Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » “Alive and Real, and of Immense Stature”: Arnold Friberg’s Book of Mormon Paintings

“Alive and Real, and of Immense Stature”: Arnold Friberg’s Book of Mormon Paintings

By: Ardis E. Parshall - February 03, 2010

If many of us smile when the art of Arnold Friberg is mentioned, it’s because we’re no doubt thinking of a certain commonality among his artworks: His characters, whether they be teenagers newly called to military duty, or seasoned warriors in the prime of life, or aged prophets, or young women exiting the waters of baptism – or even chickens – share a certain, how shall we say it? robustness of form. Sometimes because that’s the first thing we’ve conditioned ourselves to see, it’s also all we see.

I’ve recently run across a report made by Friberg himself in 1952, just before those iconic Book of Mormon paintings were debuted, one each month, in the 1953 issues of The Children’s Friend, which helps me appreciate a little more about them than the fine musculature of the human – or chicken – form.

Friberg understood that he was an illustrator in the service of the text, not acting in this case as a capital-A Artist. That is, his duty was “to suggest to the reader some of the rich experiences that might be his through reading the particular story or book that is being illustrated.” In the case of his painting of Abinadi before King Noah, for example, his goal was to depict a certain, specific incident from the text, not to paint a fine arts archetypal image of truth speaking to power, nor a universal symbol of majesty in chains. This was Abinadi and King Noah, nothing less and nothing more.

Although he was illustrating a specific text, he acknowledged his need to invent visual details that were not noted in the text.

First, it was necessary to consider some baffling questions: Did the Nephites wear beards? What was the true appearance of Nephi’s ship, or of the Liahona? What did Abinadi and Mormon and Captain Moroni look like? Admittedly it is difficult, even impossible, to resolve these questions with any finality.

Now, a writer can simply allude to, or leave unsaid, anything specific of which he is not sure. For instance, he need not mention whether or not a man had a beard. But the illustrator has to paint something. The pictured character either will have a beard or will not have a beard. If he has one it will be black or red or brown or grey, and it will be long or trimmed in some fashion. And his armor has to be formed in a certain way and of some specific material. The illustrator cannot evade the issue.

With specific reference to invented details in that picture of Abinadi and King Noah, he wrote:

In the picture of Abinadi at King Noah’s court, it seemed that a pair of jaguars leashed to the throne would enhance the feeling of a royal palace. Also, since animals are said to be responsive to extra-sensory forces, their snarling fear of Abinadi, along with the down-draft of smoke from the braziers, tends to heighten the feeling of a more-than-earthly power at work.

Ditto with the picture of Lehi holding the Liahona – have you ever noticed the little footed ring on the ground there?

In picturing the Liahona itself, I tried to produce a reasonably logical version of how it might have looked; and a tripod was shown for it to rest in, as it probably wouldn’t have been allowed just to roll around on the ground when not in use.

Friberg decided that in the early events of the Book of Mormon narrative, the people and their hair styles and clothing fashions and tools and other details would likely be similar to the Biblical people from whom they came. For later events, he relied on a sense of New World archeology.

So much of the ruins unearthed tends to be from later than Book of Mormon days.

However, there is a certain logic and sequence that can serve as a guide. We know of the strong Hebraic and Egyptian influences, and we see what they later developed into; and actually … there is a strong cultural continuity. By weaving this logic into the bits of descriptive information in the Book itself, it is possible to arrive at a reasonably truthful reconstruction, in both dress and architecture.

His search for realism took him, believe it or not, to Hollywood, whose studios maintain huge libraries of costume detail and research into other aspects of ancient life that have been portrayed on screen.

The movie studios were very helpful in making available research and costumes used in producing Biblical pictures such as “David and Bathsheba” and “Samson and Delilah.” … Before the movie “Samson and Delilah” was produced, the studio spent fourteen years in basic research, covering minutest details of speech, customs, clothing and materials, and such bits of information as whether or not candles had been invented at that time (they had not; only oil cups were burned until in roman times the wax candle as we know it came into use).

This material was all bound into a large volume, and from it the story and dialogue, as well as sets, props, and costumes were developed. Mr. DeMille very kindly let me have a copy of this research volume.

Friberg searched other sources as well for bits of realism: Did you realize, for instance, that the birds overhead in the scene of Lehi’s people arriving in the New World are not simply generic birds, even generic seabirds? They are roseate terns, “which might logically be found in those waters,” said Friberg (indicating his acceptance of the traditional landing site as the west coast of Chile in the general latitude of Valparaiso). He found living jaguars in a zoo for the Abinadi painting. He searched until he had found enough specific examples of ancient clothing to use in his work:

It took much research to find, for instance, not only one ancient sandal, but enough different styles of ancient sandals to avoid monotony. You will notice in the paintings that people are dressed differently one from another, for probably then as now there was variety even within the styles of the period.

