Skip to main content
David O. Mckay Lectures

We Would See Jesus: Visual Piety

I feel deeply honored to present the David O. McKay Lecture this morning. David O. McKay is a hero of mine. He has always stood out in my mind as the prototype of what a prophet is and should be. While preparing for this occasion I thought often of President McKay and came to the realization that most of us here today only know him as a historical figure. Since there are only few of use left who are actually old enough to have seen or e met President McKay I would like to begin by sharing with you one of my  three meetings with the prophet. This encounter was a brief but defining moment in my young life.

Forty years ago, almost to the day, I was a fresh missionary in the Missionary Training Center which, at that time, was in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was a very cold and dark morning as my companion and I made the short walk from the MTC around the corner to the basement of the Hotel Utah where we went each morning for breakfast. With my new overcoat buttoned to the neck, scarf pulled up to protect my ears and my new hat pulled down tight over my head I bent into the cold looking down at the ground concentrating on the white steam that escaped with each exhale. The only sound that early morning was that of our shoes crackling on the icy sidewalk with each step on our quest for food.

Thought I was and enthusiastic young missionary I did not like the cold winter weather and I remember not having cheerful thoughts that morning as we walked along silently. The streets were empty except for a couple of missionaries following about ten yards behind us and an older man approaching us. As the old man passed by he said, "Good morning, Elders." Without looking up, I said good morning in unison with my companion; but I remember an abrupt change in my feelings....A warmth, a calm cheerfulness overcame my spirit. I was mussing over this change of feeling when I heard the voice of the old man saying, "Good morning Elders" to the pair walking behind us. Those Elders responded, "Good morning, President McKay."

I stopped in my tracks and turned, along with my companion, to look at the prophet. The white hair on his collar, under his hat, confirmed that is was indeed the Prophet, David O. McKay. I was so into my little misery that I didn't even notice that the greeter was President McKay. I now understood the warmth and good cheer that permeated my soul at the nearness and voice of the prophet. I wanted to run back and look at his face.... I wanted to see him.

Not unlike my experience with the prophet, one day, during the meridian of time, when the Disciples of Christ were gathered together, a group of strangers approached them. Speaking to Philip, they asked: "Sir, we would see Jesus" (John 12:21). This same question has motivated millions of Christians across the millennium. It has been the driving force behind all the religious visual arts; it's the question that has inspired artists from Michelangelo to Greg Olsen;it even touches us as we reflect upon the importance of Jesus Christ for our lives. "Sir, we would see Jesus."

In spite of the critics who remind us that we have no tangible evidence of Jesus' physiognomy and the pious who characterized religious art as the production  of "graven images," artists continued to create images of the Savior that have become icons of our Christian faith. Material Christianity in the twentieth century has provided us with the plethora of reproductions of religious art in the twentieth century has blurred the line "Sacred" (the church, the temple. The transcendental) and the "Profane" (the workplace, the home, the commonplace). Emile Durkheim, in 1915, was emphatic when he stated that, "Religious life and the profane life [could] not exist in the same place." (P.347). This dichotomous view of the sacred and the profane is still debated today; however, it is difficult to imagine a religious life without pictured and the other material icons present in our homes, offices, and other familiar or common places. Pictures with religious themes, sculptures, jewelry, even key chains, T-shirts, and bumper stickers are ever present to suggest the scared in common settings.

The availability of good quality, inexpensive copies of religious paintings is something we take for granted today. The techniques of lithography and chromolithography developed in the 1800s, made it possible to reproduce works of art and create engraved images, but prior to the 1940s the vas majority of religious pictures were still only found in cathedrals, museums, or in the homes of wealthy patrons of the arts McDannell (1995 observed that, "Photomechanical reproduction in the twentieth century meant that cheap copies of religious paintings would be available to Protestant households." (p.27). this ability to mass-produce art inexpensively would change the landscape of religion forever. Durkheim, I am sure, would see today's secularization of religious art as crass and blasphemous.

