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Gendering Mormon Temple Architecture

3 Apr

Michael Haycock, who has his own blog here, joins us again with this insightful piece.

In recent research for a term paper on Mormonism and native Hawaiian culture for my history course on the American West, I came across Frank Salamone’s essay on “The Polynesian Cultural Center and the Mormon Image of Body.” Salamone discusses the alterations made in traditional Polynesian dress made at the Center to accommodate LDS conceptions of modesty, gender differentials in bodily coverage, and subversions of modesty through manner of dance and personal comportment.

While I will save for another day his analysis that greater male bareness at the Polynesian Cultural Center is reflective of Mormon gender ideology, I would like to focus here on another observation he makes, taking a cue from another researcher: “As Knowlton mentions, Mormons are surrounded by phallic symbols in their religious imagery, including the architecture of their temples.”

My immediate reaction was a sort of revulsion; how could one relate the ethereal heaven-reaching spires to something so base?  Furthermore, I felt that this analysis reflected a sort of Freudian phallomania. Could temple spires truly be conceived as symbols of such dramatic masculinity? I do not think it is anywhere near that simple.

Here is the church house, here is the steeple...

Even as Salamone qualifies that “American Mormons are a bit more subtle and shy about these images [than Pacific Islanders],” I think that cultural context must be considered when judging Mormon architecture. First, it arose in the American Northeast and West, were the country church reigned supreme: a rectangular structure, roof pitched to the sides, and a steeple housing a bell by whose ringing the community might measure time in the absence of clocks. This, in turn, was influenced by hundreds of years of European church-building, wherein the spired bell tower was literally the pinnacle of community achievement and served as a significant civic and ecclesiastical landmark. The dramatic Catholic cathedral, roughened and simplified by frontier Protestantism, has had an enormous impact on Mormon designs. The Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, save for the interior arrangement of their assembly halls and other ordinance-specific designs, had more to do with the neighborhood church with its amalgamation of folk architectural vocabularies than the Mormon theology reflected in incidental surface details (sunstones and moonstones, for example). If the spire is a phallus, it’s a democratized European one. (Were Tocqueville an architect, he’d have written a book on this.)

Moreover, sometimes Mormon architects tend to do strange things. There’s a reason that the Washington DC and San Diegotemples are likened to fantasy castles: they articulate architectural movements of their times in ways that are mostly unparalleled in the modern world. People don’t quite know what to make of them.

You should see it with a Hollywood marquee. Yup.

(Humorously, the South Park creators knew exactly what to do: they based the stage frame for the Book of Mormon musical on the San Diego Temple itself, and play on the peculiarity of its design by shifting its lighting throughout the production.)

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Picturing Female Body Parts

25 Aug

One of the things that is unavoidable in London is the Evening Standard, a free newspaper hawked by dozens of men and women standing in tube stations.  Walk past King’s Cross, Tottenham Court Road, or Euston at any time during the day and someone is going to try to hand you a copy.  Today on the train to Cambridge I grabbed a copy so that I had something to read on the approximately hour long journey. One of the articles was a fun yet nuanced look at the popularity of art depicting vaginas.  Although I get squeamish even writing the word, I appreciated the artwork that was showcased.  Continue reading

Thanks, Ye Olde Facebooke, for This Classic Weather Report

22 Jan

Judith in Gulabi

15 Sep

I remember the first time I saw Artemesia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes. It was in my European history class in high school. I was astounded. Should a woman be doing that, I wondered? At the same time, I was intoxicated by her display of female power. In the painting, a woman has seduced a general to help her people, who are besieged by the Assyrians; and she is beheading him. Although Judith grimaces slightly, she and her handmaid seem relatively emotionless as they are going about this brutal task. The general Holofernes, completely drunk, has no time to react, and a cruel spurt of blood ejects from his neck. Judith looks like she’s slicing a large piece of meat. Her cleavage shows, underscoring the power of her sexuality as she exacts revenge and helps to free her people. Continue reading