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Defense Against the Dark Arts (Or, why Harry Potter and Carl Bloch should not make temple art)

June 23, 2013

Background detail from Bloch's Pool of Bethesda.

Background detail from Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda.

Let me preface all statements in this post by saying my intention is not to murmur. I believe true sustaining of leaders means contemplating, praying, sometimes struggling, and sometimes voicing an honest opinion; and I guarantee, the feelings outlined in this article are felt by many faithful artists.


A friend recently made a comment in a church meeting comparing the dark experience of European cathedrals with the light experience of LDS temple worship. I’m sure he didn’t state it even close to the way I heard it, which was ‘light art by our people, good; dark art by other people, bad.’ This is particularly painful to me, because I aspire to create works of art as moving as those by Bastien-Lepage, Georges de la Tour, Rouault, and countless others whose works draw pilgrims from all over the world precisely because they are so moving.

Foreground detail from Bloch's Pool of Bethesda.

Foreground detail from Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda.


The Church is making an effort to put more original art in temples. That’s super exciting! I’m in love with this idea. As an artist who has repeatedly promised to consecrate my talents to the Church, this seems like an ideal opportunity to exercise those promises. I have, in fact, received several letters, emails, and phone calls inviting me to participate in this effort. “If we could,” they say, “we’d have Carl Bloch paint all of the art in the temples.” My heart beats faster and I imagine the possibilities. And then I hear the details. Apart from the fact that all images made for temples are restricted from being reproduced and offered to a wider audience, there are a number of artistic requirements that make my blood boil, and partly because they would disqualify even the great Carl Bloch. Let me outline three of those requirements here:

Foreground detail from Bloch's Pool of Bethesda.

Foreground detail from Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda.


This means no loose or washy backgrounds, no simplification of form, no reducing to principle or symbol. When I was contemplating submitting a proposal for a temple painting, a hero of mine and temple art veteran assured me “you’ll have to overpaint and noodle the life out of it.” Okay. Maybe those were the words I heard and not the words he said. But pretty close. Now take a look at the three details from Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda. Amazing how abstracted and simplified they are. I bet most of us hadn’t even noticed the guy on his hand shoes in the lower left corner of the painting. And it’s pretty bold of Carl Bloch to leave the man under the blanket so underfinished. Bold and moving, precisely because it heightens the tension between sickness and health, between light and dark.


First of all, why would an artist do this? Let me just give a few quick thoughts. Silhouetting Christ in shadow brings a feeling of reverence, much like not showing His face in the movie Ben Hur shows reverence. Depicting Christ in shadow is a compositional device used by artists to take away distracting details and heighten the importance and drama of the scene. It also allows light to emanate around Him. It doesn’t mean He’s evil, or the source of darkness. Surely He who descended below all things and experienced the greatest emotional and physical darkness might be depicted in the shadow, representing His connection to all mankind by virtue of His suffering and atonement. One of my favorite pieces from the recent BYU Museum of Art show of Carl Bloch’s work was his Daughter of Jairus. Notice how Christ is depicted mostly in shadow, and how this allows the light to emanate from around him.

Carl Bloch's Daughter of Jairus

Carl Bloch’s Daughter of Jairus

Now take a look at this Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt, not to mention this popular painting of Christ walking on the water. Perhaps the former example might come off a bit spooky in the estimation of some, but the device itself is strikingly gorgeous:



In other words, the person must be healed and happy–not anticipating the healing. The storm must have completely passed. The following reasoning was explained to me (by a dear friend, I might add, and champion of my work:) ‘People come to the temple to seek peace. Often they are going through some struggle in their life, and so we want the art in the temple to bring them peace.’ My concern with this idea is it disqualifies any atonement painting, not to mention two of our favorites, Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda and his Daughter of Jairus. Note particularly in these two paintings, how the tension, the anticipation of being healed, is what makes the paintings so powerful. If, as my friend suggested, we come to the temple to seek peace and healing, won’t we relate to artwork that explores the anticipation of peace and healing rather than work that barely acknowledges any suffering? Think of the symbols in the endowment. The ones that move me the most refer specifically to Christ’s suffering. I am moved to hope by pieces when I look at them and say “I’m trying to get to Christ. I’m in need of healing. That’s me in that painting.”