He even grew a beard and let his hair grow long as he was working on these paintings, to give himself a better understanding – he says – of the men beneath the beards in his paintings.

In the search for realism, not only did I grow long hair and a full beard for study, but a friend, Rudy Christiansen, also grew a head of magnificent long wavy hair for the same purpose. This was sometimes trying for both of us, since the men working in a shop along with Rudy couldn’t resist ribbing him and doing such things as taking up a collection to buy him a haircut and giving him a Mother’s Day gift. A lady even stopped me downtown to say that she had seen me wrestle on television!


(And that was in 1952!)

I think the details that impress me most are Friberg’s efforts to remain absolutely true to the text of the Book of Mormon:

In the picture showing the discovery of the Liahona, Nephi has a steel bow on his back; I had to find a steel bow for a model. In the following picture Nephi, about to build his ship, has a wooden bow, having broken the steel one meanwhile.

Friberg considered his work on these illustrations to be a “fine opportunity for service,” and found that “the great personalities who walk through its pages have become alive and real, and of immense stature.” I have been aware of the “immense stature” of those characters as long as I can remember; certainly I have a greater appreciation for his paintings after he pointed out to me these details of his work that I had overlooked.



  1. Long ago I had a book of big reproductions of the paintings he did for DeMille’s film “The Ten Commandments.” They were fun to look at because of the seemingly endless tiny details in each picture.

    It’s interesting to frame a discussion of his work as “illustration” rather than “art”: and I mean no value judgment between two terms with difficult definitions in the first place. I had never thought about his work in relation to the history of illustration, specifically magazine illustration, which was once much more robust and visually interesting.

    I don’t have any particular conclusions to draw, but for those interested in learning more about the fascinating history of magazine illustration, let me plug Leif Peng’s excellent blog, Today’s Inspiration ( which has resurrected a wealth of interesting information about the terrific talents behind an earlier era’s advertising and magazine illustration.

    Comment by Mina — February 3, 2010 @ 8:07 am

  2. Thanks for that link; I recognize that some of the illustrators I run into in early 20th century Mormon discussion are given a great deal more respect and recognition than we tend to give to illustrators today, and maybe Leif Peng will help me understand that better.

    Yeah, I mean no value judgment by distinguishing between illustration and fine art, either. I think they are different (although I’m not up on the politics of it all) and I think that recognizing Friberg as an illustrator means recognizing his efforts toward accuracy, although in this case it’s hard to judge objective accuracy. Maybe it’s related to the way a historian feels bound by document and fact and “the way it happened” while a novelist is freer to delineate some “greater truth” beyond the surface.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 3, 2010 @ 8:46 am

  3. I have a copy of Friberg’s “Ten Commandments” artwork brochures, which were, I believe, intended to be quasi-promotional material. DeMille included them when he lent the Hawaiian Mission a copy of the movie to show at the leprosarium on Moloka’i.

    This is wonderful background on those images, Ardis. Thanks.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 3, 2010 @ 9:45 am

  4. Ardis: Thanks for the information. I had no idea that so much thought and work had gone into these illustrations. I have looked at them many times and find some new detail each time.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — February 3, 2010 @ 10:04 am

  5. Wonderful background, I agree, J. No, I had never noticed the Liahona pedestal holder before. And knowing that Friberg was so committed to the idea of conveying the stories from the text, I have a new-found appreciation for these images. (And loved that beard he grew! Ha!) Thanks.

    (Threadjack warning: Jeff — I returned the book “Brigham Young’s Homes” to our local library last night. I just wanted to say that I greatly enjoyed the book, and was very pleased to see your contribution in it. Thanks!)

    Comment by Hunter — February 3, 2010 @ 10:05 am

  6. All comments praising fellow ‘ninnies for their good work are hereby declared not threadjacks!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 3, 2010 @ 10:26 am

  7. Friberg’s robust figures are the product of an illustrator. Their robustness stems from his early work that demanded such figures. The common man is about seven and a half heads high.Fashion figures are more like eight and a half. Heroic figures are often depicted as nine heads high. Measuring in my copy of Ted Schwartz’s book “Arnold Friberg: The Passion of a Modern Master” published by Northland Press in Phoenix in 1985, I find the Canadian Mounties to be at least nine heads high and with a naturally heroic look. They almost all have a dimpled and forward-thrusting chins. Friberg even gives himself some of these characteristics in his self-portrait on the title page of the book.

