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Canonization of Image: An Illustration

By: Ardis E. Parshall - March 13, 2009

john f posted on the Canonization of Kitsch earlier this week, discussing “the way Mormon art invents, and then canonizes, certain images” – in the case of that post, the repetition of elements of Arnold Friberg’s Book of Mormon illustrations in more recent depictions.

While I have little to offer about the how and why such apparent canonization occurs, I can offer an illustration showing how quickly it happens:

The same morning john f posted about canonization, I posted some paintings by C.C.A. Christensen illustrating George Reynolds’s stories on lessons from the life of Nephi in the 1891 Juvenile Instructor.

The same year those images appeared in the magazine, Susa Young Gates prepared a “dialogue” or short play for the teenage girls in her Sunday School class to perform. I can’t overemphasize how seriously she took this assignment:

Believing that “The Book of Mormon is as little read and understood by our young people as if it were printed in a strange language,” [1] she wanted to “create a vivid interest in that divine work” by dramatizing a scene from the Book of Mormon.

She wanted to stay true to scripture, using “as nearly as possible the exact [words] represented in the sacred history. And while “there were one or two characters introduced,” she insisted that “a careful comparison of the … dialogue and the story as abridged by Mormon will prove that I have taken the smallest liberty possible with the sacred context.”

No horseplay among her girls was allowed during the production of their play. “I was present at every rehearsal and enforced a quiet and dignified spirit, allowing nothing to be said or done which would turn our efforts into ridicule. We were dealing with a sacred theme, and each one was instructed to strive for the blessing of success and peace upon our efforts.”

Susa’s concern for reverence in connection with this dialogue is so great that she has an actress break character in the midst of the action and turn to address the audience: “We ask these, our brothers and sisters and friends who are here to witness our efforts, that they will listen kindly to us, and not laugh or make fun of us if we do not succeed very well, for we are only girls and this is our first effort.” [2]

So, you see that Susa had every intention of treating this presentation as a sacred offering: The text was scriptural, the characters as much as possible were drawn from scripture, the cast prepared it in reverence, the audience was asked to receive it in the same spirit.

And the costumes? Well, they were to represent ancient Lamanite dress as literally as possible, too – to be as scripturally accurate as everything else. In describing the play’s staging, Susa reports how this was done:

Rose remains on the stage while the others go out to arrange their costumes to present as nearly as possible the costumes worn by the Lamanites as shown in the pictures published in the Juvenile Instructor.

Less than six months. That’s all it took for those images to be canonized to the point of being models for other artworks. Less than six months.

You can evaluate their success in duplicating Christensen’s robes – in canonizing the images he had created – by studying this photograph of Susa’s cast:

The text of the dialogue is posted separately here: Dialogue from the Book of Mormon.

[1] Susa very quickly retracted this statement, claiming to have heard from other teachers that the Book of Mormon was being read and understood by their classes, and that the situation wasn’t nearly as dire as Susa had pictured it.]

[2] Before anyone imagines that Susa was denigrating the efforts of girls because boys could have done it better, don’t. Susa’s whole career evinces respect and concern for “her girls”; she means here only that the actresses are young – girls rather than women.



16 Comments »

  1. This is wonderful stuff, Ardis. Was there any caption associated with this image. I find their pose quite interesting.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2009 @ 7:49 am

  2. J., the caption only identifies the players by role — “Nephite Queen” or “First Lamanite” or whatever.

    The scene is, I think, the one near the end of the dialogue where “The Nephite kneels down upon the earth, and raises his hands as if in prayer. He, too, sinks down upon the earth. The servants and soldiers, all save the queen’s maid servant, lift their hands as if in devout prayer, and they, too, sink down upon the earth.”

    We’re in mid-sink, with the king down and the Nephite about to follow.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 7:57 am

  3. I hope Susa didn’t do the section where is said the Lamanites wore loin cloths and had shaven heads. :-)

    Comment by Steve C. — March 13, 2009 @ 8:12 am

  4. :P

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  5. Interesting. I’ve been keeping a file on prayer practices and how back in the day, either praying with one or both hands raised was apparently fairly common. I hadn’t realized that they would have seen this in the BoM as an antecedent.

