I’ve mentioned before that I support the Salt Lake Tribune’s Mormon Land podcast on Patreon, one of the perks of which is that I get access to the Tribune’s Mormon coverage without having to subscribe to the whole paper (which would be a lot of money for someone who doesn’t care about Jazz coverage or Utah politics).
Thanks to this Patreon perk, I read a lot of news about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and between that and over three decades that I spent as an active member of that church, you’d think that nothing would surprise me anymore. Yet, I was still taken aback by an article that showed up in my email inbox last night: Latter-day Saints alter a Nativity painting to make Mary more modest.
Here’s a before and after of the painting in question:
And here’s the first few paragraphs of the Tribune’s coverage:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encouraged members to download a painting of Mary and the baby Jesus for Christmas, but it was an edited version — altered to remove a hint of Mary’s cleavage.
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.
In the original Maratta painting, titled “The Holy Night” or “The Nativity,” small angels peek past Mary to gaze at the baby. In the church’s version, the angels have been removed.
(As of Wednesday, after an inquiry from The Salt Lake Tribune, the Maratta image had been removed from the website.)
In Maratta’s original, Mary shows a hint of cleavage as she gazes adoringly at her newborn. In the Latter-day Saint version, someone has not only given Mary a higher neckline but also moved a shawl a bit higher on her left shoulder, giving her added modesty after more than 3½ centuries.
The church declined to comment on the altered artwork.
Thinking about this article over the last 18 hours or so has made me think about Latter-day Saint modesty worship, and how I’m glad that’s one of the things that I’ve let go of as part of my faith transition. There was a time in my life when Mary’s ever-so-slight cleavage in that painting would have made me uncomfortable, but looking back, it seems so clear to me that that was an unhealthy—rather than pious—discomfort.
I’m also reminded of one of my first encounters with Community of Christ as I began my slow but steady faith transition. In September of 2019, I attended a four week Spirituality Along the Edges workshop put on by the fantastic Katie Harmon-McLaughlin (whom I later learned grew up at least partly in Kentucky—and whom I was lucky enough to meet at last summer’s Reunion camp). This workshop was important and formative in my faith transition for a number of reasons, including the fact that it introduced me to a favorite new hymn, which you can listen to in the wonderful music video below:
The first thing that really struck me about the video is the prominent role of French, a deeply important language to me. The second, thing, though, was (as I wrote in my journal):
It was also interesting to watch just to see how much was “allowed” to be in that video that is hard to imagine seeing in a [LDS] Church-produced video. Bare shoulders, some tattoos, [and yes, gasp, even a slight, Mary-level of cleavage,] so much else that I’ve been trained to see as inappropriate and shameful… but I’m not so sure about that anymore.
All of this also reminds me of another instance, seven months later, when my young daughter wore a sleeveless dress for the first time, something I also journaled about:
even though I don’t have any problem with that intellectually, the idea that only bad girls wear sleeveless tops is ingrained enough in my head that it was making me anxious for a while. I spent my first few minutes outside with [kiddo] engaged in a mental debate with [active Latter-day Saints], imagining how I would make my case to them. I spent a lot of time thinking about (and thinking about talking about) how low modesty must really be on the list of Christian virtues. The [LDS] Church puts a lot of emphasis on it, but it should be so much lower on the priority list.
Looping back to the Tribune’s story yesterday, there’s something in particular about wanting to “sanitize” that picture of Mary that seems to so perfectly illustrate the problematic nature of Latter-day Saint modesty worship. Surely, Latter-day Saint leaders do not believe in a doctrine of an Immaculate Neckline, according to which no one ever saw the slightest hint of Mary’s cleavage during her life. Surely, if the mother of God is free of such a divine requirement, every day Latter-day Saints should be, too.
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