Anthony Sweat is an Associate Professor of Church History and Doctrine at BYU and the author of Repicturing the Restoration: New Art to Expand Our Understanding. His art is informed by asking how we know Joseph Smith and Church history through the Joseph Smith Papers.
What is the backstory for Repicturing the Restoration: New Art to Expand Our Understanding?
My bachelor’s degree is in studio art painting and drawing from the University of Utah. My original career plans were to become a fine artist. I joke that God saved me from a life of poverty and instead led me into the big money of a career in religious education!
Even when I was dreaming of being a full-time painter, however, my independent paintings were always religious in nature, with an eye toward using them didactically to help teach and learn.
When I was hired as a professor in BYU’s department of Church History and Doctrine, I started noticing gaps in available imagery to assist me and others in teaching some important historical and doctrinal concepts. I started making a list of images I would like to create to fill this void and talking to colleagues about images they would like to see.
The first painting that kicked it all off was when Michael MacKay and Gerrit Dirkmaat asked me to do some more faithful images of Joseph Smith translating using a hat for their book, From Darkness Unto Light, and I kept working on the rest of the other images from over the last 6 years.
How can Latter-day Saint art limit our understanding of our own history?
Art is a dual-edged sword. Art needs history to have meaningful events to portray, and history needs art to help carry those events into the minds and hearts of the people. Visual art can communicate, illuminate, and penetrate in ways that the written and spoken word simply cannot.
Art is at its best when it uses its language of color and line and form to speak visually. It is at its worst, however, when the viewer mistakenly interprets that artistic language as always being factual, literal, or perfectly historical, or expects it to be.
Art is about visual communication and ideas. It doesn’t speak the same language as history. For example, in my painting “The Voice of God in the Chamber of Father Whitmer,” I painted the head of God really, really big. And his voice is coming down in this swirling yellow pillar to Joseph and Oliver.
That painting is based on an actual event recorded in Joseph’s history and in D&C 128:21 “the voice of God in the chamber of old Father Whitmer,” but it’s visual depiction is a translation. All artists are translators. They are trying to translate meaning.
- How do you translate and communicate God’s “voice”? Well, I chose a swirling yellow pillar coming out of his mouth.
- How do you communicate that God is grand and all powerful and in charge? I painted him really large to attempt to do so.
- How do you communicate that God spoke from heaven? I depicted his head poking down from above with a diagonal line across the ceiling that his voice breaks through.
Now, none of those three things are literal. They are symbolic, expressing ideas from a historical event. We would do well as viewers to remember that ALL visual depictions are merely interpretations and expressions, to give space to allow those expressions, and to realize that the events may have looked and happened in very different ways than how we are seeing them translated on canvas or film.
These are but one interpretation among many possibilities of how to see an event, and none of them are de facto or definitive.
What are some of the greatest contributions of Latter-day Saint art up to this point?
The history of Latter-day Saint visual art is rich and beautiful, but is also still fairly new. The institutional Church didn’t really start embracing visual art until the turn of the century. Not until the mid-20th century did the Church begin to consistently publish artistic images in its official periodicals related to Church history, doctrine, or scripture.
For example, the first published artistic image of the First Vision in a Church periodical wasn’t until 1931. But we have great, early artists who laid the foundation for Latter-day Saint art: Mahonri Young, Minerva Teichert, J.T. Harwood, the Fairbanks brothers, and so many others. Friberg, of course, in the 1950’s and his masterful Book of Mormon series have become almost visual canon.
Ironically, in the 60’s and 70’s the Church turned to non-Latter-day Saint artists such as Tom Lovell and Harry Anderson to produce much of our most oft-used art. They have given us our original conceptions of early Church history and scriptural events. But, and I say this with dual humility for the past’s collective talent but also excitement for the future, we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the visual artistic output and potential of Latter-day Saint art.
Something is in the air. We have almost a disproportionate amount of really talented artists working today on religious themes (something that the general art world tends to shy away from today, but we continue to produce in). We have more resources than ever before. More members than ever before. More diversity than ever before. More and more themes that have never been touched on for various reasons than ever before. More and more ability to communicate than ever before and share art digitally.
We are a young Church. Give it some time. We’re on the cusp of artistic greatness in my opinion.
Do we ever embrace alternative histories because of the way an event is presented in art?
I think so. Some scholars have called this “source amnesia.” Meaning, we learn things but can’t quite trace back where we learned them from. Art is often one of those sources. We see a painting (or a film) and we just assume that was the way it happened.
