05 October 2008

From the WMoL Archives- The Vatican vs. Temple Square


Given this morning's announcement of a new temple in Rome, Italy, I thought it might be appropriate to republish one of my first posts, now updated.

My wife and I took a week-long trip to Rome this past October.  My wife had spent a couple of months in Rome several years ago as a student, and had been dying to go back (with me) ever since.  It was also one of our last chances to take a big European vacation before the birth of our first child.  Like any tourist in Rome, we had to make a stop at the Vatican.

If I had to guess, I would think that many Mormons feel a certain kind of secret and shameful envy of the Catholic Church (which they would never admit to, of course) due to its size, wealth, and power.  Not too mention competition, especially for any missionary who served in heavily Catholic countries.  I don't think that is necessarily an admirable character trait, but just putting that out there.  Being a Mormon visiting the Vatican, you cannot help but reflect on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Both are the physical and hierarchical centers of their respective faiths, and high-volume tourist spots to boot.  Plus, with this new development of a temple in Rome, you cannot ignore the tension and metaphor of plopping the perfect symbol of Mormonism right down into the heart of Roman Catholicism.

Here are some of my impressions about how they compare.

Temple Square is best described as an experience rather than simply a sight.  Everything about it is clearly aimed at impressing the visitor. From the sister missionaries in every conceivable language, to the visitor's centers, the carefully manicured landscaping, and everything around it, it is also a highly-managed experience (or at least we want it to be so).  Temple Square is beautiful, magically so, at almost any time of year (I am sure they have quite the budget for gardening).  For many of us, it is chiefly significant because of memories we have of it (first visits, weddings, etc.) and images that we see during General Conference. While one is aware that President Monson and other General Authorities occupy the huge office tower on Temple Square, your chances of bumping into them, or making an appointment to see them, are slim to none. If Temple Square is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because this is pretty and it makes you feel good.

The Vatican is also impressive, but more than this, it is overwhelming. This is the rhetoric and symbology of power, writ large. Everything is on a huge scale at the Vatican- the churches, the columns, the statues, etc. The sheer amount of art housed in St. Peter's and in the Vatican Museums is almost absurd. The art is beautiful, and the result of centuries of men's attempts to put God's (and the Church's) glory into some kind of visual representation. It is enough to make one feel small beside it (most likely an intentional effect). Famous pieces of art, like Rodin's Thinker (the original), are shoved off into some obscure corner where you would never notice unless you proceeded through very deliberately. Without the aid of sister missionaries (I don't think the Swiss Guard counts), most people will see the Vatican without the aid of a tour guide. Instead, you are left to yourself in awe of the riches and influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The experience is almost tiring. If the Vatican is meant to send a message, the message is: this must be true because how else would we get all this stuff?

Temple Square, while beautiful, is anything but overwhelming. I remember on my first visit there, how disappointed I was in the size of the SLC Temple. I guess it always just looked bigger on TV. The Conference Center, while much larger, is far too functional to be great art. Even the Church Office Building, while large, is only comparatively large with other huge skyscrapers in downtown SLC (like the Wells Fargo Building). And it is hardly an architectural masterpiece. On the other hand, St. Peter's is, by law, the largest and tallest building in all of Rome. The visitor's centers and Church Museum house no art by anyone instantly recognizable as being from one of the great masters, like the Vatican's Rafael and Michelangelo.

For my part, I choose the beauty and simplicity of Temple Square. It avoids the oppressive and overbearing nature of the Vatican, as well as the unfortunate times when Catholic art and architecture slips into the realm of the gaudy and morbid (there aren't any bones or relics on Temple Square that I am aware of).  While the Vatican is all stone and cold, Temple Square exudes a much more human warmth.