    This is a great book for Friberg admirers. The introduction is by Jonathan Fairbanks, one of the older sons of the artistic family of Avard Fairbanks.

    Comment by Curt A. — February 3, 2010 @ 11:15 am

  8. This post will make me look more carefully at the details of the stories in the Book of Mormon and the other scriptures. I am enjoying the Old Testament now.

    (Hunter, Thanks, it is nice to know that someone is still reading a book that is several years old.)

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — February 3, 2010 @ 2:18 pm

  9. Excellent article, Ardis. I love the Friberg’s because of their iconism. I don’t believe anyone (sorry Tiechart fans) has even come close to capturing that and I’m bugged that Friberg’s work gets mocked now.

    Yes, I for one have always noticed the extra little details like the little footed ring and Mormon’s stylus. The details mentioned here about Friberg only make me appreciate his dedication and art that much more.

    Comment by David J. West — February 3, 2010 @ 2:53 pm

  10. Interesting stuff. Thanks Ardis!

    Comment by Clean Cut — February 3, 2010 @ 3:23 pm

  11. David, I notice a certain Fribergesqueness to some of the figures on the blog linked to your signature. 😉

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 3, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

  12. Thanks for the extra angle of attack in viewing these pictures. I think I can appreciate Friberg’s impressive research and Conan-the-Barbarian flair more if I imagine them gracing a BOM comic book :-)

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — February 3, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

  13. The Friberg, well, illustration “The Passing Game, Howell to Hutson” could likely be acquired (were its owner to sell it) for…$5.7 million.

    Comment by TheNewJerseyNutjob — February 3, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

  14. That’s quite an appraisal, with some very nice material on Friberg’s art and life. Thanks, NJNJ.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 3, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

  15. Ha-yes definetly. Friberg and Frazetta are a couple of my personal favorites.

    Comment by David J. West — February 3, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

  16. There is a certain resonant verisimilitude in the portrayal of ambient light in some of Friberg’s work. Such as in the Liahona painting, which almost seems to carry a sense of the smell of the desert on an early summer morning.

    Illustrations, yes. Compare them to most of the stuff used in Sunday Schools and their particular quality becomes apparent. They were a wonderful gift to the children of the Church.

    By the by, a friend in college had done housecleaning for the Fribergs and reported that they kept a lion in the lower floor of their house! She had to clean up after it, she said. Could this have been true?

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — February 4, 2010 @ 10:51 am

  17. Wow, I need to come by more often. This post encapsulates why I love Keepapitchinin. (Specifically ” A lady even stopped me downtown to say that she had seen me wrestle on television!”)

    Comment by Matt W. — February 9, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

  18. Yeah, you DO need to come by more often! (I have to say that on principle.)

    You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 9, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

  19. BYU Studies did a great story on Friberg a few years ago, and I remember the quote that Friberg painted his heroes to heroic proportions because he wanted them to look like they could have done the things the book says they did.

    It also mentions that the model for Abinadi was the old missionary who converted his family (which explains why he looks so old when the text implies he was so young.)

    It’s here ( if anyone wants to check it out.

    Considering how much Friburg’s Book of Mormon painting have done for the Church, I get a little bugged (like #9 above) when they’re blantantly copied in the form of kitchy “action figures” sold at Deseret Books.

    Comment by Clark — February 9, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

  20. I am unaware of where in the text Abinadi’s age is ever inplied. Clark, if you could explain that it would be helpful, since I have always thought that while the text does not say Abinadi was old, it also does not say Abinadi was young.

    Comment by John Pack Lambert — February 27, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

  21. Ardis: Do you know if this report by Friberg is published anywhere, or available online?

    Comment by stan — April 6, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  22. stan, check your email.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 6, 2011 @ 3:06 pm

  23. I just want to know what kind of shoes Lehi is wearing in the painting with the Liahona. His are closed-toe (in contrast to all the other sandals in the painting) and the toes come to a point which appears to have a cord attached to it that runs up straight up to the topmost leather band around his leg. The cord appears to be pulling the toes up in the air. Would this make walking easier? Or is it just some strange fashion statement?

    Comment by Steve — November 5, 2011 @ 4:37 pm

  24. This post is old, but I transcribed a story about Arnold Friberg’s meeting with David O. McKay.

    Comment by Trevor Price — July 28, 2013 @ 12:10 am

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