Arts: Seeing beyond the Surface

Symbolic elements bring greater meaning to art.

Reverence. What does it look like? How could an artist paint or sculpt it? Though the principle of reverence is at the core of religious experience, it, like other gospel principles, is an abstract concept.

“Spiritual truths are sometimes very difficult to teach,” said Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve in 1980. “The most conclusive certification of man’s intelligence is his ability to recreate in symbolic form the world in which he lives.”

Laura Lee Stay, a Latter-day Saint artist from Provo, Utah, created a bronze statue of a woman to express the principle of reverence through symbolism. First, she identified four key aspects of reverence: humility, agency, simplicity, and purity. Then she incorporated these aspects into her sculpture. Humility and agency were represented by the woman’s covering her head while worshipping before the Lord. Purity and simplicity were communicated by the pure, simple geometry of the composition of the statue itself.

Other artists also use symbols to depict abstract concepts, spiritual ideas, and feelings, just as Sister Stay did in her sculpture, which she titled Reverence.

“Artistic symbols are visual elements such as color, composition, style, artistic medium, and subject matter,” says Richard Oman, curator at the Museum of Church History and Art. “When combined in skillful ways, visual symbols communicate profound spiritual insights. They often have layers of meaning beyond literal representation; thus artistic symbolism can open our ‘inner’ eyes to gospel insights that are difficult to see with only temporal eyes.”

The following paintings and sculpture from the Museum of Church History and Art exhibit, “Seeing with Inner Eyes: Religious Symbolism and Cultural Diversity in Contemporary Latter-day Saint Art,” show how some Latter-day Saints have used symbolism to express understanding of the gospel of Christ through art.


Reverence, cast bronze, 1987, by Laura Lee Stay

Alpha and Omega

Alpha and Omega, paint on paper, 1984, by Wulf Barsch, born in Bohemia and trained in Germany. Brother Barsch suggests the relationship of earth life to the plan of salvation in this painting. A drab, gray room symbolizes this world without the gospel’s perspective, while the window reveals a colorful vision of eternal truth. The Greek letters Alpha and Omega symbolize the Lord, the Beginning and the End. The soft arc over the letters represents the guiding influence of the Spirit. Trees are the painter’s way of symbolizing men and women. Supple palm trees represent feminine gentleness and compassion. Firm and upright cypress trees represent masculine strength and the priestly tradition. The compass represents the charting of a clear and direct path back to the presence of the Lord.

President Ezra Taft Benson

President Ezra Taft Benson, oil on canvas, 1987, by Bernadette Perez of the Philippines. Sister Perez has painted President Benson’s facial features to resemble those of many Filipinos in order to underscore his significance to them. His white suit represents the purity of his soul. The bright colors honor the prophet.

Entrance to Enlightenment

Entrance to Enlightenment, oil on board, 1988, by Johan H. Benthin of Denmark. This painting is a testimony that the light of the gospel illuminates the future and enlightens the past. Human life without the gospel is represented by the darkened room. The brightly lit space represents the future illuminated by the gospel. The open door represents baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. The light flowing back through the door into the room represents the increased understanding of the past that comes from an individual’s knowledge of the gospel.

Monday, 24 June 1844

Monday, 24 June 1844, 4:15 A.M.: Beyond the Events, oil on canvas, 1987, by Pino Drago, born in Italy and presently living in Germany. In this portrait of Joseph Smith, Brother Drago communicates some of the eternal lessons associated with the Prophet’s martyrdom. Joseph’s face is partially in shadow, partially in light, reflecting both his concern with dying and the assurance that his life is in Christ’s hands. The hand on his knee is tense, as if clinging tightly to life, while the other is relaxed as he faces the next world. The open window and the Nauvoo Temple in the background represent divine revelation and Joseph’s establishing the earthly foundation of Zion. The portrait of a nobleman contrasts the uninspired man’s limited capacity to make contributions with the Prophet’s legacy of enduring accomplishments.

Teach Me to Walk in the Light

Teach Me to Walk in the Light, watercolor, acrylic, and oil on paper, 1990, by Godofredo Orig of the Philippines. Brother Orig communicates the essential stages of the conversion process in this painting of a family, whose members grow in light as they learn about the gospel. The four stages of this family’s conversion move from the lower left to the upper right, and each stage is represented with increasing light. Temple blessings, represented by the temple on the right, are the goal of this family as they grow spiritually, preparing to be sealed eternally.

Lehi’s Dream of the Tree of Life

Lehi’s Dream of the Tree of Life, oil on canvas, 1991, by Robert Yellowhair of Snowflake, Arizona. Brother Yellowhair, a Navajo from the Zuni clan, has adapted the essential themes of Lehi’s dream of the tree of life to a Native American setting. A piñon tree, brilliant with light, symbolizes the tree of life; the pine cones are the white fruit. Father Lehi is dressed as a Hopi priest because Hopis are acknowledged among Native Americans of the Southwest as the traditional religious leaders. Sariah is depicted as Crow Mother, the first mother of the Zuni. Nephi, on his mother’s right, is depicted as the visionary Comanche chief, Quainapaker, from the early twentieth century. Sam is depicted as the great peace-loving Shoshone chief, Washakie. Laman and Lemuel stand in the background. The “great and spacious building” is a composite of all the domestic architecture of the Southwest tribes.

Latter-day Daniel

Latter-day Daniel, oil on canvas, 1990, by Nancy Glazier of Bozeman, Montana. Sister Glazier has taken from the Biblical story of Daniel in the lion’s den the elements of God’s protection and deliverance and has placed them in a modern-day setting. The mountain lions, symbolizing our trials and dangers, can be made harmless through living the gospel. The cleft in the rock suggests personal revelation from the Lord. The small rock in the cleft represents obstacles that obscure divine guidance. The gold watch suggests a kingly gift, the gold chain given to Daniel by Nebuchadnezzar. The red scarf represents the blood shed by Christ as a priceless gift for each of us.