 Most of you present today who have grown up in the Church  have don so with the memory of pictures of Jesus and other icons in your homes. This is by design, but some of  us who are older remember when these religious objects were not so plentiful. In the 1950s, as a youngster growing up in the Church, I can remember only two picture reproductions of the Savior and they were  in the LDS Chapel where I attended meetings. One was Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, by Heinrich Hofmann (1890), and the other was Warner Sallman's Head of Christ (1940). There were other pictures of Jesus- after all his likeness has been reproduced more than any other subject in art- but these were the two with which I was most familiar. Both pictures are representational in their depiction of Jesus, with the apocryphal physical characteristics which we have grown accustomed to seeing. These two pictures demanded, and received, my attention, awe, and reverence. Whatever else they may or may not have been they were "sacred" to me.

The artists of these two reproduction could not have had more different backgrounds. Heinrich Hofmann was a professional artist who, among his body of work, painted the " life of Christ Series" at the end of the 19th century. Warner Sallman, on the other hand, was a commercial artist who made his living drawing figures for advertisement in the newspapers and magazines shortly after the depression.  His Head of Christ  picture began as a pencil drawing  for the cover of a church bulletin for his Methodist congregation, which he later reproduced in oil in 1940. Hofmann's picture was nearly six feet high and four and a half feet wide intended fro a church or cathedral wall, whereas Sallman's  picture was not more than two  feet square, suitable, perhaps, ass a portrait for his den.

Sallman's Head of Christ was, more than any other religious picture, reproduced and displayed in common settings. It is the most widely circulated and universally accepted picture of Jesus in the world, having been reproduced more than half a billion times by 1986 (Morgan, 1996). Sallman's picture remains the standard rendition of Christ for most of the Christian world today. However, was one of only a few renditions of Jesus that was mass produced for public consumption.

In an effort to create more religious art appropriate for Latter-day Saints, the Church, in the early 1960s, commissioned several non-LDS artists along with Arnold Friberg, who was considered to be the "finest illustrator in the Church," to create "Church approved pictures" with religious themes. Friberg was perhaps best know for his " Book of Mormon" picture series. This was all part of an organized Church effort called the Gospel-in-Art-Program.

In the November 1961 issue of the Improvement Era this " New Era Gospel-in -Art-Program" was introduced. "for over 64 years." Ii was announced, " the Improvement Era has provide its readers with the finest in Church literature. The Era now takes great pride in announcing another vital program intended to strengthen the faith and testimony of the entire membership of the Church and others who may com under its influence by providing the best in religious art."

( Improvement Era, Nov. 1961, p. 851). As part of this announcement an introductory offer was made for the Era subscribers to purchase a 15" by 26" print of Friberg's Peace Be Still on heavy art board for $2.50. Also commissioned, during this initial Gospel-in-Art-Program, was a replica of the Thorvaldsen's Christus sculpted by Aldo Rebechi in 1965. The Christus is a familiar center piece found in LDS visitor's centers.

By the mid-1960s the Gospel-in-Art-Program began to languish, but found new life in the early 1970s when Harry Anderson, a well respected Seventh-day Adventist artist, was commissioned to create religious art for the Church. Noel Carmack (2000) said of Anderson's work, " By mid-1989s, Harry Anderson's paintings would define the modern LDS visual perception of Christ as a  compassionate ministering servant. Anderson's works were perhaps some of the most reproduced and highly recognized depictions of Christ during the period" (p.44).

