Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper painting is faded, cracked and requires craning one’s head up at an unnatural angle. The building that houses it has been retrofitted with sliding glass security doors and alarm systems and body scans. And yet when I visited the painting myself a few years ago, the experience produced one of the most profound spiritual experiences of my life, a connection to Jesus Christ I will always treasure.
This week, I learned that my own church institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is willingly destroying one of our few cultural treasures in the name of efficiency. The murals and live endowments in the Salt Lake and Manti temples are apparently not worth the trouble of preserving as artistic artifacts. Rather, their spaces are being reconfigured to maximize the number of people who can attend and the number of languages people can listen to.
This is nothing short of cultural violence. In our brief 150 year history, the LDS Church’s members have produced a limited body of artistic artifacts, many of which were inextricably bound up in the temple edifices. The architecture of the Nauvoo temple, the lace created to cover temple altars, the carvings of the banisters and door handles and, of course, the murals were the cultural touchstones into which our ancestors poured their blood, sweat and tears.
The creators of these artifacts were well trained, often in New York or Europe, reflecting the early members’ belief that an institution reflecting the glory of God needs to produce the highest level of artistic creation. But even more important than the high quality of the work is the sacrifices of the lay members in funding this work. Women crushed their china to make the Kirtland temple shine; pioneer families sold their prized possessions to donate to the Salt Lake temple’s construction; members lost limbs and spent years away from family members to make these buildings reflect the glory of God.
When I have attended the live sessions in one of these two temples, seated close enough that I could reach out and touch the brushstrokes of a 19th century artisan, I am connected through material cultural to the faith that propelled a whole people across the nation. When I listen to the elderly temple workers struggle through the recitation of the temple script, I am overwhelmed by the wonderful weirdness of it all, the view of eternity that takes me forward through a promise of progression, but also back into the analog primitiveness of 19th century ritual.
I relish that connection. I want my 21st century worship to take me out of the modern world, to connect me through performative and material culture to the thousands of years of believers who have said words and painted pictures and sacrificed acceptance by the wider world in order to cling to their faith.
We have so little in our young church’s history that offers a material connection to the strange physicality and otherworldliness of 19th century worship. The Salt Lake and Manti temples provided the most complete vestiges of that connection.
And now, according to the church’s announcement this week, my highest form of worship will inevitably involve sitting passively in front of a screen. I already spend most of my day sitting in front of a screen. Will we even need to perform that worship in a specialized building in the future?
If there really is no other option but to remove the murals, is preserving only portions of them in the Church Archives, as the announcement describes, the only alternative? I have been to museums around the world in which whole rooms from historical buildings have been restored and made open to the public. The church could build an entire museum dedicated to these original rooms, invite the public to see our unique cultural contributions and offer others the opportunity to connect spiritually to them in the way I connected with the Last Supper.
Being a global church doesn’t have to mean being a sterile church, a church that values efficiency at all cost. But that singlemindedness is what this decision reveals. So much is lost as a result. We will soon have over 25 temples in Utah alone. Could we not preserve two simply as touchstones not only to our unique heritage and the sacrifices of our people, but also to the power of artistic beauty to prompt spiritual enlightenment?
Neylan McBaine is the author of “Pioneering the Vote” and co-founder of Better Days 2020, a non-profit that popularizes Utah women’s history to commemorate Utah as the first place an American woman voted.