What’s wrong with this image?


Take a look at these guys. They’re HUGE! No wonder no-one died. How could you possibly defeat men like this?

But here’s the problem: this painting would seem to ascribe the Stripling Warriors’ success to testosterone. The scriptures tell another story. Helaman calls them his "little sons" and says that they were all "very young" (Alma 56:39;46). Their strength came not from their muscles but from the "strength of God" (Alma 56:56). Imagine then, if you can, 2000 near-children willing to fight for liberty. For me, that image is even more telling than that painted by Friberg.

Now, this is not some iconoclastic Friberg-bash. I like his paintings, and commissioned as they were for Primary, I think they give kids (read: boys) some Mormons superheroes to look up to. (Even today’s Star Wars figures are buff–Luke Skywalker was never buff!) Nor would I claim that in this case it really matters a great deal. But it’s worth noting how influenced we are by images (especially when they’re semi-canonical like Friberg’s).

A few years ago there was a great BYU Studies about pictures of Jesus in LDS art. One artist explained that in his mind’s eye God the Father looked like a "young man." But if he were to paint a picture of the Father (the doing of which, for some reason, I find a little strange), it would have to be in line with what has become the standard image (old, bearded).  This is a shame, IMO, but shows how iconic images are so hard to give up, becoming almost gospel. We do well to remember that they are not always "true." Contra Friberg, I’m not sure the Stripling Warriors were junior Goliaths. I also doubt Adam was a WASM, but that’s another story.



  1. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, I take comfort in the well-worn tale that Friberg attributed physical strength as a reflection and symbol of their spiritual stature. That said, it’s still a little weird.

  2. Yeah, it’s symbolic. No problem with that. But many of us conflate symbols with reality. In this case, as I said, it doesn’t matter much. But when, say, we make Jesus look just like us it can either make him more familiar (a good thing), or make us (WASM’s that is) feel more superior (a bad thing, IMO). But, not something to lose sleep about.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Depictions of the Saviour are also particularly problematic, because they can directly affect our worship and our relationship with God. When we pray, do we think of a husky Viking-esque Jesus, or a wan, Byzantine one? Does our Heavenly Father in fact have a beard? It seems to me the question is not without relevance, because we have living prophets who talk with God and who have seen Him (at least past prophets have openly said so). So the idea of what He looks like is something we can really claim to answer definitively.

    The advantage of a Catholic/Christian notion of God is that He is without body, parts or passions, and so artists have far greater interpretive freedom! Of course they don’t properly understand their Creator, but still…

  4. My main concern is that some of these iconic images tell a false story.

  5. Julie in Austin says:


    All images tell a false story. It’s almost easier for me to use something like this picture, which is practically a caricature, to explain to my children how artists are just giving their impression and they may not have all the details correct, as opposed to something more “accurate.”

    Another thing I have found useful with the wee ones is to check out every single picture book about Noah from the library and discuss with them which things each author treats differently.

  6. “I also doubt Adam was a WASM, but that’s another story.”

    I’d like to hear the story.

  7. My main concern is that Del Parson recycles his Jesus face into new paintings.

  8. we have living prophets who talk with God and who have seen Him

    …but who have, as far as I am aware, declined to offer a thorough description, other than “glorious beyond measure” etc. Some things, I think, cannot be captured in art, which is why I personally am not a big fan of pictures of God the Father. They remind me of Zeus and Mount Olympus.

  9. Ed,
    Not today, mate. Not today. I’ll get into trouble.

  10. I remember the first 13th century Cathedral I visited. Artists throughout the centuries had adorned its interior. One huge paneled depiction of the entire life of the Lord stood out. It was all Elizabethan. John the Baptist had a tutu around his neck and Jesus had tights. It was at that moment that I realized that we are just playing our part in the long tradition. Subsequently, I don’t particularly mind images of black or oriental Jesus. Is it any different than “MASM” (as Ronan states) Jesus?

  11. Your Adam idea sounds interesting to me too, Ronan… perhaps another day… So my pointless question of the moment is: Does God have to shave/trim his beard? (Just wondering…)

  12. We all know why those steroid-laced Sons of Helaman needed God on their side to beat the cursed Lamanites–because the Lamanites were all on steroids too! So, the SoH needed God to tip the balance in their favor.

