On March 12, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced it would remove historic murals from the Salt Lake and Manti Temples as part of the renovation process, leaving many of us reeling.
Of particular concern is the erasure of the work of Minerva Teichert. Heather Belnap, BYU Associate Professor of Art History provides some context for the mural in the Manti Temple:
“In 1947, as part of the centennial celebration for the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in Utah, Minerva Teichert was asked to paint a mural for the World Room in the Manti LDS Temple. Working day and night, she finished her magnificent ‘The Pageantry of History’ mural—which spans over 4,000 square feet—in only 23 days. She was completely exhausted and elated when she finished, and reported with satisfaction, ‘I am the first woman artist to ever be given such a commission in the church.’ Her entire career was centered around the telling of what she called ‘the Great Mormon story,’ and the Manti mural is her masterpiece.”
Many people have invested much of their lives to the study and preservation of LDS art. Writer and editor Lavina Fielding Anderson, one of the “September Six” infamously excommunicated in 1993 and yet has remained a devoted attendee of the Mormon church, feels deeply wounded by the impending loss. Her husband, Paul Anderson, was an architect and dedicated much of his life to the historic preservation of classic pioneer buildings, including several temples and tabernacles. Anderson was heavily involved with the work of Nauvoo Restoration. The dedication to art, architecture and historic preservation was central to the lives of Paul and Lavina.
Dialogue board member and art editor Andi Pitcher Davis reached out to Lavina Fielding Anderson, knowing how personally this would impact her. Here is Lavina’s response:
“On Wednesday and Thursday this week, I experienced such overwhelming sadness that I was almost paralyzed. I couldn’t stop crying. I was confused, baffled. It seemed inexplicable. The anniversary of Paul’s death is coming up at the end of the month, but no particular memory had triggered this pain. When I read the First Presidency’s announcement, I understood. Paul loved the pioneer temples and devoted his best efforts and most sensitive creativity to honoring their beauty and sacrifice. There is grieving on both sides of the veil over this decision, made all the more dreadful because the justification is numbers, numbers, numbers. I’m sick at heart.
“The April 2020 issue of the Journal of Mormon History published Paul’s 2004 essay on ‘Preserving the Manti Temple.’ It includes his terrible shock when the Logan Temple was ‘remodeled,’ meaning demolished to the walls, in the late 1970s. He literally saw a bulldozer driving around inside the structure. In that context, the preservation of the Manti Temple and its continued use of the live endowment was a triumph, thanks in large part to Paul’s boss, Florence Smith Jacobsen, and the devotion of Manti’s Saints, both past and present. Since my excommunication in 1993, two different First Presidencies have rejected my appeals for reinstatement, thus forbidding my entrance to the temple. For the first time, I’m not sorry about it.”
Pitcher emphasizes the pain of losing a site specific installation, “The World Room is a three story testament to the women of Mormonism who made this desert blossom as a rose. The removal of the Teichert mural is the ripping out of the still beating heart of the Mother.”
Professor Belnap beautifully summarizes our collective pain at the loss of Teichert and others’ art: “All of these artists painted with the conviction that theirs was a holy work, and these temple murals were sacred offerings. I have spent a lot of time with these pioneer artists and their art, and they have come to feel like old friends, even family. Their art has edified me, increased my connection to my heritage, and deepened my discipleship—and I know that it has blessed the lives of countless others.”
For many of us, Minerva Teichert is an oasis in a patriarchal desert. Almost all the paintings hung in Church spaces are both male focused and male produced. I heard recently in a podcast about Teichert that she submitted art to the Church to consider as the illustrations for the Book of Mormon. One can’t help but wonder how the Church might have been influenced had her more nuanced and inclusive works been used as opposed to Arnold Friberg’s muscle bound prophets. She tried to sell them to the Church but they didn’t want them, so she ended up donating them to BYU where they are on display at the Museum of Art, thanks in part to Paul Anderson. This mural erasure feels like not just another rejection of Minerva, but of the female voice, the feminine divine, and of our right to be in holy places.