by Sharon Lindbloom
2 January 2023
Just shy of 400 years ago, in the 1650s, Italian artist Carlo Maratta painted “The Holy Night,” a tender, nighttime depiction of Madonna and Child. In the painting, said to have been inspired by Correggio’s “Nativity,” the young Virgin Mary looks with adoration at her newborn babe from whom light seems to emanate. Cherub-like angels, faces lit by the light of Christ, joyfully look on. Today we find the image of Carlo Maratta’s painting reproduced on Christmas cards, mugs, and even postage stamps. It’s often used to adorn magazine articles and websites at Christmastime.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one entity that has freely used “The Holy Night” by Maratta, incorporating images of the painting into its materials since at least 2016. But during the 2022 Christmas season, something changed.
On December 29th The Salt Lake Tribune published an article that apparently caused the LDS church to remove “The Holy Night” image from its online resources for members. From The Salt Lake Tribune:
“On its website, the church shared 18 Nativity images for members to retrieve and share or maybe use as a screen saver on their laptops, tablets or phones. One of those pictures is a painting by Italian artist Carlo Maratta from the 1650s of the Virgin Mary and the Christ child — except that someone modified the painting before sharing it on the website…
“(As of Wednesday, after an inquiry from The Salt Lake Tribune, the Maratta image had been removed from the website.)” (Scott D. Pierce, “Latter-day Saints alter a Nativity painting to make Mary more modest”)
The LDS church’s version of Maratta’s painting differs from the original in several ways. The neckline of Mary’s dress has been drawn significantly higher, the curve of her bosom has been flattened, and the adoring angels have been entirely erased. The result of these LDS alterations is that the image now conforms to Mormon standards of modesty and better aligns with the church’s teachings about angels.
While some may be shocked by this effrontery, the alteration of a great artist’s work is nothing new for the LDS church. In 2012 The Salt Lake Tribune reported,
“…LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University staged an exhibit of [Danish artist Carl] Bloch’s giant altar paintings. Bloch’s work is, however, theologically touchy for Mormons in at least one element – angels. During the exhibit, curators acknowledged sheepishly that sometimes in the past the Utah-based church had airbrushed out angel wings on Bloch reproductions, reflecting the Mormon view that angels are resurrected humans, not some kind of flying creatures.” (Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Mormons alter Bloch’s angels so they’re wingless and not sleeveless,” 5/18/2012)
One of these altered Carl Bloch paintings, “The Resurrection,” had been published in the church’s December 2011 Ensign magazine and caused a bit of a stir. Not only had the angels’ wings been removed, but their clothing had also been altered to better cover their shoulders for modesty’s sake. (See Mormon Coffee’s blog post, “Airbrush Correlation Up to Mormon Standards” for more information.)
In the case of “The Resurrection” at least, the LDS church did not inform its Ensign readers that Carl Bloch’s painting had been altered. It was presented as if the altered image was the way the artist had originally painted it. (I’ve been unable to find the church’s attribution notes for the Maratta painting.)
As I’ve thought about the LDS church’s tendency to take the works of great artists and unscrupulously change them to suit its own objectives, I’ve found the whole scenario to be a fitting illustration of Mormonism’s so-called Restoration. The LDS church presents itself as true, restored Christianity, a work of God. In fact, the LDS church claims itself to be God’s only true church. “Mormonism is Christianity; Christianity is Mormonism,” insisted an LDS apostle, “they are one and the same, and they are not to be distinguished from each other in the minutest detail” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 1966, 513).
But just as the LDS church does with great paintings, it has done the same with Christianity; the original details have been unscrupulously altered and the new version presented as if it is the original, as if it is the great work of God.
God’s beautiful revelation of Himself and His great plan for the redemption of humankind was originally depicted for us in the Bible. It is here that we see God’s power, glory, and mercy on display in His recounting of creation, in His interaction with Adam and Eve, in the revelation of His eternal Godhood, and in His profound declaration, “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5). Each of these beautiful biblical truths, believed and embraced by Christians for 2,000 years, has been altered in Mormonism. (Compare doctrines on creation, Adam and Eve, eternal Godhood, and one true God.)
God originally painted for us a picture of His great mercy in Titus 3:4-7 where He says He saves us, not because of temple ordinances or covenant keeping (i.e., “works done by us in righteousness”), but according to His own mercy “poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” This original truth, too, has been altered in Mormonism. Friends, step back, stop, and see the amazing original work of art created for us by God Himself.
As it turns out, Mormonism’s so-called Restoration is really an “alteration” in which the LDS church took the beauty of God’s original eternal truth and changed it to suit and support its own unbiblical ideas. “Lift a neckline here, remove some wings there, what’s the harm? Look how the original has been improved!”
In the first chapter of the biblical book of Romans the apostle Paul explains the harm that comes from altering God’s revealed truth. He paints a dark and foreboding picture. “What can be known about God is plain to them,” he writes, “because God has shown it to them…So they are without excuse.”
The problem, Paul explains, is that even though they knew what God had revealed about Himself, they did not honor Him as God. “They became fools,” Paul says, “and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”
The people Paul writes about altered the original–just as Mormonism has done. They exchanged the true God for a false one and ended up worshiping an idol – an altered image — to their own spiritual destruction. Therefore, Paul says, the very wrath of God is brought upon them.
Friends, I invite you to look closely at God’s exquisite original. Without the distraction of Mormonism’s doctrinal alterations, the profound beauty of the glory of God shines through.
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