Though primarily dedicated to written literature, Ships of Hagoth will periodically include posts on music, film, or the visual arts. This post comes from a paper I delivered at the 2010 Art Belief Meaning Symposium held at the BYU MOA. Though essentially unedited, I felt it was a good example of the LDS Interpretive Theory, as it takes into consideration the conscious and unconscious drives behind the creation and acceptance of a creative work. Further, it provides evidence that LDS authored works cannot be fully appreciated when viewed without a Mormon lens.
I should also note that though it is not directly stated in the following essay, I believe the humanist celebration of man’s physical body was so prevalent among Michelangelo’s contemporaries because their spiritual subconscious knew bodies of flesh and bone were a step toward godliness, rather than a dilapidated shack or a cage to be escaped. To borrow from the allegory of the vineyard penned by Zenos and loved by Jacob, the pure doctrine about man’s body may have been the tame branch grafted into the wild tree of the Renaissance.
Arnold Friberg’s artwork may be the most enduring, iconic and ubiquitous body of work among Latter-day Saints. His Book of Mormon paintings are currently printed several million times annually in the official missionary edition of the Book of Mormon alone (Book of Mormon Milestone). Though Friberg’s works are generally well received among Latter-day Saints, their inclusion in the Book of Mormon and other educational materials produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may lead to the assumption that they are merely one-dimensional illustrations. Under this assumption, critics have censured Friberg’s use of the hyper-masculine figure as historically unfaithful (Schlinker 25). Others claim Friberg’s heavy emphasis on the physicality of his subjects detracts from the spiritual experience of the viewer (84). Still others condemn his work as folksy kitsch (83). These viewpoints suggest Friberg’s artwork is inadequate, if not altogether unfit, for use in religious education.
Critics notwithstanding, Friberg claims his stylistic choices contain theological meaning that is sensible and edifying to the spirit (Anderson 112). While there have been efforts made to document the intent behind Friberg’s folksy, hyper-masculine aesthetic, little comparative analysis has been done to understand how this aesthetic fits into the larger tradition of religious art. This is the course I have chosen for this paper. In the course of my analysis, I will go beyond Friberg’s proclaimed intention, extrapolating possible spiritual meaning that Friberg identifies as “too subtle to talk about” (112) by situating his work in the context of LDS doctrine. I argue that the combined conscious and subconscious motives behind the creation and reception of Friberg’s “folksy” and hyper-masculine aesthetic include the belieft that Jesus Christ has a tangible and distinctly masculine physical body, and faith in the potential ascendency of man.
While Friberg is aware the prophets and saints he has painted may not have all been as muscular as his paintings suggest (Carmack 73), he claims to use the hyper-masculine physique to symbolize a great spirit (Anderson 74) and intentionally includes a “folksiness” to ensure the average man is able to identify with his heroes (Anderson 112). This intent is fitting for the rhetorical use Friberg’s religious paintings were commissioned for. Placed within the context of scriptural books, used as visual aids in religious education, and hung within buildings dedicated for worship and service, Friberg’s paintings are intended not only to instruct the mind, but also to inspire spiritual emulation. Similar to LDS Hymns which emphasis the importance of emulating Jesus Christ—including Come, Follow Me, which asks “is it enough alone to know that we must follow him below” and answers “No…if with our Lord we would be heirs”—Friberg’s paintings reflect the LDS belief in a man capable of becoming like God:
This comes from Mormon doctrine. The essence of it that any man who applies himself can reach the [greatest] height within the priesthood… It’s only natural that this feeling should be echoed in my paintings (Anderson 112).
In portraying scriptural people as quotidian demigods, Friberg attempts to bridge the dichotomy between what his viewer is now and may become in the eternities. The artist’s unique aesthetic is therefore an expression of his belief in the LDS doctrine of a theomorphic man.
This is evident in Ammon Defends the Flocks of King Lamoni (fig. 1), where the prophet-missionary appears at once prosaic and epic in proportion. Though Ammon is certainly very large in stature—having the physical presence of a professional body-builder—his ruddy complexion, matted hair, weathered face, and worn clothing are marks of a common laborer. According to Friberg, “the average person feels that he is somehow like this man…the heroic person is no longer separated from the average person” (Anderson 112). Whether or not Friberg accurately apprehends the response of his audience, he believes this kinship with Ammon’s heroic, godly spirit is fostered by the folksy hyper-masculine aesthetic of the painting, and is “what gives [his art] its great appeal” (112).