To explain the Church's commitment to visual piety, an article appeared in the December 1973 Ensign magazine containing this story:

A mother sadly reported to her bishop that her three sons had left home to join the navy. Why they had done this, in view of other opportunities for employment, further schooling, missions, or even another branch of service was very perplexing to this loving mother. The bishop tried to comfort her by explaining the need young people have to "break away" from home- but he too, found their action unusual and difficult to explain. Then the bishop decided to visit the family home. As he entered the living room, his eye was immediately drawn to a large painting of a ship under full sail. It was the only piece of art in the room. "There is your reason," he told the mother. "As your sons have grown up, you have told them every day through this painting of the romance and adventure of the sea. Your have taught them well. Now wonder they all joined the navy." (Maryon, 1973, p.46)

This true story was reported by Ed Maryon in the Ensign magazine article entitled, "Look at your walls. What d you see?" The article was a continuation of the Church's Gospel-in-Art-Program and Dr. Maryon, who at the time was the dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah, had been solicited to once again describe the Church's Gospel-in-Art-Program to its Ensign readers.

 He went on in the article to pose the questions to Latter-day Saints: "Do we fully realize the influence of visual images in the home? What kind of images should be in a Mormon home? Can visual images help explain what we believe?" (Maryon, 1973, p 47).

Maryon (1973) suggested that one of the main reasons for the lack of religious art in the homes was the "unavailability of the fine prints and paintings. Very few contemporary works [were} appropriate for use, and access to acceptable and sensitive historical works were equally difficult to obtain. Fortunately, quality "Mormon" oriented art is becoming more available" Maryon announced (1973, p. 47)

In the summer of 1983, the Church Correlation Committee commissioned an LDS artist, Del parson, to do a painting of Jesus Christ. In April of 1984, the painting entitled The Lord Jesus Christ was published in the Ensign and copies of the painting were made available for purchase through the Church's Salt Lake City Distribution Center. Today , reproductions of this painting can be found in most LDS homes, bishops offices, and work stations for many Latter-day Saints. I have even heard of the picture being referred to as " the Mormon Jesus." However, it is only one more picture in the growing line of pictures intended for our edification.

Over the pas four decades we Latter-day Saints have had lots of inexpensive are made available to us and we have certainly been encouraged to own and display these images to reflect our faith in the hope that they will lift us spiritually and have a similar impact on others who may see our religious images. Other than personal observation and anecdotal stories, we really don't know whether the Gospel-in-the Art program achieved its intended goals. Maryon's 1973 Ensign article contained many questions that have, heretofore, not been examined. Do Latter-day Saints display religious art in their homes? What kind of images do Church members have? Do these images explain or convey what we believe? Do these images help us to be more spiritual? And, of course, there are the other concerns associated with religious icons, such as: do the icons being to harbor talismanic power or qualities? Do the symbols themselves begin to stand in for the sacred subjects they represent? Or worse, does the sacred become common or profane, holy hardware, Christian kitsch, Jesus junk?

In 1995, I began a series of research project to investigate the presence of religious icons, particularly pictures of Jesus, and the value people attach to these images. Initially I did a descriptive study to identify what specific icons were frequently found in the LDS homes, where these icons were displayed, and what value was attached to these images.

Using a variation of the Possession Rating Scale developed and validated by Marsha L. Richins (1994) to measure the public and private meaning of possessions I surveyed more than 200 active Latter-day Saints in Hawaii, California and Utah. The participants were asked to walk through their homes, identify any and all religious pictures they had, tell where the pictures were located in the home and identify the value that best described why they displayed the picture in their home.

The value options given to the participants were as follows:

  1. Enjoyment: The picture provides enjoyment, entertainment, improves my mood, provides comfort or emotional security.
  2. Represents interpersonal relationships: The picture reminds me of my relationship with a particular person, friend, or relative. It reminds me of my childhood
  3. Self-expressive: The picture allows me to express myself. It expresses what is unique about me, different from others
  4. financial: The picture is seen as having value in terms of money
  5. Appearance: The picture is beautiful or attractive in appearance. It improves the appearance of the place it is in
  6. Status: The picture has social prestige value. It gives me social status and makes others think well of me.
  7. Spiritual Protection: The picture provides me with a spiritual link to divine or higher forces. It gives me spiritual power or protection
  8. Personal: The picture reminds me and others of who we are and what we believe.
  9. Missionary: The picture tells others who I am and what I believe. It gives me the opportunity to talk with others about what I believe.
  10. No Value: The picture is just an item that I attach no particular value to at all.

