wish we had shrines, too; I really like the idea. It seems like we’ve concentrated virtually all our energy for ritual and atmospheric sacred space into the temple, and maybe anything else would take away from that. But it seems like a shame.

    Good point, Ziff–I thought about exploring the fact that God is embodied but deleted that section. On the one hand, other Christians are creating images of Jesus and Mary, both of whom are embodied, so I don’t know how different it is. Also, the fact that the Mormon God is embodied perhaps opens up more possibilities in depicting him, but for the same reason more opportunities for sacrilege, since the mundane and the holy are constantly on the verge of collapsing? I don’t know.

  4. 4.

    Thinking about the whole embodied God idea, it strikes me that maybe rituals/shrines in other traditions are a way of helping people to imagine how to access a God who perhaps seems more mysterious (because of his disembodiment, etc.). Maybe in Mormonism, we feel less of a need for visual representations because our notions of who God is, at least physically (he is like us, man is created in his image), are more straightforward?

    I’m not sure. I think that your idea about there being less of a boundary between the mundane/holy is an interesting one, though.

    One other thought–I think that visitor’s centers visual representations are less about having icons/sacred imagery and more about proving to other people that we actually are Christians (like you said, it’s a public declaration that Christ is at the center of our worship). To me, all the visual representations of Christ at our visitor’s center are for non-Mormons, and they don’t really play any part in Mormon worship.

  5. 5.

    One more thought: I think it’s true that we have concentrated almost all our ritual/iconic imagery/etc. into the temple ceremony. I wonder that if we had more of this outside of the temple that the temple ceremony (minus the gender/covenant stuff, which is a different matter altogether) would not be as strange and off-putting as it seems to be to some people.

  6. 6.

    Great points, Seraphine. I think you’re right about the visitors’ centers. It’s like when the official logo (or whatever you call it) of the Church was changed to put “Jesus Christ” in a bigger font. That was clearly a “yes we are too Christians!” statement.

    I also like the idea of using icons to help people imagine God when God is thought of as being wholly other. That hadn’t occurred to me, but I’ve heard a similar rationale for having lots of pictures of Jesus, since we (mostly) don’t get to meet him in mortality even though he is embodied.

    Kiskilili, I also think you make a good point about conceiving God as being similar to us opens new avenues for blasphemy. I guess maybe Mormons–since we believe God is like us in form–should (speaking descriptively and not prescriptively) get more up in arms about goofy popular media portrayals of God than do other Christians. I’m thinking of like the Simpsons episode where Homer doesn’t want to go to church, and he has a vision where God appears and tells him (among other things) that church bores him at times too.

    Both of you make good points about making more sacred space outside the temple. We hear a lot that our homes should be holy, but that seems difficult given how many mundane activities go on in pretty much every room of them. As Jessawhy put it so well, a shrine shouldn’t reek of smelly diapers. And if you have little kids at home, any room in the house has the opportunity to reek. I know I met a Hindu family who had a room in their house dedicated to religious worship–I don’t know if this is typical or if they called it a shrine–but it would seem to fit to me.

    So would it be good if our churches had little shrine spaces? Or Kiskilili, would you like chapels that were more shrine-like? Or we already have churches and temples that are different. Why not have a third class of religious buildings that are shrines? Or would that make things too complicated? :)

  7. 7.

    …like the Simpsons episode where Homer doesn’t want to go to church, and he has a vision where God appears and tells him (among other things) that church bores him at times too.

    I dunno, Ziff. It isn’t hard for me to imagine that God would be bored to tears in some of our meetings and classes.

    I’ll let your blasphemy of the Simpsons slide, this time. :)

  8. 8.

    One place outside the temple that we think of as sacred/holy ground is the sacred grove. It’s a sort of pilgrimage to go there.

    Kirtland has that sort of feel to it, too. I think that feeling is actually heightened by the CofC owning the temple proper.

  9. 9.