According to Mormon teachings, our spiritual journey is one of experience, opposition, and learning. Indeed, if we’re meant to grapple with problems of eternal and universal scope and learn to be as God is, why would we want to reduce everything to a nice, happy, light package? Because of my title (which was really just a writing device to get your attention) I feel slightly duty-bound to mention Harry Potter here. Those stories are dark and full of tension, and yet they effectively communicate the idea of grappling with problems of good and evil. No story, least of all the story of the great plan of salvation, can be adequately addressed by only depicting the end of act three. All of the standard works, including the Book of Mormon, are packed with conflict from page 1 all the way to Moroni’s promise.

Carl Bloch's Pool of Bethesda

Carl Bloch’s Pool of Bethesda

Okay, okay, okay. So you ask, but is the temple the right place? We don’t want the art to distract from the thing of real importance–the individual spiritual experience. And I agree. I went to the Nauvoo temple, and was quite distracted by the murals because they were painted by six heroes of mine. I couldn’t focus on anything else, I was so enamored with those murals. The flip side of that is, I get distracted by bland and mediocre paintings in temples as well. If I have to be distracted, please make it an excellent distraction!

Now you know what a state I’m in. Please forgive me if I have offended in any way. My hope is simply to get everyone to think more analytically about art, and perhaps to see things they haven’t seen before. As for Harry Potter and Carl Bloch, there may be more appropriate places for them aside from the temple. Perhaps the BYU Bookstore.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. Alice Hemming permalink
    June 23, 2013 9:23 pm

    Right on, Kirk. We tried to buy an original painting by Julie Rogers from her exhibit at the DC Temple Visitors’ Center to donate to the DC Temple. It was a beautiful painting filled with light of the young Christ in the Temple. We were unable to do it because it would have entailed shipping it back to SL so that it could be approved by two art committees before it could be shipped back to DC for hanging. It would have taken months. In the meantime, a member of the Temple Presidency bought it. Hence, no original art – just giclees of “same old, same old.” We were very sad. Keep beating the drum. Alice & Val

    • June 23, 2013 9:52 pm

      Perhaps, part of the challenge to “consecrate” is to know and feel and understand all that and then to submit joyously, anyhow…there are layers of development still to unfold on both sides of this, I think. Thanks for the discussion.

  2. Maren permalink
    June 23, 2013 9:41 pm

    Very well said, Kirk. I think the thing we have to remember is that the committee of people who wrote the “rules” about temple artwork were not speaking doctrine. Even if the policies were put in place under the direction of those whom we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators, it still doesn’t mean they are stating gospel doctrine. Like Pres. Benson taught in his landmark talk, Fourteen Fundamentals of Following the Prophet, prophets are allowed to have opinions and personal preferences about matters not relating to our eternal salvation (but still potentially affecting the church as a whole) that we are not required to agree with in order to sustain them. For example, Pres. Kimball encouraged everyone to tear down old barns and dilapidated buildings – he really didn’t care about the historical significance of any buildings, including Brigham Young Academy, which makes me crazy. He also didn’t think that the church should spend large amounts of money on things to make the temples more beautiful – he was very austere in his tastes. Hence you have the Provo temple (among others) that is very utilitarian and functional, but not particularly beautiful (although improvements have been made since it was originally built). I personally don’t think he would have approved of the design of, say, the San Diego Temple. Or especially of the Nauvoo Temple and the great expense that the church went to to create an authentic re-creation of a 19th century temple. So while there may be those currently directing the production of temple artwork who can’t see the beauty in shadows or who don’t understand how abstraction of some details can help highlight more important elements, they don’t speak for the general membership of the church – at least not for me. One of my favorite paintings of all time is Walter Rane’s painting of Christ healing a blind man. It certainly breaks all of the temple artwork rules. But I will take any of Walter Rane’s or of Kirk Richards’ paintings over a Greg Olsen, Del Parson, or whoever any day. Anyway, for what it’s worth – my two cents. 🙂

  3. Carole Smith permalink
    June 23, 2013 9:57 pm

    Hurrah for speaking up, Kirk! I couldn’t agree with you more–and would dearly love to see your art in our temples. Thank you for sharing your artist’s insights. You ARE making a difference and hopefully one day we will see (literally) your impact. I concur with Maren’s comments above. Amen and Amen!

