Book Review: Understanding Temple Symbols Through Scripture, History, and Art by Jack M. Lyon

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Image from Deseret Book

I love reading and reviewing books. When I write a review, I often gush if I love the book. Even if I don’t, I try to balance the review with positive and negative comments.

My review for this book is different. I’m stating up front that this is a terrible book that makes some poor and misleading arguments. It contains lots of beautiful images, but I think that there may be some copyright issues. I also should note up front that I am an art historian who is very familiar with the making and meaning of Christian art.

The central assumption of the discussion is that art, with mostly Medieval and Renaissance art as examples, uses symbols and symbolism. The temple also uses symbols and symbolism. If we understand how art uses symbols, we will better understand the temple, and art from the past hints at Mormon practices today, establishing their age and authenticity.

The author attempts some surface-level Mormon apologetics that do not withstand interrogation. The problem is that there is no basis for a connection between Medieval (c. 500-1500) and Renaissance (1400-1600) Christian art and LDS temple ceremonies (first one written in 1842). The implication is that both of these things, Christian art and temple ceremonies, are discussing the same thing, the same version of Christianity. They aren’t. LDS temples and their ceremonies are unique within Christianity. While temple ceremonies reference biblical stories, many of which are illustrated in this book, that is a very loose link connecting the non-Mormon Christian past to our Mormon present.

Art, even Christian art, is rooted in time and place.  The Parable of the Good Samaritan represented in a thirteenth century stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral (p. 22) is about representing people on journeys seeking healing. The image isn’t, as Lyon’s text suggests, about the healing offered by Jesus specifically, but the healing that medieval relics brought to pilgrims. The intended meaning behind the stained glass program at Chartres Cathedral was about medieval Catholic viewers connecting themselves to biblical imagery by drawing a visual connection between the parable and the contemporary devotional practice of pilgrimage. Medieval relics, like those at Chartres Cathedral, were believed to enable healing miracles.

This book doesn’t place works of art in their historical contexts, but flashes them at the reader to try and construct arguments that don’t hold water. In a section on “White Raiment” (pp. 33-34), Lyon quotes Cyril of Jerusalem, a fourth-century theologian. Within the quote, Lyon italicizes the word garment. This discussion is accompanied by an eighteenth century Russian painting of the Baptism of Christ, which shows angels on the banks of the river holding Christ’s white clothes. The implication is that the fourth-century Christian theologian and the eighteenth-century Russian painting are both hinting at the same thing – LDS temple garments. But Cyril’s words and the painting are both about baptism and both emerge from different times, places, and functions. Mormon garments aren’t related to baptism, Russian icons, or early Christian explanations of liturgical practices. The author has cherry picked these examples from early Christian literature (which Mormons reject) and Russian art to try and prove a very Mormon point. But there isn’t a legitimate historical, theological, or liturgical connection here.

The book is full of these sorts of combinations of works of art, snippets of commentary from pre-Mormon sources, and quotes from Joseph Smith or other LDS Church leaders. The texts and paintings are removed from their original contexts and used to support and give insight into temple activities. These connections are misleading and false. The artists and pre-Mormon authors were not somehow anticipating Mormonism in their work. That isn’t how history or decent apologetics work.

The greatest strength of the book its is its inclusion of many high-quality pictures of art. However, their use seems suspect to me. In reproducing art for publication, it is customary to identify the collection/museum to which the work of art belongs and indicate that the institution granted for publication. The captions for the images in this book do not include that information. The final page includes a few image credits, but the museums that hold these works of art would likely contest the idea that high-quality photographs of art in their collections are in the public domain, as the author claims. The image credits do not cover all images and there are photos of the Salt Lake Temple that require proper photography credits. The author uses many images without credit or permission.

