Was the Book of Mormon’s King Benjamin tall or short, light-skinned or dark? Did Nephi have the rippling muscles of an Arnold Friberg painting or was his masculinity more muted as in Minerva Teichert’s masterworks?
Artists have been making such visual choices and interpretations of Mormonism’s sacred scripture since the founding of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830.
Now artists, scholars and the public can view more than 2,000 of these works in a recently produced digital catalog, which has assembled art from public and private collections, museums as well as from the church’s own holdings.
The Book of Mormon Art Catalog is “the first permanent and comprehensive database” for these pieces, says curator Jennifer Champoux. “More than just a list of artworks, the catalog website also provides a wealth of information about each piece and unparalleled research tools for scholars, artists, church members and anyone interested in Book of Mormon visual art.”
It also highlights, she says, “the diversity of Latter-day Saint art and artists.”
This archive is “a welcomed and timely blending of the scholarly and the inspiring,” says Spencer Fluhman, executive director of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, which helped fund the project. “It’s a resource I’m glad both Latter-day Saints and scholars now have at their fingertips.”
Beyond that, says Matthew Bowman, the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Southern California’s Claremont Graduate University, this collection helps “shatter stale, tedious stereotypes in order to imagine the Book of Mormon in fresh and striking ways.”
The database, Bowman says in a news release, “reveals anew the complexity and importance of the text as a signal artifact of American religious history.”
Seeing a need
The project began, says Champoux, an art historian who lives outside Denver, when she was investigating how a Book of Mormon story known as “Lehi’s dream” was depicted in Latter-day Saint visual art.
It soon became clear to her that no one scholar could track down all the visual images on a particular Book of Mormon scene, she says, “because there are so many sources to search through, many inaccessible to the public.”
She concluded that scholars and church members needed a kind of central clearinghouse for this art, Champoux says, and so set out to create one.
It would be good for artists, she says, to see different ways people were engaging with the religious texts visually.
Her team, which included student researchers at church-owned BYU, she says, wanted to give “a full sense of what is being done — without judging the artists’ skill or interpretation.”
An evolving style
In some of the earliest works in the 19th century, the figures look “quite European,” Champoux says, “in their features and costuming — even including Roman togas.”
Both Nephites and Lamanites (the two main groups in the book) were light-skinned and bearded, like a realistic painting out of France at the time.
Because Book of Mormon art was brand-new back then, she says, creators were “understandably relying on European iconography.” These days, more of the figures are being depicted with a “Mesoamerican look.”
Over time, what the art historian describes as a “Latter-day Saint style” emerged.
The art that comes through official church media tends to be in an “illustrative, narrative, realistic art style,” Champoux says, which has a place in the spectrum of possibilities.
But there’s “a little bit of danger when people see scenes of scripture in a highly realistic style with the same interpretation,” the historian says. “They start to think it’s almost like a photograph, how things really happened.”
Seeing broadens believing
That’s why it is important, Champoux says, to have “a greater variety of art accessible to artists and members alike.”
It helps believers keep “an open mind about interpretations and parts of the story,” she says, and to realize “there is not only one way to read a scripture passage.”
Indeed, the curator’s hope is that seeing the breadth and depth of this collection, she says, “will help us see the scriptures in new and fruitful ways.”