It began with a weather vane placed atop the newly completed Nauvoo Temple in 1846. Over the years it has become what is arguably the most recognizable symbol of the Church.
And when a statue of the angel Moroni is placed on the spire of the 50-year-old London England Temple later this year, it will carry forth a tradition that bespeaks a defining doctrine of the restored gospel. Moreover, it communicates unique Mormon belief regarding resurrection and the nature of heavenly beings.
The apostle John recorded this from his grand vision: “I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred and tongue, and people,
“Saying with a loud voice, Fear God and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of the waters” (Revelation 14:6-7).
Latter-day Saints believe, of course, that this prophecy foreshadows the angelic ministry by which the gospel was restored in latter days.
That belief was reflected by the weather vane angel in Nauvoo, shown in a drawing by temple architect William Weeks as a prone figure with trumpet to his lips and holding a book in his right hand. Perrigrine Sessions, who witnessed the fixture being set in place on Jan. 30, 1846, described it as “an angel in his priestly robes with a Book of Mormon in one hand and a trumpet in the other which is over laid with gold leaf” (journal entry quoted in Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo, a Place of Peace, a People of Promise, p. 254).
Richard G. Oman, an exhibit designer at the Museum of Church History and Art, pointed out that weather vanes were a familiar ornament for buildings in the New England architecture to which many Church members of the time were accustomed.
It was a cultural element they would carry with them to their new Zion in the Rocky Mountains, as evidenced by an early architectural drawing of the Salt Lake Temple, which depicts a weather vane angel atop the center spire on each end of the edifice.
It took 40 years to complete the temple, however. By the time it was finished in 1893, aesthetic tastes had changed, and weather vanes were no longer in vogue. Instead, a standing angel sculpture, gold-leafed, was commissioned to grace the temple’s highest spire.
By then, it was not just regarded as the prototypical angel of the Restoration foreseen in vision by John, but was given a specific identification: Moroni, the last prophet of the Book of Mormon and custodian of the Nephite record, he who as a resurrected being had delivered the golden plates to the young Prophet Joseph Smith.
Ironically, this first angel Moroni statue was sculpted by a man who was not a member of the Church and who didn’t even believe in angels.
Utah-born Cyrus Dallin was commissioned by President Wilford Woodruff to do the work. He declined at first, but the Church president persisted. Ultimately it was Dallin’s mother in Springville who persuaded him to accept the commission, saying, “Every time you return home and take me in your arms, you call me your ‘angel mother”‘ (quoted in Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Every Stone a Sermon, p. 48).
Dallin’s work was so impressive that an article in the Chicago Tribune of April 7, 1893, described it as being of “admirable proportions and graceful poise…. It is clearly outlined against the mountaintops and can be seen many miles away.” The San Francisco Chronicle in its edition of the same date told of electric lights illuminating the temple spires at night and added,
“Even Moroni, whose statue, fourteen feet high and covered with gold leaf, surmounts the capstone of the highest central tower, bears upon his crown an electric jet of 300-candle power” (both articles quoted in Holzapfel, p. 105).
Though Dallin studied latter-day scripture as well as John’s Book of Revelation in preparation for the assignment, there is little if anything in his neoclassical design of Moroni to suggest an ancient American prophet who in mortality had been a strong military commander, especially as today’s Church members have come to envision him. That would come in subsequent years, with the development of the Moroni figure as sculptors commissioned for later temples saw him.
That began by the early 1930s, when Norwegian-born sculptor Torlief Knaphus (who created the handcart sculpture on Temple Square) was asked to replicate Dallin’s Moroni to top the spire of a ward meetinghouse in Washington, D.C. The building has since been sold, and the Knaphus statue is now displayed in the Museum of Church History and Art. Brother Oman pointed out that though the statue is similar to the Dallin work, the musculature in the arms is more defined and the figure seems more robust.
Not long afterward, in 1934, the Church again commissioned Knaphus, this time to fashion a 10-foot-4-inch bronze Moroni statue to top a 30-foot shaft at the Hill Cumorah in Palmyra, N.Y., where Moroni delivered the Nephite plates to the Prophet Joseph. This time, the artist sculpted a bearded figure, his right arm raised to the square and his left arm clutching the plates. It was in sharp contrast to the earlier figure by Dallin.
“It’s interesting that the same artist is doing two angels at about the same period of time,” Brother Oman commented. “One looks very much like the angel on the Salt Lake Temple, which is like the angel of the Restoration. Another one is very obviously Moroni, because it’s on the Hill Cumorah. And they don’t look alike. So you can tell that at that period, they had not yet come together.”
The fusion of the two iconic figures would be complete by the time the Los Angeles California Temple was finished in 1956. It was a milestone occasion: the largest temple the Church had ever built, located in one of the population centers of the nation. Designed by Millard F. Malin, this second angel Moroni statue to grace a temple was a 15-foot figure with trumpet, Nephite plates and costume suggesting an ancient American culture.
Still, Moroni had not become a standard temple fixture: Subsequent edifices — in London; Switzerland; New Zealand; Oakland, Calif.; and later in Ogden and Provo, Utah — were not built with angel statues.
In 1976, another large and highly visible temple would be constructed, this one outside the nation’s capital. Prominent LDS artist Avard Fairbanks, while still in his youth, had worked on the bas relief frieze for the Church’s temple in Laie, Hawaii, depicting scriptural events. That work featured separate figures representing the angel of the Restoration and the angel Moroni giving the plates to Joseph. Brother Fairbanks now was commissioned to design the Moroni statue for the Washington D.C. Temple. The 18-foot statue subsequently would be the basis for bronze castings for the Seattle Washington, Jordan River Utah and Mexico City Mexico temples.
“Now, we’ve got some momentum going for the idea of angels on temples,” Brother Oman said of that post-1976 period. “It doesn’t totally take over yet. We build temples after that with no statues.”
But by then, the Moroni statue had become a visual cue immediately communicating to onlookers from a distance that a building is a temple constructed by the Latter-day Saints.
More recent temples — and earlier ones that have been retrofitted with Moroni — feature angel-statue designs made in 1978 and 1998 by Karl Quilter. The tell-tale Book of Mormon plates have been discontinued, but that is of little consequence, as an angel atop a temple has long since been clearly established in the public mind as a representation of the resurrected Moroni, who fills the role of the angel of the Restoration in John’s vision.
For Brother Oman, the angel figure on the temples reflects an interesting characteristic of Mormonism: “We latch onto an idea, bring it into our culture and religious faith and, in essence, Mormonize a secular idea.”
Thus, a weather vane angel was used at a time when weather vanes were common features on public buildings. Statuary on top of buildings was a familiar custom in the 1860s and thereafter, exemplified by the figures atop the nation’s Capitol in Washington D.C. and the one on the Salt Lake City-County Building.
Latter-day Saints carried forth that custom, “but we encrusted it with religious meaning and spiritual significance,” Brother Oman said. Nowadays, public buildings do not have sculptures on them. “But Mormons are building more temples around the world, and we’re putting sculptures on them more frequently than ever before. So now there are figures on buildings in architectural styles that never would have had any sculpture on them, except that they’re Mormon buildings.”
As prevalent as they now are, Brother Oman noted, the angel statues, in contrast to age-old understandings in other religious traditions, convey the Latter-day Saint conception of angels as beings who lived and died on earth, have been resurrected, have gender and identity, and have important purposes to carry out in God’s eternal work.
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