Michelangelo—whom Friberg names as a major influence—also used a hyper-masculine aesthetic, and perhaps with similar intentions. Ironically, this can be demonstrated best in the female sibyls incorporated in his Sistine Chapel frescos—which were intended, like Friberg’s paintings, to accompany religious instruction and worship (fig. 2). These women were “more masculine than feminine” as a result of being drawn from male anatomical studies, and appear more muscular than the Israelite prophets they neighbor on the ceiling (Even 29). The sibyls were likely given heroic, hyper-masculine frames to elevate them to the stature of the prophets they neighbor in the Chapel (29), but it may also appear to establish an air of superiority. Like Friberg’s subjects, Michelangelo’s were probably not as herculean as they’ve been painted, but Michelangelo “doesn’t allow his interest in historic characters to become a sort of dead antiquarianism,” says Friberg (Anderson 110).
As Catholocism does not consider man as an embryonic god, it would not have provided Michelangelo with such a doctrinal impetus, but the painter may still have used hyper-masculinity to express the divinity he saw in some persons. In a poem about his friend, the famed poetess Vittoria Colonna, Michelangelo wrote that, “a man within a woman, or rather a god speaks through her mouth” (Furey 10). If Michelangelo blurred the lines dividing men, women, and gods to describe Colonna’s divine soul, it is certainly possible he attempted to communicate the same idea in painting his Sistine sibyls.
It is also noteworthy that these sibyls are not entirely idealized. The Cumaean Sibyl—who is not merely heroic but colossally masculine—also bears a heavily wrinkled face, a deeply furrowed brow, and a sharp, hooked nose (fig. 3). As with Friberg’s paintings, tempering the colossal with the prosaic may have been intended to inspire spiritual emulation in an ascent towards the divine.
In contrast, Michelangelo’s monumental David (fig. 4) bears little in common with Friberg’s Ammon despite their similar subjects. Both artists present larger-than-life shepherd-heroes who are poised for an impending, formidable combat. Likewise the scriptures they each illustrate emphasize their protagonist’s dependency on God (see: Alma 17:35 and 1 Samual 17:37). Michelangelo’s David, however, has been completely removed from the real world: he is poised to face a giant wearing nothing but a sling, his skin and hair are immaculate and pure-white, and his mathematically calculated form represents unnatural precision. A reflection of Classical humanism, Michelangelo’s David is a Greek god, not an Israelite man.
Placed within its historical context, Michelangelo’s David is first and foremost a political symbol that associates with the biblical narrative only insofar as political exigency would permit (Levine 34). Intended “as a commemoration of the new post-Medicean Florentine constitution which had been adopted shortly before its commission,” it was placed in front of the Palazzo Vecchio as “a symbol of the government housed therein” rather than at Florence’s cathedral (35). Had the David been placed within a religious context of the cathedral, it would have become “submerged in the historical and biblical iconographic traditions” thereof (Levine 35). Created to symbolize the Florentine ruling body of the era, the intended response was civic pride and reverence towards those who governed; emulation of the god-fearing, revolutionary David of the Old Testament would have been discouraged as the fear of men—the Medici, to be precise—was emphatically encouraged by the giant sculpture. The David, though undoubtedly a stunning masterpiece, bears little resemblance to the aesthetic of either Friberg’s Ammon or Michelangelo’s sibyls as it has been created to communicate something radically different.
Not only did Friberg use hyper-masculinity to express man’s potential godhood, he has used it to convey God’s manhood; or, to emphasize the LDS belief in the corporeal and masculine body of an anthropomorphic deity. Since the time of Joseph Smith, LDS theological statements claim, “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man” (Smith 345, emphasis added), has a body of “flesh and bones” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:22) and is accurately called Father in contrast to a Heavenly Mother (Woodruff 62). Friberg’s muscular depictions of the Savior also reflect the emphasis LDS Church authorities placed on the connection between gender, physical strength, and godliness in publications circulated while Friberg was growing up. Levi Edgar Young, then president of the first quorum of the seventy, was among those who “promoted [an] ideal physical condition as a significant trait of exemplary manhood,” and affirmed, “the perfect body was a part of Christ’s glory” (Carmack 36).
As a result, Friberg’s The Risen Lord (fig. 5) presents a resurrected Christ who doesn’t remotely resemble that of the gothic period. James Christensen observes, “art went through a gothic period where people had to be emaciated because to celebrate the human body was blasphemous” (Christensen 15). This trend may be the result of a belief in an immaterial God—a concept forged in the Nicean creed and developed by St. Augustine—which “accepts the Platonic idea that spirit essence is the purest manifestation of reality and that matter is the most corrupt; God must therefore be an immaterial being” and “cannot be associated with anything material” (Nelson 84). Augustine not only accepts this belief in an immaterial God, he views the Platonist rejection of the physical world as a primary evidence of their superiority over other philosophers (Augustine 307).