  4. June 23, 2013 10:31 pm

    I was in the Sacramento Temple last week with some RMs who served in the Congo. One of them, a J. Kirk Richards fan from Zambia, said excitedly to me that there was a Richard’s painting in the temple. He led me to it. It was Minerva Teichert, Still lovely. In the Provo Temple on Saturday, I was in the youth center and saw a gorgeous impressionistic painting of two children, one black and one white, with the Savior’s hands reaching to them. No face for Jesus, just the hands.
    I look forward to some J. Kirk Richards paintings in some future temple, and maybe some impressionistic Chiloba Chirwa work in the Kinshasa Temple. African artists for African temples.

    • June 23, 2013 11:10 pm

      I completely agree. I liked the over-lit church art until I majored in art history. I find so much symbolism and experience in the art of the past. I love the juxtaposition of light and dark, and how it directs you towards the light of Christ.

      One of the things I love most about your art is that you leave Christ’s face blank; for me, that suggests the sacredness of the Savior. I’d rather not invent a face for Him.

      Maybe the guidelines should be updated? Hopefully this discussion will bring good ideas to the Church.

  5. June 23, 2013 11:10 pm

    Love your post, Kirk. I think maybe what was said in the three criteria for temple art should have been said 1. Only representational art, please 2. Depict Christ in a light way 3. Don’t show too much suffering. They have Minerva Tiechert all over my temple and I think she is very abstract and loose. Some of her paintings look like an ebauche. I think maybe the Church has a criteria to politely say, “thanks, but no thanks” to artists whose work is, not so good. (Probably my work since I can’t even get in the Springville or the International Church Art Competition.)

    In the temple art committee’s defense, one of my favorite paintings of yours (there are many) is “Grey Day Golgotha”, but I don’t think it would be an appropriate painting for the temple. “The Breath of Life” on the other hand would be an excellent painting for the temple except I’m going to buy it and put it in my entry hall so everyone who comes over can see how cool I am to have such an awesome J. Kirk Richards painting in my home.

  6. June 23, 2013 11:21 pm

    I found your observations fascinating. As an artist myself, I often struggle to find the balance between what I find beautiful and inspiring and what my customer wants from me. In this life, we live in a constant state of opposition: Good and evil, joy and sorrow, darkness and light. I also believe it is a gift to be able to see the beauty in the struggle between these opposites.

    If I had to posit a guess as to why the rules for the art that is displayed in the temple are so exact, it would be this: The temple, more than any place on earth, attempts to provide us with a glimpse of the divine potential in each of us which is to overcome life’s oppositions through the Atonement of Christ and to dwell with Him and our Father where there will be no evil, sorrow or darkness, figuratively and literally. “And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof.” Rev. 21:23. I believe that it is the intent of those who make the decisions about the art that appears in the temple to portray this eventual triumph and not because they cannot see the beauty in the interplay of light and darkness.

    In our small way as mortals, we sing – and paint! – the praises of our Lord as best we can with what this existence provides us. I can’t help but wonder how we will praise Him when “those things which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor yet entered into the heart of man” are made available to us.

  7. June 23, 2013 11:25 pm

    I feel you on this, Kirk. A similar situation occurs in musical selections. for example, minor key = bad and major key = good, rhythmic diversity = irreverent, etc. What bothers me most is that music derived in even the smallest from a tradition outside of white Western European suburbia = “of the world” and off limits for sacred settings.