As the Church sets about to build a temple in the Eternal City, tons of questions come to mind.  The ones that intrigue me here are questions of its design.  Will this be a small temple or a large temple?  Will the Church attempt to imitate an older style of architecture or will it look more or less the same as all of the other temples we currently build?  I think to build another cookie cutter temple in Rome would be to miss out on a great opportunity.  Plus, I cannot think of another city where we currently have a temple where such a high value is placed on art and the aesthetic, not to mention really really old things.  A gleaming white brand new temple would just look out of place.  And finally, will the Church put the same old 10 or 20 pictures in the Rome Temple that we use in every temple?  I mean, the temple is never intended to serve as a museum for the patrons, and we only let visitors in once, but our art compares so poorly with the masters of Europe that I think it would be another missed opportunity to stick with the traditional and safe.

I, for one, will be following the developments surrounding the building of the Rome Italy temple with great interest and cannot wait to take my family back to Rome at a time when we can fit in a trip to a new "Temple Square" along with the standard sightseeing.
 Image:St Peter's Square, Vatican City - April 2007.jpghttp://www.mrm.org/files/images/photo-album/temple-square.jpg


  1. Made me smile and laugh. I have been to Salt Lake City but not to Rome (though I have visited many famous art galleries such as Louvre and Hermitage).
    At Temple Square I saw a sound and light show and multi-media propaganda that attempted to convince me of the loving family that would embrace me if I was a Mormon. I saw nothing at all that pertained to "art". The LDS churches that I see in my North American travels tend to be the plainest, ugliest and often largest churches in their towns. Large slab square sides and not in nice Corbussier way. They usually have parking lots only slightly smaller than that of the local Walmart. To think of one of those plunked down beside the chapels of Michelangelo or the Pantheon makes me cringe.
    I was also amused to read that you describe yourself as "a LDS convert, a thinker, and a liberal". Certainly those are an impossible combination are they not? Doesn't the Church of LDS require belief without thought? (Or do you really belief all that stuff about golden tablets buried in some farmer's field?) Also to conform to Mormon traditions as a liberal you must have an interesting and rather liberal definition of the word "liberal".

  2. To Gregory M. Your comments in your last paragraph are as narrow minded and ignorant. I suppose you think that to be a Catholic one must have nine children and do whatever one's local priest tells them. Stereotyping is a hallmark of an ignorant person.

  3. I love the simplicity compared to the opulence as well. The simple and elegent beauty of Temple Square is inspiring, while the Vatican (And I have been to the Vatican personally as well) as opulent and magnificent as it is, simply overwhelms and creates a sense of...not really awe, but more like ahh. Ahh, this is what they are about....if you get what I mean. It is more of a monument to the glories and skill of man, a showpiece intended to intiminate the world. Temple Square is a sacred place, a place for reflection and quiet moments. A place where memories are made and sealed with holy thoughts and feelings.
    Thank you for writing this post!

  4. It has been many years since I visited the Vatican but there are a couple of other items that I noticed.

    1. The Swiss Guards - they take their jobs VERY seriously and tend to be VERY large - as in tall and imposing. Don't let the cute outfits make you think they're anything like the Sisters on Temple Square.

    2. Vatican City is a separate country. I know many in Utah feel the Mormon Church runs things - but in Vatican City the Church IS the state.

    3. Everything at Temple Square is free - not so at the Vatican. Want to go on the roof? It costs. Want to go higher on the roof? Pay some more. Of course it goes back to you article - they are providing things worth seeing (the view from the roof or the Sistine Chapel).

    There is more - I appreciate that the church chose a site on the outskirts of Rome - less confrontational or competitive. Sort of like the nice Catholic Church there in Salt Lake - near temple square but not directly competing.

  5. I was lucky and had a chance to go through the Manhattan temple during the open house. I remember feeling a little dissapointed, with all the fancy architecture in New York City it was really plain and boring. But then after a while I relaized it was ment to be different and stand apart from the rest of the city. It has a calming effect, intead of itricate details, just plain and smooth so your mind isn't ditracted.