Think of Abinadi and King Noah. It’s almost impossible to not make Noah large and Abinadi old and shirtless. Nephi has a headband. Peter has a beard but John the Revelator doesn’t. Joseph Smith wears a white shirt and brown pants in the grove. Jesus has long hair parted down the middle, a long beard, and wears white, heavy, flowing robes as he ministers around Jerusalem.
None of these are exactly historical or scriptural, they are accepted symbols artists use to communicate that we consume and form our conceptions of the past with, so its nearly impossible to NOT embrace alternative histories because of how they are presented in art.
We have to work hard to be conscious about where we are getting our ideas, and to separate visual expression from historical/scriptural sources.
Tell us about “Michael Detecting the Devil” and the doctrinal significance of the story.
At some point when Joseph Smith lived near the Susquehanna River in Harmony, PA (Dec. 1827-Jan.1831), Satan appeared to the Prophet, disguised as an angel of light, apparently trying to deceive Joseph. Another angel appeared, Michael (or Adam), to the aid of Joseph Smith and exposed the devil disguised as a false angel of truth.
Joseph Smith gives a small summary of this event in D&C 128:20 when he wrote of angels who had ministered to him such as, “Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, detecting the devil when he appeared as an angel of light!”
Other sermons by Joseph Smith give more potential insight into this obscure summary. It seems Adam may have given Joseph keys to detect true messengers of God from false ones. Joseph would teach these to others, summarized in D&C 129.
These “grand keys” (D&C 129:9) on distinguishing the devil or unrighteous spirits from angels and righteous ones seem to relate back to Michael on the banks of the Susquehanna, and becomes part of the temple instructions Joseph would give in Nauvoo.
How did Anthony Sweat use historical sources to create a Book of Mormon translation painting?
There are numerous sources of how the Book of Mormon was translated, some better than others for various reasons. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery could give us the best first-hand accounts, but they say the least, with Joseph saying it was simply done by the “gift and power of God” and sometimes adding by means of “Urim and Thummim.”
So, we have to rely on what others who witnessed the translation as scribes or heard Joseph or Oliver say about the translation said.
For example, perhaps the earliest source on the Book of Mormon translation is Jonathan Hadley, a printer who Joseph approached to see if he would undertake printing the book. Hadley recorded in The Palmyra Freeman on August 11, 1829: “By placing the spectacles in a hat, and looking into it, Smith could (he said so, at least,) interpret these characters.”
That’s before the Book of Mormon was even printed!
There are others, a Shaker man who recorded in 1831 that he heard Oliver discuss how it was translated by “two transparent stones in the form of spectacles” through which the translator “looked on the engraving & afterwards put his face into a hat & the interpretation then flowed into his mind.”
Then, of course, there is Joseph Knight Sr’s history written sometime before he died in 1847 where he said Joseph put the spectacles in a hat and saw words, Emma’s 1879 interview with Joseph III saying similar things, and David Whitmer’s later reminiscences.
We do need to exercise caution on this matter, in my opinion. As church members become more collectively aware of the stone-in-a-hat method we need to be careful to avoid swinging the proverbial pendulum too far one way or the other, promoting that Joseph “always” used the spectacles with opened plates or he “always” used stones in a hat.
There seems to be evidence that he did both (such as Samuel Richards’ report of a discussion with Oliver Cowdery at winter quarters in 1847). I think we would be wise to not be either/or, but more likely this/and/that.
My reason for creating an image of Joseph using the hat was to give a hitherto undepicted faithful visual to some of these historical sources that mention a hat.
Why might “Relief Society Healing” surprise some Church members today?
It surprises some people to see an image of pioneer women ministering to other women, and to learn that for around 100 years (roughly 1830’s-1930’s) women in the Church performed various healing rituals by virtue of their faith in Jesus, with the approval and encouragement of Church leaders.
One hundred years. This was not an isolated incident.
Women giving healing blessings of faith is well documented in Jonathan Stapley and Kristine Wright’s notable “Female Ritual Healing in Mormonism” research article, in the Nauvoo Relief Society minutes, in The First Fifty Years of Relief Society, in the Church’s Gospel Topics Essay on women and priesthood, and also in volume two of the new narrative Church history Saints.
By the later part of the 20th century, women’s participation in healing blessings had almost entirely faded from common Latter-day Saint knowledge and discourse, and thus some in the current generations are surprised to learn about it in early Church practice. That’s why I felt an image depicting that history was important, to visually add to that contemporary knowledge and discussions.
I am not advocating any particular position about women and priesthood or laying on of hands with this image. This is a historical painting.
As believing Latter-day Saints we follow current prophetic direction (the General Handbook states that only those who hold Melchizedek priesthood offices should administer a healing blessing).
What I am advocating through this image for today is women coming together in love and faith to comfort, care for, strengthen, heal, and minister to each other through the power of God that is available to them through their covenants and the Holy Ghost. There’s more ways to heal and minister than laying on hands.