    I hope you can keep a productive conversation going with those who ask you to create for temples. They need to hear your faith, passion and expert opinion.

    A respected Mormon musician who has helped widen LDS ears has the words “Let excellence be your protest” sticky noted above his keyboard. I like this. I think you are also on this path and it will serve you and the Church well.

  8. June 24, 2013 12:52 am

    One of my absolute favorite pieces of yours is “Daughter of Jairus.” I love the interplay of light and dark, and the dripping, which for me symbolizes Christ’s suffering and his ultimate mercy. Years ago you told me about the tumult this dark rendition caused at BYU so I know your thoughts run deep on the subject, and your point is well taken. I very much like Dan Reyes’ comment, “The temple, more than any place on earth, attempts to provide us with a glimpse of the divine potential . . . where there will be no evil, sorrow or darkness, figuratively and literally.”

    Kirk, I have felt the Spirit speak to me through your art in a way that resonates on the same level as any art that has inspired me inside temples. Perhaps your gift is to move people to the temple, rather than reward them for arriving.

    • Dana Wood permalink
      June 24, 2013 8:24 am

      Well said, Kirk. I really enjoyed talking to you in person about this very subject in MA last month. Just paraphrasing here, but I liked how you explained that it is the anticipation that builds, the faith and hope that grows when we know Christ is near. The belief that Christ is about to emerge and clear away all darkness is what I find most comforting Before the “resolve” there is always tension and that is where I think most of find ourselves (more often than not) on a daily basis.

  9. adele66 permalink
    June 24, 2013 2:04 am

    I just couldn’t agree with you more!

  10. June 24, 2013 2:43 am

    I love your painting of Christ among the Lepers in our chapel and only wish all those who attend Temples could see its like.

  11. sevensen permalink
    June 24, 2013 8:03 am

    YES! About resolving tension, I understand that many attend the temple so that they can find peace and hope amidst their lives of tension and unresolve. Having experienced the same, I sympathize with that. But alternatively I worry that by only promoting art that is void of tension and opposition we are creating a culture that detrimentally influences religious belief. If our culture removes opposition from our most sacred places of religious worship I fear it unintentionally communicates that opposition and tension are not sacred, not of God, unholy, unbelieving, etc. I worry when I see some who feel ashamed of their mourning the loss of a loved one or feel faithless when they struggle with a challenge that is legitimately painful and difficult. Among some there is a (in my view, misguided) impulse to emotionally suppress fear or pain or frustration when I believe a fundamental part of our mortal experience is to embrace the bitter and the sweet, to experience them, like Christ, “according to the flesh” to grow our souls toward compassion and faith and love. Getting back to the art, I think our culture, and especially visual art, can be a vehicle for us to find faith in the face of dissonance in our lives, but it certainly won’t do it by denying that dissonance. Dissonance, tension, opposition, unresolved hopes…this is the substance of much of my life and I believe our religion helps us find hope and faith in the midst of it, not by disregarding or denying or sugarcoating it. I believe fiercely that our art–especially religious art–should embody that experience.

    Also, about great art being distracting, I love that! I love when art can wake me up and cause me to probe. That’s a fundamental reason I make art and spend so much time looking at it. Maybe I’m a little fringe in this belief, but I think that experience is great in the temple, otherwise the art is not much more than wallpaper, as another commenter wrote. And maybe great wallpaper is okay too and serves a useful purpose. But my personal interest is in art that distracts. For me great expression through art always leads to compassion for others and a deeper reverence for the Supreme Creator.

    And about abstraction, with so much abstraction and complex symbolism already in LDS temple liturgy, I’m a little baffled that anyone would think that abstraction would seem out of place there.

  12. June 24, 2013 8:44 am

    I agree with all your insights about the power and necessity of opposition in art. I think your paintings show that you understand how to communicate spiritual themes on the most expert levels, and you know that I think your paintings are terrific.