As a result, while Friberg’s LDS conception of Christ lead him to paint broad shoulders, a deep chest, large biceps, and above average height, Catholic art in the middle ages (which began shortly after Augustine’s prolific career in the clergy) refused such symbols of material vigor and masculine virility. Giovanni Bellini’s Le Christ Benissant from the late 1400′s presents the risen Lord as pale, frail, and still bloodied from the cross (fig. 6). It appears as if Bellini imagined an immaterial deity had merely rejoined the strings of a material marionette for a brief encore, only to be discarded once more as a corrupt imitation. Similar works, commissioned as altarpieces, feature the resurrected Christ with a perpetually bleeding wound and emaciated frame. “Squirting blood from wounds… Christ fills cups for his followers” (fig. 7), or extracts Eucharist wafers from his side to feed them (fig. 8)(Bynum 427).
These zombie-like depictions of the resurrected Messiah are likely to disturb those who believe in a material God, and may even be seen as a grotesque objectification of a sacred body.
In addition to stripping Christ’s body of materiality, medieval writers and artists were apt to paint an androgynous Christ. According to Dr. C.W. Bynum, medieval “theologians and natural philosophers assumed considerable mixing of the genders,” so the artistic culture immersed in their influence followed suit (Bynum 435). The effeminate form given Christ (before and after His resurrection) has been widely recognized, but Bynum claims this androgyny was both symbolic and intentional. Medieval devotional texts often refer to “Christ our mother” while devotional images depict believers drinking Christ’s blood which has come from a wound placed near where a female breast would lactate “just as Mary feeds her baby” (427). The Triptych of Antonius Tsgrooten (fig. 9) poses Christ and Mary so that their hands point to their respective bared chests and also to one another.
By the time Michelangelo began his Sistine Chapel frescos, however, Christ’s clearly gendered, physical body began to resemble ideals espoused by Latter-day Saint theology. Michelangelo’s depiction of deity, like Friberg’s, also feature weighty bodies free from any hint of immateriality. Though He floats above Adam in the air, Michelangelo’s God rests his heavy, material frame in the straining arms of several angels. Likewise, the Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment(fig. 10) is “intensely physical” (Dixon 524). Unlike Friberg, who had theological backing for his paintings of Christ, Michelangelo’s choice was more likely linked to the influence of classical antiquity, which was characteristic of the Renaissance.
That Michelangelo has been strongly influenced by the art of ancient Greece and Rome when depicting Jesus in the Last Judgment has led many observers to speak of the figure as though it were Apollo (Dixon 522). Since there was no orthodox religious doctrine held by the Catholic Church that would support any literal reading of Michelangelo’s hyper-physical Christ, it is reasonable to assume his work was accepted as symbolically representing the strength of the Great Judge’s immutable spirit.
The LDS Church abruptly discontinued the promotion and use of Friberg’s The Risen Lord in official LDS publications, but this is not likely the result of any theological incompatibility with the work. Utah State University professor Noel A. Carmack suggests the Church’s decision marks an intentional move towards “consecrated manliness” (Carmack 41), which turns the focus from the heroic physical body depicted in Friberg’s painting to the service and interaction offered from Christ to those around Him. Still, The Risen Lord was among the forerunners of the characteristically deep chested and broad shouldered Christ depicted in art currently used by the Church. Friberg’s Christ would easily fit in the robes painted by Simon Dewey in He Lives (fig. 11), for example.
Those who criticize Friberg’s work for its hyper-masculinity, claiming it was produced “without an awareness or consciousness of the great artistic compositional or aesthetic sense,” (Schlinker 68) seem to be unaware of Michelangelo’s use of the same style, and those who give the same critique on the basis of Friberg’s folksiness may not appreciate the potential—and partially intentional—impact Friberg’s aesthetic offers an LDS audience. But as Friberg’s work has been submerged in so many childhood Sunday school lessons and mass-produced to such ubiquity within the pages of the Book of Mormon, it’s not surprising when his technique is taken at face value. If the veil of familiarity can be lifted, I believe Friberg’s folksy hyper-masculine aesthetic shines an earnest and potentially powerful expression of faith and LDS doctrine.
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