What I am celebrating in this painting is women who know their divine potential and how to call upon the powers of heaven to help accomplish the work of salvation.
This is what Relief Society is all about, then and now. I hope people see this and more in this painting.
What feelings does Anthony Sweat try to evoke in “Purgatory”?
Although it is not what I call a “mantlepiece” painting (meaning you likely wouldn’t hang this in your home or church), this is among my most favorite pieces in the series.
This image depicts the evening when Joseph brought home the written revelation on plural marriage, found today in D&C 132.
The low firelight, the poses, the reddish coloring, all of it is meant to evoke the feeling of tension, confusion, pain, and misunderstanding.
Joseph and Emma apparently argued over the revelation for the next four days. It brought their marriage to the brink of divorce. Although they deeply loved each other, they couldn’t reconcile this revelation. Plural marriage was a difficult doctrine, and this painting attempts to represent some of the difficulties it caused.
God’s revelations are not always comfortable. Sometimes, “Thy will be done” produces pain, difficulty, sorrow, and struggle among the faithful. I wanted this image to communicate that.
How did Anthony Sweat try to embed the evolution of Joseph’s character in “Rough Stone”?
The title is obviously an homage to Joseph’s own statement of his life, and also to Richard Bushman’s seminal biography of the Prophet.
I decided that we had enough great paintings of Joseph that are polished. In some portrayals, Joseph sometimes takes on almost mythological status, like a Greek god striding among mere mortals. What we see is not a real person, but more of a caricature that has been created through certain curriculum, cinema, and images.
Most religious leaders, while brilliant and inspired, are also complicated and imperfect. Sometimes in our reverence for their genius we can smooth out every rough edge they may have with gentle layers of brushstrokes and luminescent varnish.
But it’s the very shadows that make highlights shine. Its texture that makes us relate and feel like we want to extend our hand to touch something. It’s each color—the reds and the blues, the yellows and greens—with all their symbolic meaning that makes things truly rich.
In my study of Joseph Smith as a scholar he is a colorful man; he is a mortal man; he is an inspired man; he is a revelatory man; all wrapped into one. I wanted to create an image of Joseph Smith that attempted to express these ideas through paint.
This portrait of the Prophet Joseph Smith symbolically represents the various aspects of his character—the varied warm and cool colors, painted thick and coarse with my palette knife, all coming together into a cohesive whole to inform his prophetic persona.
What would we learn about Joseph Smith if The Joseph Smith Papers were our only source to know him by?
This is a question I have often asked myself. It may be impossible to do, but if I stripped away everything I’ve learned from various secondhand sources and sermons, and just read his primary words and documents, I find myself amazed.
To be clear I haven’t read all the Joseph Smith Papers volumes (they continue to come out, and Legal and business records just hasn’t called to me yet) but from the ones I have read carefully and deeply, looking to come to know Joseph as a man, as a husband, as a friend, as a leader, as a teacher, and as a Prophet, I never cease to be amazed at the largeness of his soul, the grandness of his vision, the depth of his feeling, and the sincerity of his mission.
We sometimes form opinions of others without paying much of a price (for good and bad) to really come to know the person. I continue to try to pay that price to come to know Joseph Smith through the great primary sources that are at our collective disposal now, and I marvel at him more and more as I do so.
I hope to continue to come to know him, because through his revelations and work he has spring-boarded my coming to know my Savior and God more deeply and profoundly than any other mortal I’ve ever encountered in print or in person.
I love Joseph Smith and I believe with my whole soul in his prophetic calling.
Rank your top five historical or scriptural events that have yet to be presented in art.
In no particular order, here’s 10 (I have about 50 more!):
- The calling of the original 12 apostles by the three witnesses
- Orson Hyde and Heber C. Kimball’s vision of the infernal world when taking the gospel to England in 1837
- The Council of Fifty
- The 1844 oath meeting with the Higbees and Laws to conspire to kill Joseph
- The Angel who taught Joseph about the sacrament (D&C 27)
- The 1870 Great Indignation meeting in the tabernacle
- Inez Knight and Jennie Brimhall called as the first single sisters to serve full time missions in 1898
- The ordination of Wilford Woodruff on the Far West temple site
- The first miracle of the Church (Joseph casting the devil out of Newel Knight)
- Nearly the ENTIRE prophetic ministry of Brigham Young!
- Highlights from the Latest Joseph Smith Research
- The Council of Fifty Constitution
- Joseph Smith Translation Q&A
- BYU Professor Writes Martin Harris Biography
- Meet the Artist Behind ‘When Calls the Heart’