If we want to understand the temple and its symbols as having a universal meaning, then we need to be able to discuss them directly. Medieval and Renaissance art are only related to Mormonism through general Christian themes, illustrations of shared biblical stories. Those works of art do not support the temple and ideas in the temple because they are not related, historically or theologically, to LDS temples. They predate LDS temples by hundreds of years and were created on different continents from where the LDS temple ceremonies emerged. The works of art shown in the book are related to their own contexts, with their own politics and religious concerns. They are Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox, but not Mormon. Only Mormon art, Mormon writing, and Mormon experiences can tell us about Mormonism. Only open and direct Mormon discourse can illuminate temple ceremonies. Let’s stop pretending otherwise.

I dislike books, like this one, that imply that there is a secret and hidden meaning to be found in the temple, and then not say what that is. And if we really can’t deal with the content of the temple directly, then we have to understand that each individual’s understanding of the ceremonies is going to be unique, that God will speak to everyone differently in those sacred spaces. It is one’s presence and experience in the temple that can create meanings, and not a universal meaning that all participants draw on. I have heard local leaders state that if you attend the temple often enough, you will come to understand that it is really about <insert your preferred interpretation here>. I wish that those leaders had communicated that their understandings were individual and not universal.

If you want to learn more about the temple and its symbolism, go through the ceremonies and figure out what they mean to you. Don’t buy this book. It’s rubbish.

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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32 Responses

  1. Ziff says:

    I love this review, Nancy. It’s a joy to see you wielding your expertise to smack down this ridiculousness!

  2. Heather says:

    I love this and I love you.

  3. Katie L says:

    Awesome review. Way to smack down the awfulness. Sounds almost hilariously bad.

  4. “high-quality photographs of art in their collections are in the public domain”
    They may well be in the public domain (depending on the jurisdiction), but the courtesy of an acknowledgement ought still be to extended.

    http://www.constitution.org/1ll/court/fed/bridgman.html

  5. Andrew R. says:

    ” then we have to understand that each individual’s understanding of the ceremonies is going to be unique, that God will speak to everyone differently in those sacred spaces”

    Amen to that.

    This book seems like a complete waste of time AND an ego trip for the author.

    The only real key to understanding the endowment is understanding that it is personal. We receive OUR endowment. We are told early in the commentary, albeit with a BY quote, that “YOUR endowment” (emphasis added).

    We covenant to sacrifice what is expected of us (individually) and hence our sacrifices are personal, and very different. We covenant to consecrate, and the expectation and reality of what is asked is also different, and personal.

    My only real though per the post is a a complete non-historian and non-art person – so please forgive.

    “The image isn’t, as Lyon’s text suggests, about the healing offered by Jesus specifically, but the healing that medieval relics brought to pilgrims. The intended meaning behind the stained glass program at Chartres Cathedral was about medieval Catholic viewers connecting themselves to biblical imagery by drawing a visual connection between the parable and the contemporary devotional practice of pilgrimage. ”

    Do we know this as a fact (ie there is documentation pertaining to the commissioning and installation of the stain glass? Or is this the excepted wisdom of Art Historians? I ask because I thought (and I am not arty) that art evokes different thoughts for different people.

    If this is what the writer gets out of the stained glass is he wrong – it if works for him? I really don’t know.

    Of course – discussing his thinking as fact is a different matter entirely.

    I don’t like books that seek to put over a concept as doctrinal. I read a book connected to the endowment – much of which was useful. However, I was put off early in the book when the writer stated that God’s domain was limited to the Milky Way galaxy. This was not the first time I had encountered this thinking.

    It isn’t doctrinal – and to some extent counters scripture. Since we can see galaxies as stars they form part of the night sky. Abraham was told that all he could see was the hand of God.

    Great care should be taken when writing any book like this, and even greater care when reading it.

    Thanks for the Review.

    • Nancy Ross says:

      The author is trying to speak for the thirteenth century artist without acknowledging or knowing about the context of the thirteenth century artist. The author doesn’t get to speak for someone he did not study and then appropriate the work of art for his own purposes. That isn’t scholarship of any sort.