The results show that LDS homes display and average of 4.2 pictures of Jesus, with a range of zero to as many as 25 pictures of the Savior per home. It was interesting to me that every participant who had no pictures of Jesus displayed in their homes (though few in number) expressed feelings of guilt, were apologetic, and offered explanations for not having them in their homes. More than two-thirds of the pictures displayed in the U.S. homes were of Jesus. The rest were of the temples, prophets, etc.
These pictures were found in every conceivable room in the house, with 27% of them being displayed in the public areas such as the living room, den, kitchen, etc. nearly three-fourths of the pictures of Jesus (73%), however, were located in private or personal areas like bedrooms.

The value most frequently identified by the participants for these pictures of Jesus was that they served as a person reminder of who they were and what they believed. The second most identified value was enjoyment: they found that the pictures improved their moods and provide comfort. Third was that the picture represented some interpersonal tie; the picture had been handed down from grandparent to parent to child, etc. fourth, they liked the appearance or beauty of the picture. Fifth was the talismanic value: the picture was seen as giving them some spiritual power or protection (this was identified as a value by less then ten percent of the participants). Sixth, the pictures were identified as serving a missionary function (8,9%) and seventh, they values the picture as a means of self expression, a means of identifying how they were different from others.

All of the pictures had some identifiable value to the participants, but no one in the study identified a picture for its financial value nor did they value any of the pictures of Jesus because they gave them any particular status among their peers. These results support the intent of the Gospel-in-Art Program and they answer the questions addressed by Dr. Ed Maryon to some degree.

Shortly after I completed this study, a senior Japanese psychology major, Hazuki Tanaka, became interested in the study and wanted to survey LDS families in Japan to see if pictures of Jesus were viewed the same way outside the center of the Church. After several translations and back translations of the survey instrument, she administered the survey to more than 100 active LDS families in three different metropolitan areas in Japan. The results were interestingly similar in some ways and curiously different in other respects

The Japanese participants had as smaller range (1-4) and averaged only 2.2 pictures per home. Unlike in the U.S. sample, the Japanese placed more of their pictures in public rooms, like the living room, and far fewer pictures were located in private areas like bedrooms. Only about half of the pictures displayed by the Japanese were of Jesus, with the other half being of church buildings, such as temples, and general authorities, current and historical.

The difference in they type of picture displayed and the location of the pictures is reflected in the value the participants attach to the pictures. Sixty-five percent of the Japanese participants identified the value attached to their pictures as being for missionary work. Knowing this explains why they would display them in there living rooms rather than private area. Less than nine percent of the U.S sample identified the missionary value of their picture. Approximately the same percentage of Japanese participants valued the pictures because they served as personal reminders of who they were and what they believed and enjoyment as a value for religious pictures they displayed.

Of particular curiosity among the Japanese subject was that more then half (52%) valued their religious pictures because they provided them with spiritual protection. This, if it is true, would be rather disconcerting. I submit that perhaps through the translation process of the survey, the Japanese participants read and interpret the explanation of that value differently then the U.S sample: but I don't think so.

One of the curious findings of this descriptive study was that they Japanese LDS displayed significantly fewer pictures of Jesus than did the Latter-day Saints in the United States. A possible explanation that came from the discussion of this study was that perhaps the Japanese didn't identify as strongly with the western features found in the majority of the representational reproductions of Jesus.

James Springer, a BYUH graduate of 1999, and I devised a strategy to test this hypothesis. Before I explain our methodology I would like to show you four pictures and have you become participants in our study.