    Some insights I have, just 6 months into this crazy temple art process (currently wrapping up a temple mural and having submitted proposals for several more):

    I’ve discovered that a lot of what I was told are “rules” to submitting art for temple approval, are actually other people’s (sometimes members of various layers of the committees) perception of what gets approved and what doesn’t; not rules at all.

    In terms of abstraction, when I submitted a 1″ to 1′ scale proposal, of course I had to try to tighten up my proposal. If I painted it as loose as I normally would, then enlarged it, well….I guess 144 times (math was never my strong suit), it would be a Jackson Pollack! After the first round of evaluation, my paintings are being judged by interior designers, physical facilities leadership, and general authorities; not artists or arts experts. My work really does have to communicate to the masses, the unschooled in art. Having said that, When I’m depicting a shrub from the Everglades, that was painted in the proposal as 4″ high and is now 144x bigger, I certainly do use tons of abstraction. I also plan to tighten up in very few key areas so that the abstraction implies a level of finish that would be mind numbing if actually executed (not to mention take me about 2 years rather than 6 months, and 4x the money, to execute). Now to be fair, I haven’t had final approval of my mural and they may hate it, but they’ve liked what I’ve done so far. I hope that the most important thing for my clients is the impact when they walk in the room. With their noses pressed against the painting it’s going to be VERY abstract.

    I do try to keep the proposals lighter than I normally would, because I’m painting for a client. When I’m painting for myself, I do whatever I feel like. But I find a significant amount of overlap between what they want and what I want. I’ve also found that when I break certain “rules” that I’ve heard, no one cares. What they seem to care about is how good and powerful the proposal is, or maybe to put it more accurately, how effectively it communicates to the masses. More difficult paintings are a stretch for this process, but effective communication to as many people as possible was the driving force of much Renaissance art. I, myself, like more subtlety and nuance, but I have a master’s degree in art. I’m not the primary client.

    “Christ in shadow” and “tension resolved”: I don’t know what to tell you about that. I painted a tree in my proposal that had spooky tendrils hanging down, ala Scoobie Doo. They didn’t reject that! Seriously. My advice is to paint the best paintings you can and submit them to the committee. Let that be your offering, even if they’re all rejected; like the poor saying “if I had, I would give.” I’d meet the committee half way and submit your more narrative work. I imagine Deseret Book has the same requests? I still say that the church will end up owning them all in 100 years anyway. Why not start now!?

  13. June 24, 2013 7:56 pm

    Hey Kirk, great thoughts. I think I agree with Brad. I felt like the ‘advice’ was to increase acceptance of the work based on the experience of what has gone before. I had an interesting experience years ago when I helped concept the visitors center at Temple Square (north building, downstairs). We were told no mannequins. It was a leftover from some remark made about an old display that was once in the south visitors center. We challenged that statement, showed the committees that it could work when done properly, and voila, mannequins are put in and they looked great. My problem comes with some of the other aspects of the process, like working on spec, but again, I demure, this isn’t done for money but for love and sacrifice. In the end, you do the work you feel good about, what inspires you and what you pray will inspire others, and if so-and-so doesn’t like it because you used too much red or they have an aversion to chiaroscuro lighting, ah well, find another place and hope for a different outcome later.
    ps. Good conversation

  14. Moss permalink
    June 30, 2013 3:59 pm

    It seems like an odd request to say “no abstraction” in the temple, where EVERYTHING is symbolic.

  15. Angela permalink
    July 9, 2013 11:12 am

    When a person struggles in her everyday life, it is often helpful if she seeks out friends that can commiserate with her. Not people who will give her advice, mind you, or go on about how blissfully happy they are. Nope. When a person struggles in everyday life, it is helpful to see people that people understand us–to know that we are not alone.

    I really think this is one reason facebook has been proven to depress people. It is hard not to feel as if there is something wrong with your own life when you log onto facebook and see everyone wearing a permanent smile–when you see pictures of happy, perfect families, hear friends and family tout only their accomplishment. It can be depressing to think that the world actually is all buttercups and roses for every. single. other. person.

