In a loss for preservation, LDS Church removes historic murals from Salt Lake Temple

Wall paintings also will be taken out of the Manti Temple.

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An artistic rendering of the renovated garden room in the Salt Lake Temple, December 2019. The church says the mural had to be removed as part of the temple renovation.

In a blow to preservationists and many Latter-day Saints, historic murals in the iconic Salt Lake Temple — some that were painted by Mormon artists sent to study in Paris in the 1890s — have been removed during the ongoing renovation and will not be returned.

The same extraction also is planned for the pioneer-era Manti Temple, which houses one of Mormonism’s artistic gems — a “world room” mural painted by the famed Minerva Teichert, who studied at the Chicago Art Institute in the early 20th century.

This is being done in part because officials in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints decided to eliminate the “live endowment,” in which templegoers move from room to room in a symbolic-rich reenactment of the creation, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and humankind’s mortal journey and ultimate return to God’s presence.

The live performances will be replaced by filmed presentations of the ritual in a single room. These movies are shown in the rest of faith’s dedicated temples across the world.

To accomplish this switch meant that the Salt Lake Temple rooms needed to be “reconfigured,” according to a message Friday from the governing First Presidency.

On top of the altered layout, “seismic strengthening, and changes to meet accessibility requirements meant that the murals in the temple would need to be moved and/or repainted,” said President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring. “It was impossible to know whether the murals could be preserved during such a move. They were originally painted directly on lath and plaster walls, which had been repaired and repainted many times because of water damage and other deterioration.”

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An artistic rendering of the renovated world room in the Salt Lake Temple, December 2019. The church says the mural had to be removed as part of the temple renovation.

So the murals, which graphically express the story of creation and human existence, the First Presidency said, were “carefully photographed and documented before removal, and some of the original portions are being preserved in the church’s archives.”

Many of the temple’s other historic features have also been photographed, documented, replicated, the release said, “and in some cases, architecturally salvaged.”

The same process will be followed in Manti, beginning later this year, including the removal of Teichert’s masterpiece, which depicts a panorama of biblical and secular history down through the ages.

The First Presidency did guarantee that the historic staircases in both the Salt Lake and Manti temples will be preserved.

The move away from live rituals will give the Salt Lake Temple five instruction rooms. This will provide more sessions, accommodate “more than double the number of patrons,” and offer the ordinances in more languages, the letter said. It will also permit more members to serve as “ordinance workers” without requiring “lengthy memorization.”

The renovation also includes adding a second baptistry in the basement and additional “sealing rooms,” where marriages are performed.

This change also means that “the same ordinances, covenants and authority are available in every temple, and will now be presented in the same way.”

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) An artistic rendering of the renovated creation room in the Salt Lake Temple, December 2019. The church says the mural had to be removed as part of the temple renovation.

But it represents a reversal of what church leaders said in 2019 as the renovations began.

At that time, Andy Kirby, director of historic temple renovations, promised that the interiors would be enhanced and improved but remain essentially the same. The hand-painted murals in ordinance rooms would be cleaned and repaired, leaving the colors “brighter and more vivid,” he said, and the rituals performed by live actors would remain part of the ceremony.

None of the alterations affects the “rite’s efficacy,” said Kathleen Flake, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Virginia, yet she mourns these moves.

“Given the growing number of temples and the number of persons it takes to conduct these rituals, these changes are the next, probably inevitable step in the modernization, which is to say ‘de-ritualization’ of the temple rites,” Flake wrote in an email. “Rituals do not have audiences, only enactors. The extensive use of media in the temple risks turning initiates into watchers and making a rite of passage, a largely passive, didactic experience.”

It also strikes Flake as “a further commodification of the rite,” she said. “It is just sad that there will be no place where one can go to have a fuller ritual experience.”

Kristine Haglund echoes those sentiments.

“This feels like a huge and unnecessary loss,” said Haglund, former editor of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. “We have many temples not functioning at full capacity, and the reasons the Salt Lake and Manti temples were so well-attended surely have much to do with their beauty and historical significance. The loss of that beauty cannot be compensated by increased efficiency.”

But the writer and editor was even more troubled by the discontinuation of the live ceremonies.

“While perhaps not as devastatingly irreversible as the loss of the artwork, this is also immense,” Haglund said. “So much of the symbolic significance of the endowment ritual is clearer when the actors are not merely the slick, glossy surface of a film image. The work of mental and spiritual imagination that has to occur in a live session is very different from the effect of the mass-produced and passively received photographic version. In the long run, the loss of that intangible connection to something spiritually vital, preserved at great cost and passed down throughout the church’s history, may prove even more destructive than the loss of Minerva Teichert’s incomparable imagery.”

Patrick Mason, head of Mormon history and culture at Utah State University, said his “heart dropped” when he heard that the murals would be removed.

“These are priceless cultural artifacts that can never be replaced if destroyed,” Mason said. “The murals in the Manti Temple by Minerva Teichert, one of the few prominent female LDS artists of the 20th century, are particularly stunning, even if some of the artistic elements no longer conform to current cultural sensibilities.”

The temple murals have offered generations of Latter-day Saints “a kind of visual theology,” he said, “one that we should make just as much effort to preserve as we do with more traditional forms of historical documents such as first-edition books.”

However, only those with access to temples have been able to enjoy them, Mason pointed out, so the best possible solution could be to “take down the murals, preserve them, and put them on public display for the general public.”

The historic pioneer temples “have been a blessing to the Latter-day Saints for more than 140 years,” the First Presidency letter said, “and we know that … they will continue to serve their sacred purpose for generations to come.”

The Salt Lake Temple, dedicated in 1893, is expected to reopen in 2024. The St. George Temple, Utah’s first completed Latter-day Saint temple, which debuted in 1877, is also undergoing extensive renovations. It is expected to resume operations in 2022.

Later this year, the Manti Temple will shut down to undergo its multiyear renovation. The Logan Temple also is scheduled for a makeover. No further information about that project has been released.