      • Andrew R. says:

        I get that, and I am not trying to defend him (I don’t know him and I don’t know the book). My question is from a personal POV. If I looked at the scene in the glass and got something different from it than was meant is that any less valid – so long as it is understood it is what I get out of it, and I am not trying to force my opinion on anyone. The question was aside, to an extent, from the author interpretation and context assignment.

    • Nancy Ross says:

      That would be fine as long as you weren’t claiming to speak for the artist. It can mean whatever it means to you, but unless you do your homework, you don’t get to say what it meant in its original context.

  6. Moss says:

    I was hoping someone would review this- I don’t live anywhere near an LDS bookstore so I couldn’t browse through it. Does the author mention anything specific to a woman’s experience in the temple?

    • Nancy Ross says:

      Unfortunately, no.

    • spunky says:

      I think I have read other research on this– and not having read your book, so correct me if I am wrong: but I believe in art, the veil in Christian art symbolizes a sacred space; it is not to cover, per se, but a symbol denoting the sacred. It is used in paintings depicting the space where Christ is, or has walked, or where the subject in the painting has had a spiritual experience.

      That symbolism works for me, not in a way to pedestal women, but rather to continue the symbolism of the bride/ female symbolizing the church (not symbolizing women), and the bridegoom / male meaning Christ (not symbolizing men). Ergo, this invokes that when the spirit of Christ is present, the veil symbolizes that the church becomes a sacred space. (also why we “veil” the sacrament table as well- it becomes an ordinance table symbolizing that Christ died for the church/the bride.) maybe I am way off, but that is one of the reasons I am interested in this book- to see the author’s take on this.

      (my kids need attention and are being disruptive, but I hope this makes sense)

      • Jack M. Lyon says:

        You make perfect sense, and in fact, that is basically what I say in the book, including the meaning of the cloth covering the sacrament table. I hope you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what I’ve written.

      • spunky says:

        Thank you, I’m looking forward to reading your book.

      • Jack M. Lyon says:

        By the way, if you know where you saw that other research on the veil, I’d be very interested in seeing it. Thanks!

      • spunky says:

        I wish I could remember! I listen to BYU podcasts, including BYU speeches on iTunes, as well as the speeches given at the Kennedy Centre when I do housework (keeps me from getting grumpy). I listened to a speech by an art (or art history) professor– I presumed it was a professor at BYU, but I can’t be certain.) He discussed medieval Christian paintings and specifically addressed the use of the veil– often painted like a curtain, and in red- for a portion of the speech. It was primarily about recognizing the symbolic details professing atonement in the paintings– the man giving the presentation occasionally wept as he discussed the art. It was a mesmerizing and beautiful speech insomuch that I stopped what I was doing to sit down and google the paintings he was discussing, so I could pause and ponder.

        I regret at at the time, I presumed I would be able to easily find this speech again. No such luck. From memory, it was a speech given in the last 12-18 months, and was one of the speeches that was *not* transcribed on the BYU speeches webpage (I looked it up at the time.) This lack of transcription makes a leisurely google of BYU speeches an impossible way to locate the source. If you know someone in the art department at BYU, I think they would be able to tell you. (Then please share the link?)

        I went to the Louvre at the end of last year and sought the symbols in the romantic and medieval paintings that I could recall from that speech. I cannot fathom how to describe how much more many of the paintings meant to me as a result. It made a powerful impact that I am still processing.

      • Jack M. Lyon says:

        Spunky wrote: “He discussed medieval Christian paintings and specifically addressed the use of the veil– often painted like a curtain, and in red- for a portion of the speech.”