    That’s a good point about pilgrimage sites as sacred space, Ann–I was thinking about that it in the larger Christian tradition but it didn’t occur to me Mormons have their own pilgrimage sites!

    I was talking to Lynnette about the ecclesiastical control of sacred space in Mormonism, and–she’ll have to correct me if I get this wrong–she said in her (Episcopal) dorm the students were considering turning an empty room into a shrine. But they confessed they’d all already set up shrines in their own rooms anyway. This sort of thing seems unimaginable to me in Mormonism–they say your home should be like a temple, but when it comes right down to it, it shouldn’t be that much like a temple. Our Church hierarchy keeps a tight control over its sacred space.

    I think you’re right that the “shrines” in visitors’ centers are essentially proclamations to non-members, Seraphine. I wonder to what extent they’re used by Mormons as well? When I was a YW we went to SLC to see the Christus at the visitors’ center a number of times. In some ways it’s like the pseudo-experience for those (unendowed, non-members) denied access to the “real” central Mormon experience.

    People often explain Mischwesen like the cherubim as pointing toward something otherworldly in a religion in which God is invisible and ineffable. I really like the idea. I’d love to belong to a religion with enormous sphinxes or some such in its sacred space. I’m not sure it fits Mormon theology terribly well, but it does have biblical precedent.

    It does seem like if we had a richer tradition of ritual, the temple would fit better experientially and people would find it less shocking. But I tend to suspect the temple experience would be less valued–if you could get that in any Sunday meeting or in any church shrine, why make the effort to go to a temple, especially if there isn’t one nearby and you have a liquor habit, for example? It seems like there are ways in which the very unfamiliarity of the temple ceremony when compared with other Mormon meetings and its secrecy function in tandem, and one of the ways they function, I think, is to motivate insiders to behave so as to qualify themselves for that experience. If something approaching it were readily available whether you drank alcohol or not, would it be harder to demand that level of commitment? Maybe the temple has to be somewhat bizarre in order for us to value it uniquely.

    I’m about to say something vaguely blasphemous, so please scroll down if you have a weak stomach. :) Several things shocked me about the temple–the gender problems were only the most excruciating of them. But I didn’t find the ritual shocking at all. In fact, if anything, I wish it were considerably more unusual.

  10. 10.

    I enjoyed your post, but I’m inclined to think that our approach to shrines, icons, and images is less hodgepodge than you say. The common thread in all the examples you bring up is to my mind entirely based on an rigid (and slightly anti-catholic) reading of the second commandment. The lack of images in the chapel (specifically the sacrament meeting space) etc is a deliberate way to make sure we never are accused of worshiping man-made objects. Even the use of movies in the temple is a just a way to represent actors who themselves are representing religious figures. They (the actors or the movies) are never actually worshiped. The largest deviation from this common thread is the temple itself, which is colloquially endowed with sacred powers. However, if pressed, any user of the language would confess that it is not the temple itself, but the spirit of the Lord that is there.

    I suppose we do court a middle ground with other religious imagery in the sense that we use it to invoke religious feeling. However, the objects themselves are traditionally believed to contain no independent spiritual power.

    That said, I like the direction of your analysis and the ideas brought out in the comments. I hope you take the time to flesh out the subject in a later post.

  11. 11.

    Can you elaborate any more on what you mean here,

    I’m about to say something vaguely blasphemous, so please scroll down if you have a weak stomach. :) Several things shocked me about the temple–the gender problems were only the most excruciating of them. But I didn’t find the ritual shocking at all. In fact, if anything, I wish it were considerably more unusual.

    I’m really not very good at reading between the lines. (or send me an email if you prefer)

  12. 12.