    Comment by J. Stapley — March 13, 2009 @ 10:02 am

  6. I think I’ll pass this link along to our ward YW president as a suggestion for a presentation for the next ward party or dinner. :-) ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — March 13, 2009 @ 10:05 am

  7. At first blush, Susa Young Gate’s directive that the costuming needed to follow the pictures published in the Juvenile Instructor does not perforce mean that she felt that the JI’s interpretations were absolutely historically accurate or to be given any undue authority. Another interpretation is that her careful adherence to the JI illustrations merely reflects a preference for homegrown, in-house illustrators with likeminded respect for the Book of Mormon, as opposed to, say, using as models contemporary illustrations of Native Americans from non-Church media.

    However, when coupled with the fact that SYG evidently took the presentation so seriously, and that she meant for it to be received in like manner, makes me think that she must have ascribed some authoritative status to the JI’s illustrations.

    Such an interesting post, thanks.

    Comment by Hunter — March 13, 2009 @ 10:26 am

  8. It fascinates me that we can look at the same image and see different things depending on what interests us or what our background is. I never thought of the picture in connection with a study of ritual, but of course J. would pick up on that instantly.

    bruce, do remember to tell us how that suggestion goes over, will you? (I think I can hear the thunk of lead balloons already — although if you didn’t show them the picture, and modernized the language, it might not be a half bad presentation for kids today, really.)

    Hunter, I realize that a partial line like that isn’t much to go on, and I’m relieved you see support in the other elements of Susa’s choices. I think that whether or not Susa consciously considered that the JI illustrations were literally correct, she did on some level concede that those depictions were the way to go for her play. Going back to john f’s BCC post, we might not consciously believe that King Noah kept a spotted jaguar as a pet or to sic on troublesome courtiers or whatever, but the presence of that animal in the recent “heroes” print cements the character as Abinadi — it was the “way to go” in contemporary art choice, evidently.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  9. No picture here of the basket of arms that Ammon cut of, nor any mention in the dialog in the other post. That’s the reason I remembered this story the first time I heard it in primary. There’s a great Dialogue article from some years back titled “Book of Mormon Stories my Teacher Never Told To Me” where this whole scene figures prominently. Especially the part where the Queen tells Ammon that while the other folks think the King is dead and beginning to stink, she replies “to me he stinketh not” or similar words. I always loved this story.

    Recently, in one of the wards in our stake, they had a member of the ward talk to the primary kids, dressed as Joseph Smith, and he dressed just like the picture on the new PH/RS manual. He was a tall guy with blond hair and blue eyes, just like that picture.

    Comment by kevinf — March 13, 2009 @ 11:56 am

  10. Maybe if Susa had been writing for 14-year-old boys instead of girls, kevin’s version would have prevailed! I wonder how hard the adviser would have had to work in that case to “enforce a quiet and dignified spirit.” /wanders off deep in contemplation …/

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

  11. Fascinating, Ardis – and kevinf’s example is interesting, as well.

    When I was a teenager, a man in our ward who made his living as an artist asked me to pose for a picture he was doing of Joseph Smith, because “your profile looks almost exactly like his”. That is interesting to me looking back at it, since it was said so definitively – and I’m fairly certain he wasn’t in possession of an authentic image.

    Comment by Ray — March 13, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  12. That is a good case in point — six months is very fast indeed.

    Comment by john f. — March 13, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

  13. Re: “/wanders off deep in contemplation…/”

    Ardis, have you been watching the sit-com Scrubs again? [laughing]

    Comment by Hunter — March 13, 2009 @ 1:28 pm

  14. /feigns ignorance of such a silly show, except what might — MIGHT — have been seen while flipping channels/

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — March 13, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

  15. Ardis, thanks for this.

    Re comment no. 6, concerning praying with upraised hands – a missionary companion in the mid 1960’s, Norman Potter, who was a little older than the rest of us, related to me that when he was younger, it was not uncommon for elderly men to pray in his downtown Salt Lake ward with one or two hands upraised. He believed that this practice had been passed down from teachings given by Parley P. Pratt (if memory serves).

    Comment by S. Taylor — March 13, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

  16. Praying with hands raised is still fairly common in some churches. I asked a friend once about it and she said that her raised hand was a receptacle for the Holy Spirit. OK. Why not.

    Comment by Jami — March 14, 2009 @ 9:02 am

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