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