    Maybe I’ll start taking steroids (my wife and I have, as the scriptures say, left bearing, and my moods swing pretty wildly already, from jaded ennui to hopeless fatalism). So, I’ve got nothing to lose, and maybe I can look like Abinadi someday!

  13. Shawn Bailey says:

    There is something very earnest, something shamelessly heroic, about Friberg’s style. Part of me likes it. But I am also wary: as I read the Book of Mormon, it is not populated by larger-than-life comic-book giants. I am a little concerns that some investigators see them and then fail to take the book seriously.

    As I child, some of Friberg’s paintings confused me. For example, I thought his Samuel the Lamanite was, well, the Devil. I would look at that picture and think: when the devil comes, we will shoot him with arrows! Then I would look at the Savior descending from heaven (the two paintings are close enough in composition to invite a natural comparison). When Jesus comes, I would think, we will be safe. Put away your bows and arrows.

    For those who grew up with Friberg’s paintings, it probably requires effort not to be influenced by his style while reading and visualizing. And I think worth the effort. I think Christian art is great to the extent that it captures the contrast between the fallen world and the hope of redemption. I don’t think Friberg always succeeds on this account. I like his Abinadi and Savior descending, but the others seem too other-worldly. What I percieve as the most popular/profitable Mormon art these days I think falls far short on this account (I think of Greg Olson). In fact, it reminds me of the art in Jehova’s Witnesses pamplets, which I found downright creepy.

    Anyway, thanks Ronan for your post. It got me thinking: wouldn’t it be cool if the church commissioned a new set of Book of Mormon paintings!

  14. I think the images are just as problematic for the reinforcement they provide to our conceptions of gender and masculinity. We like to think of hyper-buffed scripture heroes because we want to believe that these were whole men. It may be partly a symbol of their spirituality, but it also communicates to us our belief in the rugged masculinity of our spiritual leaders. Imagine how disappointed some church members would be if they found out Nephi had some effeminate tendencies. It just doesn’t fit with our image of what a spiritual leader should be.

    Of course, that’s not the way it has always been. The gothic images of a frail, slightly effeminate Jesus are a stark comparison to the hyper-masculine image we have of Christ today.

  15. Ronan:

    Do you see the tough male image as an important part of Mormonism? Are we taught to appreciate strength as a good, even necessary trait?

    I’ve never given it much thought, but your post makes me wonder, when images like this are coupled with myths about Joseph Smith’s strength and inability to be beaten in wrestling or physical contests, or even just the incessant references to football games from the pulpit (or maybe that’s just an obnoxious Utah thing), do we have a culture that values physical strength and size more than it should?

  16. Shawn Bailey says:

    I wasn’t aware that we have a “hyper-masculine image … of Christ.” Please elaborate.

  17. Shawn,
    It’s nice to see that Minerva Teichert’s far more ethereal BoM paintings are featured in this month’s Ensign.

  18. John,

    The one thing that I hated about the Work and the Glory movie was the pulling-sticks episode. What did it prove? That Joseph was strong? That he was really annoying?!

    I don’t have an answer to your question. Maybe it’s an American thing. After all, your football players weigh 300 pounds and drop dead of it. Our football players are slightly effeminate metrosexuals (think David Beckham). The first time I met people who were obsessed with body-building was in the Provo MTC.

  19. The scriptures tell another story. Helaman calls them his “little sons” and says that they were all “very young” (Alma 56:39;46). Their strength came not from their muscles but from the “strength of God” (Alma 56:56). Imagine then, if you can, 2000 near-children willing to fight for liberty. For me, that image is even more telling than that painted by Friberg.

    Of course, one of the reasons why our soldiers in Iraq come back so traumatized is that they come to find out that those they are shooting at (and who are shooting back at them) are young children, anywhere from 12 years old on up.

    See Too Young to Kill, from which the following comes:

    “Warlords, terrorists and rebel leaders alike are finding that conflicts are easier to start and harder to end when children are involved. Children, it turns out, are relatively easy to recruit and indoctrinate, and they are more than capable of wielding the deadly tools of modern battle.