    So, anyway, I guess what I am saying is that it may seem like conventional wisdom to think light, cheerful, conflict-less paintings would cheer someone up when she (or he) is going through a hard time, but I think it more likely has the opposite effect. I mean, it sets a standard of what is “normal,” and has the potential to make real people with real struggles feel as if there’s something wrong with them.

  16. July 13, 2013 9:23 am

    Ditto to Christopher Thornock’s comments.
    In theory, I agree, but I also realize that they’re probably nervous about giving a bunch of people free range to decorate the temple without some specific criteria. This sounds like a list that was better in someone’s head than in practice. If you paint something of similar potency to the Pool of Bethesda, I doubt anyone would complain, even though it does violate most of the list. Alternatively, why don’t you give this pitch to them instead of us (who can do nothing about it anyway)? Your principles and logic are sound and, as is obvious from the popularity of the pieces, you’ve pinpointed the popular opinion as well.
    Anyway, enjoyed the read! Thanks.

  17. Josh permalink
    August 14, 2013 1:01 pm

    I believe the church is correct.

    The world room is for conflict, shadows…animals fighting and such. This is what the world is for.

    As you rise up to the celestial you leave the world behind…the shadows leave, the conflict is over, justice has been satisfied. The atonement is finished. We are one with Christ. There is peace and light and love. It is like nothing on this earth. I don’t think Carl Bloch, of for that matter any other painter would feel worthy to paint anything at this point.

    I think the temple, even outside of the celestial room, is meant to have a celestial feeling, free of conflict. There is no contrast or conflict in things that are celestial. There is no need for dramatic atonement pictures. That is finished. Drama is finished. What will happen to the arts? They will change.

    Remember that the Christ of the temple or the resurrected Christ is not affected by light and shadow. He is the light. Or, the light source. He can no longer be in shadow.

    I think your criticism is fine. I am also an artist, but, I have a different view. I agree with the Church. And, I believe that in the end the church will be correct, especially in dealing with temples.

  18. October 5, 2013 3:37 pm

    Sorry if this is a repeat, I seem to be having trouble getting this comment to post. I originally intended to share this:

    “Thanks for this post, Kirk. It highlights something that I experienced over the summer. I was putting my line out for freelance work and submitted my stuff to an LDS publisher. The kind art director that responded gave me some good constructive advice about my techniques, and also intimated to me that my work is too dark to be used much. I can see that some of my more somber illustrative expressions are definitely along the lines of expressing more of the trials and sober moments of gospel living. But that’s exactly because life is a struggle and Christ meets us in the storm. I once created a persecution piece of Joseph about to be tarred and feathered. I felt prompted to create it—in part to show Joseph’s continuing resolve and testimony and in part, I think, to help me deal with my own fears of persecution. In the end, for having created it I can’t watch depictions of that moment in Joseph Smith’s life without being more touched for having dwelt there with him somehow (metaphorically) through the creative process.”

    But I also feel to share this: regarding consecration, I think any artist expressing the spiritual truths we hold dear in whatever medium—and perhaps in most of the possible subject matters he or she feels guided to use—can validly contribute to the building up of God’s kingdom upon the earth. Sometimes I make silly stuff with my kids just for them and share it on my blog. That shows I (and thus the general “we” of the church) value family. Sometimes I feel like doing fan art for something that’s touched me and it may on the surface seem to have nothing to do with the restored gospel. But in actuality, creating something beautiful is a wonderful way to celebrate life and inspire others to acknowledge the beauty of creation and life. I once interviewed Del Parson over the phone when I started my blog. He spoke a salient truth about things that a religious artist does that are along these lines:

    “I think there’s a lot of paintings that don’t necessarily have to be that overt, you know, but that are just kind of… very religious paintings that have nothing to do with a particular subject matter. They’re just painted in a very religious, wonderful way.”

    So I suppose what I’m trying to express is just that there are a ton of ways to build the Lord’s church through art, whether or not one’s art is vetted as temple-worthy.

  19. October 25, 2014 1:14 am

    FANTASTIC. The end.

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