Although no one knows exactly what Jesus looks like, many artists have attempted to create a visual representation of him through their art. Here are four variations of a picture of Jesus by an artist. Please identify the rendition that you find the most appealing:

This picture of Christ was painted by a Spanish artist, Bartolome' Esteban Murillo, circa 1672. We scanned Murillo's picture into the computer and using Photoshop, we morphed three variations of the painting, subtly changing some of facial characteristics to reflect certain specific ethnic characteristics. Picture #1 (upper left corner) was morphed to show Asian features. Picture #2 (upper right corner) was changed to make the face look more western European, American. The third picture (lower left corner) is the original painting which has Spanish, Mediterranean feature. Picture # 4 was modified to look more Polynesian. Our hypothesis was that people would subconsciously find the picture that reflected their own ethnic features the most appealing.

In a pilot study of fifteen people we were encouraged by obtaining the results we expected, but when we administered the actual test to 100 participants equally dived among the three ethnic groups represented (Asian, Caucasian and Polynesian), we did not get any statistically significant results to support our hypothesis. The participants did not reliably choose their won ethnicity as the picture preference. We were a little disappointed with the results, especially after the pilot study seemed hopeful. As we reexamined our data, however, we did find something we had not anticipated. We discovered that the majority of the participants choose picture #2, the on we modified to look more Western European. This is interesting and significant. It does not mean that our morphing of Murillo's picture improved it, it means the subjects were choosing the picture that reflects the western features most frequently represented in popular picture of Christ used by the Church today. Which picture did you choose as most appealing? I would expect that most of you chose picture number two. God created man in his image, and now, it would appear, we are creating God, or at least Jesus, in our (western European) image.

The Gospel-in-Art program has helped perpetuate an "acceptable" image of Christ over the last three decades by printing over 1300 pictures of Jesus in the Ensign alone. In the 1970s, there was an average of 20 pictures of Jesus printed each year. In the decade of the '80s, it increased to an average of nearly 37 images of Christ each year. In the decade just completed (1990s), the number of pictures of Jesus more than doubled to an average of 75 pictures per year; that's an average of more than 6 pictures per issue (Carmack, 2000).

During the past few years as I have been engaged in this line of research, I have been curious about the proliferation of the material kitsch used by the Latter-day Saints. We have jewelry CTR rings and necklaces, consecrated oil key chains, Angel Moronic pins, and LDS pins. We have art work: besides pictures of Jesus we have pictures of temples, prophets and other general authorities, Book of Mormon themed pictures, LDS posters for teens, statues, sculptures, and pioneer objects d'art. LDS musicals and LDS pop music CDs. There are Book of Mormon action figures activity books for Sacrament Meeting, and LDS coloring books for our children. And we haven't even gotten to the Relief Society crafts, Scriptures Cozies, books, magazines, or calendars. This list only scrapes the surface.

I observed that Christian book stores have been pooping up in shopping centers and strip mall s all over the country and wondered if we, as LDS, were just following the curve of religious materialism. Growing out of this curiosity came another research project which I conducted two years ago.

In this study I sent surveys out to hundreds of students at three religiously sponsored universities. Brigham Young University Hawaii was the source for our LDS sample; Gonzo University in Washington provided the Catholic sample, and Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma provided a student sample of charismatic Pentecostals. I was curious as to what sorts of religious items these students had in their rooms, how many, and the value they attributed it to these material items.

As I began collecting data for the study, I hypothesized that the Catholic population would have the most items but felt that the Charismatic Pentecostals would be close behind because of the growth in the number of Christian bookstores. I assumed that we Latter-day Saints would be at the bottom with the least material religious "stuff."

It took dome time to list and categorizes all the religious items these students had collected, but the results were rather interesting. Overall we Latter-day Saints had more religious "stuff" per capita than the Catholic university students were second and the Charismatic Pentecostal students had the least overall.

The Catholic sample had more crosses, crucifixes, images of Mary, and statues of saints, while the Charismatic Pentecostal sample led the way with Gospel rock music and Christian pop music and posters of Christian pop musicians. When it came to images of Christ, the LDS sample had, far and away, the most pictures of Jesus, mostly as a teacher, leader, or the resurrected Savior. The Charismatic Pentecostals had very few images of Jesus, while the Catholic students had several, the majority of which were of the suffering Jesus, the traditional crucifix.