    Anyway I'll guess that the temple in Rome will stand apart from the rest in what ever way that will be.

  6. Your discussion itself seems to me to be an overt slam on Catholicism (nothing new there) and a blatant endorsement for Mormonism (lots new there, yet nothing new all at the same time). The simple act of building new churches will never acomplish the ultimate stated goal ( to bring more souls to the lord, ergo the Lord) and will instead accomplish the ongoing unstated policies of covert exertion of power and money collection/laundering activities. Bottom line? Religions divide people, spirituality unites them.

  7. The author’s comparison between the Vatican and Temple Square is an obvious reflection of his jealousy toward Holy Mother Church. One must be honest with him/her self and realize the fact that all the wonderful fruits of Western Culture come directly from the Roman Catholic Church (morality, science, law, art, music, economics); thus, Her buildings are filled with thousands of artifacts/documents/etc. reflecting 2010 years of Her contributions to mankind. The fact that Mormon temples are “plain” and “empty” is not by coincidence; it is actually metaphorical. It is difficult to portray images of proposed Book of Mormon events/artifacts/persons which fail ALL scientific scrutiny; thus, lacking objectiviey and substance.

  8. LDS Temples only look plain to those who do not have a strong faith in the LDS Church. The temples and churches are not meant for housing worldly materials, but to house the spirit of the Lord through simple things that wouldn't distract you from God's work on earth! The LDS church has more than efficient facts and materials in its possession, to prove to the world that the LDS Church is true and that the Book of Mormon is true. But facts and worldly materials cannot make anyone feel the spirit!!!It is by faith, study, and prayer that you find your own answers and decide for yourself what is true by listening to the spirit! The Church teaches us to respect others, give service to your communities and the world, feed the hungry, uphold the week, sick, lame, and the needy! Jesus Christ was our example of these concepts, so shouldn't we all strive to follow by his path and stop causing pain in others lives! I cannot change anyone elses beliefs by speaking to them, but if you were to study it out in your mind and pray about the scriptures and his holy prophets with a sincere heart then the spirit can help you to be a better servent to God! Power, posessions, and all the worlds scientific scrutiny will never destroy the faith of a true beliver in Jesus Christ and his church! A true saint is one who gives love but never expects it in return and NEVER asks for worldly things to be shown to them as proof in order to believe in Gods church! How many people in the world strive to give love, kindness and strength to others in need? Most people in the world prefer bashing other religions for their beliefs, instead of listening and understanding! You do not have to believe it yourself, but look at the good that most of the LDS members are trying to show the world, and atleast give us some respect for beliving in Christ! Do not scrutinize us because we dont like to show a lot of worldly things in our temples or churches. Our buildings might look plain to some, but to us it is beautiful to know of Gods love for each of us no matter what we might possess and to know that the spirit is always there as long as you are seeking for it!!!

  9. Just to go along with the comment posted above concerning the structure and interior of LDS temples, and how they can cause you to feel the spirit more, and the world to disappear for a time:

    The temple is a peaceful, sacred place, set apart from the cares and turmoil of the world. All areas of the temple are beautifully and carefully maintained to preserve a spirit of reverence. The temple has many rooms to accomplish the sacred ordinances that are performed there. And also to make covenants with the Lord .

    Those who attend the temple go to a dressing room to change from their street clothes into white clothing. This change of clothing serves as a reminder that visitors are temporarily leaving the world behind and entering a holy place. White clothing symbolizes purity, and the fact that all are dressed alike in the temple creates a sense of unity and equality.

    (No one can tell what profession you are or if you are rich or poor, by dressing the same while in the temple.)

    “Sometimes our minds are so beset with problems, and there are so many things clamoring for attention at once that we just cannot think clearly and see clearly. At the temple the dust of distraction seems to settle out, the fog and the haze seem to lift, and we can ‘see’ things that we were not able to see before and find a way through our troubles that we had not previously known.” ~ President Boyd K. Packer