In the December 1915 issue of The Relief Society Magazine, there is an interesting discussion of two portraits that were hanging in the Salt Lake Temple at the time. The author noted that, “Few Latter-day Saints realize that we possess several masterpieces, costly, rare and strikingly beautiful”
The first is a picture of the Madonna and Child. This portrait is described as an artistic piece that came from a famous collection which was carried to San Francisco by agents of Samuel Brannan. It was subsequently sold to Alexander Badlam and eventually came into the hands of some wealthy Californians who bought it and presented it to the Salt Lake Temple.
The Magazine describes the portrait in effusive terms, noting:
The exquisite bliss which smolders in the brooding eyes and tender lips of the mother; both joy of possession and agony of forecast mingle in the eyes which look out into futurity. The figure of the boy John is dimmed because the artist focuses his effects in the worshipful glance which the boy casts upon the holy pair. The Child claims our deepest thought and admiration. His is the face of a child, but the love and wisdom of those mysterious eyes thrill you with feelings akin to worship.
Later the next year in the “Theology and Testimony” section of The Magazine, Mormon beliefs about the role of Mary were articulated more fully.
The Latter-day Saints do not envelop Mary in the mist and remoteness that most others do in the Christian world. They do not pray to her as the intermediary between them and her glorious Son. On the contrary, they hold her in a high and substantial reverence – a reverence that has its basis in an intelligent understanding of the great law of life and progress and that would be utterly impossible to a mind beclouded by the generally accepted notions of “the immaculate conception”. (1)
Finding a portrait of Mary, the mother of Jesus, in the temple would not seem unusual to us today, however the inclusion and study of Judith would be atypical. The Relief Society Magazine described the second portrait as
“… a famous old English painting presented to the Temple by a convert, Mrs. Everard, who was a wealthy dealer in art works in London, twenty years ago. She came here for a few months, bringing this picture with her to give to the Temple. The photograph cannot give the exquisite coloring of the picture, which flames with oriental beauty. But the charm of the composition, the striking beauty of the proud Hebrew face, with the glitter of determination shining through the brilliant eyes, the firm chin, the lines of strength in the rounded arms and hands – one of which grasps the sword while the other grimly holds the severed head — these are details which make of this picture a masterpiece”
The study of Judith would be for the most part unfamiliar to modern Latter-day Saint women, at least in Church publications. The author of the “Theology and Testimony” lesson acknowledeges that:
- “Strictly speaking, Judith is not one of the “women of the Bible”. She comes in between the period of the OT days and those of the NT. But she is well worth considering in this series, not only because she was one of the most remarkable of Hebrew women but also because she stands for a type of faith and courage in times of danger for the Chosen People.”
Perhaps the most noteworthy part of this article is the situation of Judith as an example for LDS women, as well as the author’s use of her as a foil to Esther of the Old Testament.
“It is interesting to compare and contrast the character of Esther and Judith. Both women were undeniably beautiful. A plain-looking woman, whatever the inference could not, in the one case have won the queenship nor, in the other case, bewitched the unsophisticated Holofernes. Moreover both used their charms according to the notions of the times in the service of religion. Both too, encompassed the death of a powerful enemy of Israel the one through guile and the other her influence with the king, her husband. Besides Esther and Judith were devout, prayerful religionists. But Esther impresses us as a woman who needed guidance, direction, some thing or some body to lean upon. She has little or no initiative. She is more or less timid and hesitating. Judith, on the other hand, although perfectly womanly, is self reliant, courageous daring capable of decisive action in high moments. And yet she is always the woman, and a wonderful woman to smite the mind as well as the eye.”
Modern Relief Society leaders have been far less ambiguous in embracing Esther as a decisive woman who understood her role in the kingdom of God.(2) In another shift, LDS discussions of women in the scriptures frequently place emphasis upon the idea of women as mothers instead of those who prophesy, act as warriors or judges.(3) It would seem that earlier in this century, LDS women experienced a wider range of scriptural sources and examples (as well as as being comfortable with depictions of breast-feeding?). This intersection of art and curriculum provides an unique view of how Relief Society women perceived themselves, their role in the kingdom of God and the women who preceded them.
(1) “Mary’s uniqueness, therefore, consists in the fact that her Child in the words of Dr. Talmage, ‘was begotten of Elohim, the Eternal Father, not in violation of natural law but in accordance with a higher manifestation thereof.’ Nor should this idea shock one’s sense of sanctity who has the conception of woman’s function in life that he ought to have. Rather does it exalt her into companionship with the highest intelligences and place sex relationship among the highest function in individual life.”
(2) See Mary Ellen Smoot, “For Such a Time as This” Ensign, November 1997, p.86 as well as Kathleen H. Hughes, “Lessons from the Old Testament: Coming of Age” Ensign, December 2006.
(3) For an example, see this essay which emphasizes Deborah’s role as mother instead of judge. Kimberli Pelo Robison, Kimberli, “A Mother in Israel”, Meridian Magazine