The majority of the Catholic students identified their icons as having talismanic value. They felt that their objects gave them some sort of spiritual power or protection. Surprisingly, to me, around 20 percent of the LDS students identified their scriptures as having talismanic value. The Charismatic Pentecostals valued very few of their religious objects for talismanic reasons. The most common values attributed by the LDS and Charismatic Pentecostals were the enjoyment they received from having the object and that the object served as person reminder of who they where and what they believe. And I reflect on the data collected in these studies and try to generalize what it might mean for us, I come up with these conclusions. First, since the Gospel-in-Arts Program began in the 1960s, the number and variety of material icons available to Latter-day Saints has grown dramatically. The reason identified by the Gospel-in -Arts program was to turn our thoughts to Him more often. In addition, the images were to serve as a missionary factor in our lives. An express part of this missionary purpose, I am sure, is to confirm to others that we, as Latter-day Saints, are Christian, that we accept Jesus as our Savior. We even modified the logo of the Church to emphasize his name on our building and letterhead: "The Church of JESUS CHRIST of Latter-day Saints."

We as members of the Church have collected lots of material reminders of the sacred that display in common settings-our rooms, our homes, our offices and work places. If these symbols of the sacred draw us closer to that which is holy, if they place in our hearts the ideals of the Savior, if the presence of these religious icons make us better people, and it they function as a missionary tool, then it is good and right that we have them around with us.

On the other hand, if these religious objects simply become kitsch, if they reduce the sacred to a profane or common status, or if they object themselves become the center and focus of our worship, then we become no better than the children of Israel as they worshipped a golden calf in the wilderness.

The measure of the man or woman is not to be found on our walls but in our hearts. Knowing God is not through familiarity with the physiognomy of the Savior in the art work we have grown to love, but rather it is in the love we have for the Savior and the gratitude we feel for the art of His work and sacrifice in our behalf.

Doctrine and Covenants 93:1 says, "It shall come to pas that every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall SEE MY FACE and know that I am." It is my hope and prayer that we will all see Jesus.


Carmack, N. (2000). Images of Christ in Latter-day Saint visual culture,

1990-1999. In BYU Studies, 39. 18-76

Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Section 93 verse1. (1962) Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Durkheim, E (1915). The elementary forms of the religious life, trans. New York: Free Press.

The New Era gospel-in-art program: A vital, thrilling gospel-sharing plan.

In the Improvement Era. (Nov, 1961). Pp. 850-851.

Jackson, R.S. (Nov, 1997). The presence and value attached to religious icons found in Catholic, Charismatic Pentecostal, and Latter-day Saint college student's rooms. Presented to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Montreal, Canada.

Jackson, R. S. (Nov, 1996). The presence of denominational "icons in Latter-day Saint homes in selected Pacific Basin and Asian Rim Cultures. Presented to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Nashville, Tennessee.

The Holy Bible. KJV. John Chapter 12 verse 21.

Maryon, E. (Dec, 1973). Look at your walls. What do you see? In The Ensign. 44-48.

McDannell, C. (1995). Material Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Morgan. D. (1999). Protestants and pictures: Religion, visual culture, and the age of American mass production. New York: Oxford University Press.

Morgan, D. ed. (1996) Icons of American Protestantism: the art of Warner Sallman. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Richins, M. L. (1994). The public and private meanings of possessions. Journal of Consumer Research. 21, 504-521.

Tanaka, Hazuki (1997). The presence of denominational "icons" in Latter-day Saint home in Japan. Senior Psychology Research Paper. (Unpublished).

Springer, James. (1999). Morphing pictures of Jesus to satisfy cross-cultural needs. Senior Psychology Research Paper. (Unpublished).