Museum director explains how light in Notre Dame, temples ‘brings us out of the darkness,’ during BYU Education Week

Rita R. Wright, interim director of the Utah Valley University Museum of Art, explained the symbolic significance of light in Gothic cathedrals and Latter-day Saint temples

Rita R. Wright, interim director of the Utah Valley University Museum of Art, spoke on the symbolic significance of light in Gothic-style cathedrals — such as Notre Dame in Paris, France — and Latter-day Saint Temples during a course on Tuesday, Aug. 22, as a part of BYU Education Week.

Her class, titled, “Notre Dame Cathedral: Out of Darkness, into the Light,” is part of a four-course series taking place from Tuesday through Friday, Aug. 25, called “Profound Learning through Masterworks of Religious Art.”

Wright started her presentation with a quote from a BYU speech by President Boyd K. Packer, former president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “We are able to feel and learn very quickly through music, through art, through poetry, some spiritual things that we would otherwise learn very slowly.”

Spiritual lessons learned through symbolism

Wright showed how symbolism in art can convey spiritual lessons by displaying in front of the class a picture of a painting called “The Shadow of Death” by William Holman Hunt, which depicts a young Jesus Christ before His ministry, stretching His arms after a day of woodworking.

“The Shadow of Death” painting showing a young Jesus Christ before his ministry, stretching his arms after a day of woodworking.
“The Shadow of Death” by William Holman Hunt. | Joseph Winterbotham Collection

She then pointed out the rich symbolism in the painting that foreshadows His Crucifixion — a red headdress in the bottom of the image foretells of the crown of thorns He would be forced to wear, the shadow that Jesus casts onto the wall behind him is pierced by nails that hang on the wall and Mary searches for gold, frankincense and myrrh in a chest behind the Savior.

She then showed a quote that Elder Dallin H. Oaks, then of the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, used in a 1985 general conference talk from Elder John A. Widtsoe of the Twelve: “There is a spiritual meaning of all human acts and earthly events. … It is the business of man to find the spiritual meaning of earthly things. … No man is quite so happy … as he who backs all his labors by such a spiritual interpretation and understanding of the acts of his life.”

Wright continued, saying, “I’ve had some of the most profound spiritual experiences when I didn’t even expect them, but because I was immersed in looking for something good, true and beautiful.”

‘It is about light’

Wright explained how, in the early 12th century, the French Abbot Suger of St. Denis constructed in the city what is largely regarded as the first Gothic-style cathedral, expanding an existing Romanesque style of church building into a larger edifice. A key element in this redesign was to also to raise the height of the building, which allowed significantly more light to stream through the windows.

The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in 2017.
The Notre Dame cathedral in Paris on April 2017. | Scott Taylor, Church News

“He wanted to open up the windows, go higher and higher, to let more light in, because light suggested spirituality and the light of God,” she said.

This same Gothic design was used in the Notre Dame de Paris cathedral when its construction began in 1163. Wright then equated the importance of physical light and its symbolic meaning in Gothic cathedrals to the element of light in Latter-day Saint temples.

The grand staircase in the Paris France Temple.
The grand staircase in the Paris France Temple. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“I happened to be driving on the freeway the other night up here,” she said, “and I was coming from the south ... and the light of the [Saratoga Springs] temple there off of the freeway just hit me — that it is about light. There’s physical light, there’s the light of the Spirit ... which again, brings us out of the darkness.”

Saratoga Springs Utah Temple at dusk
Saratoga Springs Utah Temple on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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