    “The practice of arming children is far more widespread than most people realize. Around the globe today, there are as many as 300,000 combatants under the age of 18. They serve in 40 percent of the world’s armed forces, rebel groups and terrorist organizations and fight in almost 75 percent of the world’s conflicts. An additional half-million children serve in armed forces that are not presently at war…

    “Child soldiers are present in every conflict zone U.S. forces now operate in, from Afghanistan to the Philippines. Indeed, the very first U.S. soldier killed in the post-9/11 war on terrorism was a Green Beret killed by a 14-year-old sniper in Afghanistan. U.S. soldiers continue to report facing child soldiers in Afghanistan; the youngest on record was a 12-year-old boy captured last year, after being wounded during an ambush by Taliban fighters.

    “At least six boys between the ages of 13 and 16 were captured by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in the initial fighting and taken to the detainee facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. They were housed in a special wing called “Camp Iguana.” For more than a year, the kids spent their days in a makeshift prison on the beach, watching DVDs and learning English and math. In addition, several more detainees between 16 and 18 are thought to be held in the adult facility at Guantanamo known as “Camp X-Ray.”

    “In Iraq, the problem has quietly grown to dangerous levels. Under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Iraq built up an entire apparatus designed to pull children into the military realm. This included the Ashbal Saddam (“Saddam’s Lion Cubs”), a paramilitary force of boys between the ages of 10 and 15 that acted as a feeder into the notorious Saddam Fedayeen units.”

    Kind of tends to cast our beloved stripling warriors in a new light.

  20. Hyper-masculine may be too strong a word. What I meant was that there is a definite change in the Jesus’ image in contemporary paintings compared to the older paintings where he was seen as frail and more lamb-like. I think Mormon depictions of Jesus tend to cast him as a rugged type – suntanned and muscular. I don’t think anyone knows exactly what Jesus looked like so trying to be historically accurate really isn’t the object when depicting Jesus in this way.

  21. Stephanie says:

    Isn’t one problem with this picture that current evidence shows that horses weren’t present in the Americas during this time?

    I love the buff men in this picture. I wish more Mormon guys looked like this.

  22. Horses in the BoM:

    The FARMS answer

    Buff Mormon men:

    We can’t call it a “beer belly,” so what is it?

  23. “I love the buff men in this picture. I wish more Mormon guys looked like this.”

    This is exactly what a gay friend of mine said a few years ago.

  24. Shawn Bailey says:

    Of course, some of the preceding comments could be read as the fretting of brainy nerds (a category in which I probably fit myself) about manliness in general. I won’t be so uncharitable, I know this a thoughtful discussion and all that, but the thought of that potential reading did strike me as kind of funny.

    I like manliness. I have been reading both some Stegner and Hemmingway’s short stories recently. Having been inspired by manly characters I have found there, I would like to think (as suggested above) that manliness is an American thing. And something that is probably endangered and should be cultivated.

    How manliness appears in all things Mormon (as discussed, it is in the canon, folk lore, current art, and so on) is interesting. Friberg overdoes it. And the stick-pulling scene in the Work and the Glory was a groaner. But that is not to say that I think we should downplay or fail to appreciate the authentic manliness of the Frontier Prophet or several of the Book of Mormon prophets (my favorite: Moroni, the solitary survivalist).

  25. Fratello Giovanni says:

    I also have a problem with Friberg’s painting of George Washington praying at Valley Forge. It is woefully inaccurate, on so many levels.

  26. Stephanie says:

    Ronan – I like the FAIR article, but it’s not very persuasive when you look at the picture at the top of this post. That animal is definitely a horse, not a tapir. But maybe our current archeological methods are too primitive to unearth the remains of real horses. It’s a possibility.

    I always thought the picture was modeled after a Roman centurion. Maybe that’s where the artist got his inspiration.

  27. This is why I’ve been vaguely working on a post called “Why you shouldn’t derive doctrine from Church art.” It seems fairly self-evident, but I recently encountered some people who had real trouble with the concept…

  28. That’s okay. We’re soon to the point where we won’t be able to believe photographs or videos of events either, because they can be doctored.

    Maybe we should do away with art in any form because it creates angst in so many people.

  29. Larry – I don’t think anyone here would say that we don’t think Friberg should have painted these images in this way. I love art of any kind, and I’m very anti-censorship. I simply think that it’s interesting to look at art as cultural artifacts, which is at least what my interest in this subject is. It’s fun to interpret what art says about our subculture of Mormonism.

