Historic Manti murals may be saved after all, but not in the temple

Church announces it will try to separate “portions” of the canvas artworks from the walls and put them on public display.

(Rick Egan | Salt Lake Tribune file photo) The Mormon Miracle Pageant takes place at the foot of the Manti Temple in 2019 during the final year of that pageant. The pioneer-era temple will undergo renovation later this year.

After more than a week of protests, petitions and phone calls arguing passionately against destroying hand-painted murals inside the historic Manti Temple, leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered an olive branch Wednesday to preservationists and concerned members.

“The artwork in the Manti Temple includes murals painted by Minerva Teichert, which are valued not only for their beauty,” President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors said, “but also as a treasured remembrance of the faith, talent and dedication of the artist.”

Turns out that the Teichert murals originally were “painted on canvas, which was adhered to the plaster walls,” the governing First Presidency said in a news release. “The church’s intent is to separate the canvas or portions of the canvas from the plaster and preserve the murals for future restoration and display in a public setting. We are seeking the advice of international experts in the field of art preservation during this process.”

This news comes 12 days after the Utah-based faith announced it had removed historic murals in the iconic Salt Lake Temple — some that were painted by Mormon artists sent to study in Paris — and had discontinued the use of live religious rituals in the building. The structure is in the midst of a massive four-year seismic upgrade and renovation project.

Those murals were “carefully photographed and documented before removal,” the church leaders wrote, “and some of the original portions are being preserved in the church’s archives.”

Rally set to save the murals

At that time, leaders said the same plans were in place for the pioneer-era Manti Temple, which is poised to close for renovation later this year and houses the “world room” mural painted by the Teichert, who studied at the Chicago Art Institute in the early 20th century.

In the intervening days, nearly 4,000 heartbroken members signed a petition, “Save the Manti Temple Murals.” Others wrote letters to the church’s general authorities, called the faith’s public affairs office, or wrote anguished op-ed pieces, condemning the desecration.

A “Gathering of Remembrance” was planned for Sunday, April 11, in Provo’s Memorial Park, where participants would be invited to “fast that day in solidarity with preserving what cultural icons we still have in the Manti Temple.”

That meeting is still on, organizer Andi Pitcher Davis said Wednesday. “Our goal is to [continue] being as creative as a collective group of artists as Minerva was, and not to stop until the very last minute [as long as] there is any hope of preserving both the murals in place together in harmony with the live [temple] session.”

They may fail, Davis said, “but at the end of this whole deal, we will know which side we were on.”

These protesters “don’t just collectively weep over this decision to remove the Teichert mural, we wail,” she said. “What is a mural but a wall? We will always remember, and this will forever be our Mormon women’s Wailing Wall.”

Ann Zinger Diehl, a descendant of Edward Parry, who was a stonemason on the Manti Temple, was horrified by the church’s gutting of the Salt Lake Temple, and is not reassured by leaders’ statement about possibly preserving the Teichert murals and displaying them publicly.

“They are not guaranteeing they would be preserved,” she noted. “And where would they be displayed. They belong in the temple — the spirit and impact of [Teichert’s art] is in that room.”

If the church needs more rooms for the film version of the endowment ritual, Diehl said, it could just “drop down a screen and use a projector.”

The church’s actions are “absolutely inexcusable, an affront to women in the church and to everyone who loves art,” Diehl said. “It is the death knell to our pioneer culture.”

The church re-created the entire city of Nauvoo, as well as the temple, and “we have a big parade every year to celebrate our history, spending millions,” she said. “Yet we come to Salt Lake City and annihilate the temple [interior].”

She would like to see Nelson stand in Manti’s world room, and say, “Go ahead, scrape [the mural] off.”

The Latter-day Saint president has done many “fabulous things,” Diehl said, “but this one is a black eye for the church.”

Manti’s Mormon ‘masterpiece’

Teichert’s murals “are a masterpiece and a crowning accomplishment of her career. They are arguably the single greatest artistic achievement by an LDS woman,” Margaret Tarkington wrote on the By Common Consent blog. “No amount of photographing can replace actually experiencing Teichert’s murals, which are vast in conception, scope, vision, and size (the room is 28 feet tall, 50 feet long, and 25 feet wide). The murals cover nearly 4,000 square feet.”

The ambitious painter “portrayed the pageant of human history in a fallen world” on sides of the giant hall, Tarkington, a law professor at Indiana University, wrote, “culminating in the gathering of the early Latter-day Saints to the North American continent and their efforts to build Zion, portrayed on the front wall.”

She concluded her essay by asking: “If the church is going to remove and/or destroy Teichert’s masterpiece, could they at least ‘undedicate’ the temple for a period of time before the renovation/construction begins and allow the general public to see Teichert’s work in its original setting and design?”

Given its location in Manti and inside the temple, where only faithful members can see it, she said, “many people have never had the opportunity to experience Teichert’s visionary masterpiece.”

Ellie Sonntag, who works in historic design in Salt Lake City, traveled to Manti several times with Florence Jacobsen, then the church’s curator, when it was restoring the Manti Temple in the 1980s.

“The temple interior would have been destroyed if it hadn’t been for Florence,” Sonntag recalled Wednesday. “She was so distressed because she was constantly going up against the architects that wanted to modernize, and she had to go to Elders Gordon B. Hinckley [later church president] and Boyd Packer to save it.”

The murals of the Manti Temple are “so beloved by the members of the church,” she said. “The Minerva Teichert murals in particular are a powerful inspiration to women because they reflect her testimony and scriptural knowledge as well as enhance the experience of the endowment.”

Jacobsen, Sonntag imagines, would have been “weeping at the thought of their loss.”