    I think you’re definitely right, Adam, that there’s an anti-Catholic streak at least partly motivating our distrust of images. It’s perhaps useful here to make a distinction between “holiness” and “that which deserves worship.” Even if only God is worshiped in Mormon thought, I think it’s still useful to understand certain objects as “holy” to Mormons: text, clothing, buildings, movies, oil, and food (sacrament) are all possibilities. And maybe the Mormon concept of the holy is less robust than that of traditional Christians (these objects are accoutrements to our worship and not themselves worshiped). But I’m not convinced we’re that different. When pressed, would a Catholic say holiness inheres in a crucifix and is not a function of the Holy Spirit? Would a Catholic say they’re praying to a statue, or praying to Jesus?

    Heh, Jessawhy, I have no secret meaning! I just think I would (maybe) find a ritual appealing if it were extraordinarily strange, atmospheric, and difficult to process linearly. If the divine is unimaginable, why not try to push the limits of imagination in constructing our ritual conception of it? Why not really make it an-out-of-the ordinary experience in some way? This seems to be partly what the cherubim get at.

    Oddly, in Mormonism, we like to say our ritual is entirely “symbolic.” But of all Christians, it seems like we should have the least need to find recourse in symbols in exploring the divine! We think God is a man living on a planet on our ontological plan (or something of that nature).

    This is the blasphemous part (and I’m sorry if this is offensive–I don’t mean to imply even that this feeling is defensible): (a) I’d like to fashion my own ritual instead of accepting the one God provided (for more reasons than one), and (b) I thought the temple was (besides being offensive and problematic), well, boring. To be honest, I expected something more exciting and imaginative. For years I was taught it would be difficult to process and incomprehensible. I felt on my first visit that I’d comprehended quite a bit more than I wanted to.

  13. 13.

    Kiskilili, you’re probably right that if we had more ritual outside of the temple, the temple ritual might not be viewed in the same way (it wouldn’t seem as special, etc.). I still think, though, that a little more ritual (or more discussion of the importance of ritual and symbols overall) in church would be good.

  14. 14.

    “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?”

    One aspect to the lack of Christian symbols, ritual, shrines, etc. within the church probably rests in the Masonic origins of Mormonism. Some of the main Mormon symbols (e.g., cornerstones, key stones, beehives) and rituals (e.g., washing and anointing, endowment ceremony) originated with Free Masonry, which is not a religion and thus does not have Christian/religious overtones to its buildings and rituals (though there are some spiritual overtones).

    I think the sense of “hodgepodge” comes, at least in part, from the unique merging of Christianity and Masonry that constitutes Mormonism, which makes it unlike any other Christian religion in terms of symbolism and ritual.

  15. 15.

    Good point, Tam. Some of the symbols we do use are lifted straight from Freemasonry where we’ve decided to reject the cross, the obvious central symbol of Christian worship more generally.

    I agree, Seraphine. I actual wish we had a lot more ritual in our worship. :)

  16. 16.

    I have heard of members decorating rooms in their homes like the temple, complete with altar. Has anyone else heard of this?

  17. 17.

    I have a home altar, but do not have an entire room decorated like the temple. I have not heard of anyone having a “temple room” in their home. Interesting concept. Is it for mediation or does it serve some other purpose, does anyone know?

  18. 18.

    I was chatting with a friend who is a Free Mason and he informed me that there is at least one branch of Free Masonry that uses Christian symbolism in their higher degrees. I just wanted to amend my comment (#14) so I wasn’t spreading misinformation. Apparently there can be Christian symbolism in Free Mason rites and rituals. But you wouldn’t know it from looking at Mormonism, eh?

  19. 19.

    I have recently wanted more of a sacred space to contemplate in at church. Even our chapels, which we do have some reverence for, are not like other churches sanctuaries. I do wonder if we fear too much people choosing to forgo the temple if something more was available without all the strings. It might have the opposite affect and draw people to want the ultimate in Mormon sacred experiences.

    Although when I was younger I would just find a nice quite outdoor spot for my individual sacred space and that worked fine. Now I find it harder to get away to a private space for a moment and it would be nice to have a designated place. I can see my husband and I creating a meditation space, probably not enough space for a room, in our own home someday and that might serve this need nicely.

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