  30. My brothers always had the picture of Nephi on the ship taped to the ceiling above their weight bench. (Uh, yeah, *really* geeky, *really* Mormon family)

  31. Kristine,
    But rather Nephi than Arnie, right?

  32. Eric Russell says:

    I collect images of Christ; have about 300 of them. Once, I was showing them to an eleven-year-old and I was surprised to hear him say that some of them were “not Jesus”. Intrigued I went through them all and asked him if each one was or wasn’t Jesus. Only about 2/3 of the Jesus pictures made the cut. As you might guess, the black Jesus’s and the more archaic Catholic images fell into the “not” category. I also included a picture I found of Ewan McGregor in costume as Obi-Wan, and it passed.

    But to the more important question, “does how we view the Savior affect our relationship with him?” I lean towards no. It might, if you’re really racially biased, but I think that most of us understand that our relationship with God transcends the type of relationship we might have with another person.

  33. Rosalynde says:

    There’s this really gorgeous children’s Christmas song (lyric by Alfred Burt), makes me cry every single time. Kris, if this is lowbrow, let me down easy, okay?

    Some children see Him lily white
    the infant Jesus born this night
    Some children see Him lily white
    with tresses soft and fair

    Some children see Him bronzed and brown
    the Lord of heav’n to earth come down
    Some children see Him bronzed and brown
    with dark and heavy hair (with dark and heavy hair!)

    Some children see Him almond-eyed
    This Saviour whom we kneel beside
    Some children see Him almond-eyed
    With skin of yellow hue!

    Some children see Him dark as they
    Sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray
    Some children see Him dark as they
    And, ah! they love Him so!

    The children in each different place
    Will see the Baby Jesus’ face
    Like theirs but bright with heav’nly grace
    And filled with holy light!

    O lay aside each earthly thing
    and with thy heart as offering
    Come worship now the infant King
    ’tis love that’s born tonight!

  34. “(Uh, yeah, *really* geeky, *really* Mormon family)”

    I was thinking more like *really* gay. Just kidding!

  35. Rosalynde, I don’t know where on the brow-scale the Alfred Burt carols fall, but it’s hard to get worked up about it when one is in puddles on the floor. I love that one, too–also the Star Carol, and Christ in the Stranger’s Guise.

  36. Jonathan Green says:

    Rosalynde, that reminds me of Countee Cullen’s “Heritage.”

    You wanna know the propaganda for hypermasculinity that really bugs me, though? Rescue Rangers. They’re supposed to be non-violent–rocket packs notwithstanding–and thus acceptable gifts for children of parents who blanch at war toys, but their bodily proportions are all Stage III Steroid Overdose, a veritable crash course in negative body image for preschoolers.

  37. Jonathan Green says:

    Mark N., that’s a good point about child soldiers, but in pre-modern warfare, armed children probably wouldn’t have been much use against experienced warriors, so I’d guess Helaman’s battalion were at least approaching adulthood after a well-nourished adolescence. I’ve always imagined, though, that the demise of Jaredite society saw many scenes similar to the impressment of child soldiers in Liberia: kid, take this spear and kill your parents, or we’ll kill you; now go charge at the enemy lines, or else. One more way that late-stage Jaredite society was a pretty crappy time to be alive.

  38. Rosalynde,

    I love the Alfred Burt carols. Each one is a little gem, though, under-valued IMO.

    “Come dear Children” is another nice one.

  39. For an interesting study on depictions of Jesus in American art, literature, and film, including an extended chapter on the Mormon conception of Jesus as our “older brother,” I recommend American Jesus by Stephen Prothero. A corresponding study of Mormon art in general would be interesting.

  40. D. Fletcher says:

    Rosalynde and Jack,

    Alfred Burt wrote the music. His father, and later, a woman in his father’s congregation, wrote the words. Interestingly enough, that carol “Some children see him” is often called racist, now.

  41. Shawn (#24): What is it with Mormons and stick pulling? A picture in the most recent Church News showed what appeared to be two Mormon pioneer recreationists pulling a stick. People are gonna think it’s a Mormon sacrament or something. Good thing we don’t have a story about Joseph Smith giving someone a noogie.

    I think we Mormons should take those sticks and observe Whacking Day.

  42. D.,

    I didn’t know that. I thought he wrote both the music and the words. But that was just an assumption on my part.

    Yeah, I’m not suprised that “Some Children See Him” is considered racist. Some folks best efforts to be inclusive will, in the long run, miss the bull’s eye with such a moving target.

