The Downtrodden and the Blessed: Implicit Messages in LDS.org’s Gospel Art Collection
I love that the Church has a variety of images available to help supplement lessons. Whether it be Gospel Doctrine or Primary, I want to make sure the whole class gets to see a woman and hear her story every Sunday I teach, so these pictures of Eve, Miriam, Mary (any Mary), Ruth or Esther* feel like old friends to me.
Because of the Church’s copyrights for these pieces of art, I can’t put them in this post, but I hope you’ll take moment and look at them. (Maybe open each one in a new tab as you read this blog post.)
By having a variety of women depicted from all four sacred books of scripture, LDS.org’s Gospel Art section is making an important statement: women matter and are a part of our religious history. And, every time I check back, the overall collection grows as do the pieces that showcase women. But, when I look at this collection as a whole, I see some damaging messages being sent. One of concern is the narrow range of emotions women express in these paintings. We see women looking unsure, confused or in the depths of despair. In fact, the only times women look happy, content or confident is when they are embodying traditional gender roles.
The downtrodden appear most in the Church History section. While I appreciate that these women are shown in the trenches, they’re all unnamed. As they cross the plains and bury their dead, we see their despair. Huddled in rags with wind blowing, their eyes are usually half-closed or completely closed with expressions of pain clearly visible.
In fact, there are only two that don’t convey explicit hardship and both are of Emma. One is her portrait and the other depicts the founding of Relief Society. Her portrait shows a woman relatively peaceful and content. The founding of Relief Society painting is a rather beatific view of Joseph speaking to a group of women in the glow of morning sunlight. Emma stands, prominently placed at his side, but she’s not the focus and she looks more stoic than peaceful, holding her skirts.
These pictures are a good start. I’m glad Emma has two pictures, and though most are unnamed, it is commendable that the Church History section of art keeps expanding the collection and adding more depictions of women. But, more can be done. We have this history, we know the names of the Relief Society presidents and their stories. The Church History art section can be added to provide supplemental material to Daughters in My Kingdom. These women and their stories can be found in books like Women of Covenant and Women of Faith in the Latter-Days. Adding depictions of other women would, I think, also help counteract another problem I noticed.
The only places we see the range of women’s emotions expanded is in the New and Old Testament art collections. When women are engaged in traditional gender roles, i.e. serving a man in some way, their expressions show confidence or contentment. Rebekah confidently pours Abraham’s servant water, and Martha, after being chastised, still looks content as she stirs her bowl. The one of the only times a woman is the focus of a painting, looking serene, occurs when a pregnant Mary rides the donkey to Bethlehem with Joseph guiding the animal.
This trend continues as we look at the two depictions of Eve in the collection. First, Eve is sitting with Adam, teaching her children, and looking content in this idylic scene. But, the other picture has her watching Adam, who is praying at the alter. She looks at Adam, who is the only one actively communicating with God, and Eve looks unsure, as if she is in need of being taught how to have her own relationship with God. These pictures create a concerning juxtaposition and seem to send the message that when a woman is engaged in domestic work, she is content. But, when it comes to important religious matters, it’s best to leave the leading to the men.
We know that Rebeka, Martha, and Eve did far more than their gendered portrayals suggest. Rebekah was a valued and intelligent partner with Isaac, Martha is only one of two people in the New Testament to bravely declare that Jesus was the Son of God while he still lived, and without Eve, there would be nothing but the Garden of Eden.
Even though I am fond of this painting of Miriam and use it often in Primary, she is put in the traditional gendered role of a young girl as the faithful babysitter, watching over Baby Moses. What if we expanded the collection to include Marc Chagall’s Miriam (see right). They confidently lead this dance and the joy these women show, celebrating their safe passage through the Red Sea is an emotion I hope to see in the Gospel Art collection as it expands.
While there is copyright and acquistions to contend with, I don’t believe it would be difficult to find pieces that depict women as strong, spiritual leaders. I see it already exists in Rose Datoc Dall’s Three Days of Esther (see left). In this painting, we see Esther’s spiritual transformation from the throes of deep prayer and meditation until her final day, where she stands confidently, having made her decision on her own. This is the model I want the young women of the Church to see over and over again.
We show pivotal events of men’s spiritual growth, like Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove or Lehi and Nephi using the Liahona (I do give extra points to the artist for the thoughtful women standing in the foreground on the left). We can do the same for women. Instead of Sariah leaning on Lehi, relegated to the background or missing altogether, what would happen if we had a picture of Sariah teaching her sons as we see Joseph teaching Jesus or saw her praying as fervently as Moroni?
I imagine the LDS.org Gospel Art collection showing Ruth boldly proclaim, “Whither thou goest, I will go,” in addition to this depiction that shows hard and humbling work of she did as a gleaner. I long for depictions of women like Abish, who’s images are not readily found. By taking the time and making the effort to add depictions of women exhibiting strength and confidence, we, as a Church, can show that women and their spiritual experiences are as valued as men’s.
*Minerva Teichert’s Esther watercolor had been available on lds.org before, but I notice it now isn’t there.