        He may have been referring to this photo, which is included in my book:
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agios_Eleftherios_Church,_Athens#/media/File:Panag%C3%ADa_Gorgoep%C3%ADko%C3%B6s_interior_2010.jpg
        Note that there are seven separate “stations” here, which suggests an interesting parallel to our temple veils. The same kind of markings were used anciently on both clothing and altar cloths (similar to our garments and sacrament cloths):
        http://ldstempleendowment.blogspot.com/2010/03/garments-veil-and-gammadia-markings_03.html

        “I went to the Louvre at the end of last year and sought the symbols in the romantic and medieval paintings that I could recall from that speech.”

        Wonderful! I also recommend the Cluny Museum in Paris:
        http://www.musee-moyenage.fr/

        And if you can get to Chartres (about a two-hour train ride from Paris), the cathedral there is just amazing. If Malcolm Miller is still giving tours, don’t miss his presentation:
        http://www.cathedrale-chartres.org/fr/malcolm-miller,article-254.html

      • Spunky says:

        I won’t be back to Paris anytime soon, but will be sure to add those things to my list for the next trip!

        That image is not the same one in the podcast I watched / mostly listened to (the man focuses on paintings alone- not architecture)– but I see the symbols in the architecture in the image link you’ve included.

        What are your thoughts on submitting a guest post– perhaps sometime like searching for divine female symbols in a trip to Paris? That might be too big of a request, but thought I’d ask anyway. 🙂

      • Jack M. Lyon says:

        Spunky wrote, “What are your thoughts on submitting a guest post– perhaps sometime like searching for divine female symbols in a trip to Paris?”

        I think you’d be much more qualified than I am to write such a post. And it’s something I’d love to read.

    • Moss says:

      Hi Brother Lyon! Thanks for chiming in. Does your book address any other aspects of a woman’s experience in the temple (besides the veil)? Most books I have read on the temple do not address any of the ways the temple can be challenging for women, so I applaud you for discussing the veil, but there is so much more that distinguishes a woman’s experience from a man’s in the temple. Thank you for engaging in this conversation.

      • Jack M. Lyon says:

        I do talk about our Mother in Heaven on page 80. You wrote: ” there is so much more that distinguishes a woman’s experience from a man’s in the temple.”

        I’m sure that’s true, and I’d love to hear more about this, if you’re willing to share. I’ve heard that during the initiatory ordinances, women are declared “clean” while men are told they may *become* clean. Is that true?

      • Spunky says:

        Yes. That is true for the women’s side.

      • Jack M. Lyon says:

        Spunky wrote, “Yes. That is true for the women’s side.” Wow, that’s fantastic. I wonder if that could be related to women’s wearing the veil—because they are now clean and are therefore holy, while the men are not. Compare to the experience of Moses, who wore a veil over his face after conversing with God:
        https://www.lds.org/scriptures/ot/ex/34.28-35?lang=eng
        I talk about this on page 108 of my book. Page 107 includes a wonderful early painting of a Christian woman wearing a veil during prayer (catacombs of Rome, about 199-217). And yes, I received permission from the photographer to use it. 🙂

  7. Jack M. Lyon says:

    Jack Lyon here, author of Understanding Temple Symbols, responding to some of the comments in your review of my book. You wrote: “The problem is that there is no basis for a connection between Medieval (c. 500-1500) and Renaissance (1400-1600) Christian art and LDS temple ceremonies (first one written in 1842). The implication is that both of these things, Christian art and temple ceremonies, are discussing the same thing, the same version of Christianity. They aren’t.”

    You’re coming at this from the point of view of an art historian, and from that point of view, you’re absolutely right. The endowment is not some modified form of Medieval Christianity or even, as some Mormons believe, a restoration of ceremonies from Solomon’s temple. That does not mean, however, that there are no parallels between the endowment and Medieval Christianity, for there surely are. My purpose was to show some of those parallels to help readers understand the endowment; it was not to claim that elements of Medieval Christianity somehow prove Mormonism true. As I wrote in the book’s final chapter, “If you have learned a foreign language, you have probably found that you now better understand the grammar of your native tongue. If you have visited the Lake District in England, you probably better appreciate the poetry of Wordsworth. Any time we are able to compare one thing with another, we better understand them both, so the more we know, the more we can know. Thus, this book has not directly discussed the teachings of the temple, but it has discussed scripture passages and works of art that can be *related* to the temple. I hope in doing so, it has helped you better understand the meaning of the things we learn in the Lord’s House.”

    You wrote: “The final page includes a few image credits, but the museums that hold these works of art would likely contest the idea that high-quality photographs of art in their collections are in the public domain.”

    They certainly might, but they would be wrong. In both the United States and in Europe, a photograph that is merely a reproduction of a public-domain work (such as an old painting or stained-glass window) is *not* protected by copyright. To quote the U.K.’s Intellectual Property Office (based on the opinion of the European Court of Justice), “Copyright can only subsist in subject matter that is original in the sense that it is the author’s own ‘intellectual creation’.” More information here:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Portrait_Gallery_and_Wikimedia_Foundation_copyright_dispute

    In the U.S., this issue was decided in the case of Bridgeman Art Library v. Corel Corp., in which the court ruled that exact photographic copies of public-domain images could not be protected by copyright in the United States because the copies lack originality:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bridgeman_Art_Library_v._Corel_Corp.

    To summarize, the courts have ruled that photos of public-domain works are *themselves* in the public domain. My book does include several modern photographs, all of which have proper permission from the copyright holders.

    You wrote: “If we really can’t deal with the content of the temple directly, then we have to understand that each individual’s understanding of the ceremonies is going to be unique, that God will speak to everyone differently in those sacred spaces. It is one’s presence and experience in the temple that can create meanings, and not a universal meaning that all participants draw on.”

    That is exactly right. And that is why, as you put it, my book implies “that there is a secret and hidden meaning to be found in the temple, and then [does] not say what that is.” I *can’t* say what it is, because that meaning comes by revelation to *you*; it is *your* endowment of knowledge and power. As John A. Widtsoe wrote (as included in the book): “No man can reveal to another the sublime, deep inner meaning of those symbols presented in the House of the Lord, for it is an individual manner, and every man must seek and obtain it for himself, and that alone, with God’s help only.”

    I appreciated Andrew R’s thoughful comments, but I don’t understand this one: ” I was put off early in the book when the writer stated that God’s domain was limited to the Milky Way galaxy.”

    Where in the world did I say that?! If I did, I should be gobsmacked. Maybe Andrew is thinking of some other book?

    I hope my comments here will help you understand what I was trying to accomplish with this book, however poorly I may have succeeded. To call the book “rubbish” I think misses the mark, especially when you seem not to have understood what I’ve tried to do. At least you’ve given it your attention, which I appreciate. Thanks for listening!

  8. Lynette Mills says:

    I gave this book to all five of my endowed children for Christmas. My oldest daughter read it and then let me borrow it. I just finished reading it and while putting it on good reads ran across this blog. Here is my two cents for what it’s worth … I loved thinking about my temple experience while looking at these pieces of art in the book. My thoughts went in a few new directions while contemplating what I was seeing. Doesn’t all truth fit into one complete whole? No matter the artist or time frame, truth is truth. I will look for it anywhere and everywhere and rejoice in understanding it when I find it. I attend the temple every week and sometimes find it hard to step outside my own frame of reference. I need other people and their insights to help me learn. In fact, I usually learn more about the endowment outside of the temple while I’m reading others work. Right or wrong, that’s just how it is for me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. So, thanks Jack Lyon for an insightful read and giving me a little more to ponder when it comes to the temple.

    • spunky says:

      Thank you for your comment, Lynette Mills. I’m glad your came to our blog and welcome you to come and participate more in reading the book reviews, lesson plans and thoughts of Mormon women.

    • Jack M. Lyon says:

      Lynette, many, many thanks for your post here. You’ve made my whole week with this. It means more than you’ll ever know.

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