  43. Rosalynde says:

    D.–Thanks for the clarification on the lyric. And yeah, even though I love the conceit behind the poem, there is a bit of the missionary’s ethnocentrism in the lyrical structure and the stereotypical racial features. (I even thought about conceding as much in my original comment, but then figured it might be a little nit-picky!) It’s dated, but I still love it, and I’ll still teach it to my children.

  44. D. Fletcher says:

    Alfred Burt died young, very tragically (he was about 30 years old).

    That particular poem is just a bit heavy-handed, though its heart is in the right place. But who is going to want to picture Jesus as having “dark and heavy hair”? I guess the images aren’t very subtle, and that’s what’s wrong with the poem.

    Friberg contributed costumes to “The Ten Commandments,” (DeMille movie of 1956) right when he was doing those paintings for the BoM. Personally, I think he painted Charlton Heston over and over in those paintings.

  45. I hate Friberg’s painting of the stripling warriors, because makes me feel like a racist. Specifically, they all look the same to me.

  46. Rosalynde, I think that your children’s lyric works much better if you sing it using Elvis’s name.

  47. LOL. Use Elvis name. That’s a classic.

  48. Nice DKL — two funny lines in a row.

    I too have always loved songs about baby Elvis.

  49. This is a true story. During the Korean war, a bunch of guys from our town who were in the national guard (I don’t know, maybe 800) were sent as a unit to Korea. Not one was killed. They all came back.

    Now they’re in Iraq. We have high hopes that we won’t lose anybody this time either.

    I think the gospel has an impact on this. I don’t know, maybe they’re praying a lot, and I know we are.

  50. Anne,
    Fingers crossed for your guys.

  51. Everyone seems to love Minerva Teichert now. Was she appreciated in her time, or did everyone in the middle of last century just prefer Friberg-style images?

  52. Aaron Brown says:

    I’m surprised no one has made reference to the apocryphal story about one of the prophets passing by a mural of Jesus (in the temple?) and correcting the artist as to what Jesus “really looks like.” A guy in my last stake was all into this, and I suppose if his story is taken at face value, we can conclude that Christ really was a buff Viking after all! Case closed.

    Aaron B

  53. I think creating quality LDS-themed art would be pretty challenging. It’s not just about being a talented artist who can draw or paint in a realistic style. Someone has to somehow capture the spirit of the scriptures, the history … and it strikes me as a very hard thing to do.

  54. LDS Artist do seem to be in a rut. Jesus is always depicted as being really white and delightsome.

  55. porter rockwell says:

    I belive Christ was pretty ripped, for the following reasons:

    Grew up as a carpenter, they used all hand tools, so strength was needed to be a carpenter.

    He tossed money changers around, now think about that, the money changers didn’t roll over because they realized he was Christ, they scattered because he was bringing it… I don’t think that would have been something a “slight” guy could have done. FWIW

  56. ed,

    I’m not much of a BYU TV fan, but one thing I loved on that channel was a biography of Minerva Teichert. She went out to NYC and studied painting with some of the masters of her time and was a star pupil. But her home in Idaho called to her and she returned to that pioneer life instead of staying in the big city. She painted all of those gorgeous BoM and Mormon life scenes but her art was never truly embraced by the leaders of the church at the time. It was apparently heartbreaking to her at the time.

    Here is a bio I found — I’m sure there are more detailed ones to be found as well.

  57. Consider how “The Ten Commandments” defined Moses for the world. The real Moses has an uphill fight on his hands to reclaim his image from Charlton Heston. And the real Gandalf will have to do battle with Ian McKellen as well. A powerful image becomes reality, especially when there is no “real” image to contest it.

  58. Dave And the real Gandalf will have to do battle with Ian McKellen as well.

    The real Gandalf?

  59. Actually Porter many scholars believe it far more likely that Christ was a stone mason than a carpenter. But I suppose stone masonry would produce buffness just as well…..

  60. Rosalynde & Jack – Happened upon your discussion while doing a little research on Al Burt. His story is both a sad and uplifting one. Died of lung cancer in 1954 at the age of 33. He wrote the music for 15 Christmas carols. His father (an Episcopal priest) wrote the lyrics for the first several of these, and then a parishoner by the name of Wihla Hutson took over the lyric composition. She was the composer of the words to “Some Children See Him.” You can find his whole story on the official Afred S. Burt website: