A temple is, among other things, a place for teaching truth.
And visitors to the new Winter Quarters Nebraska Temple in Omaha, Neb., during the open house March 30-April 14, will likely learn something of the restored gospel, the Plan of Salvation and the latter-day establishment of Zion, especially as their eyes are drawn to the temple's graceful art-glass windows.
These windows, according to artist Tom Holdman who created them, are meant to teach. It was for that purpose he imbued them with rich scriptural symbolism and historic representation.
Like the Palmyra New York Temple before it and the Nauvoo Illinois that will be dedicated next year, the temple at Winter Quarters called for something special in its construction to do justice to the eminent significance of its locale. (Brother Holdman also did the stained-glass windows for the Palmyra Temple and will do the ones for the Nauvoo Temple.)
It was at Winter Quarters, on the Nebraska and Iowa sides of the Missouri River, that the Pioneers, following Brigham Young, waited out the cold months after their forced exodus from Nauvoo, Ill., in 1846. Having established a temporary settlement at Winter Quarters for those who would come later, they resumed the journey the following spring, the first group arriving with President Young in the Great Salt Lake Valley July 24, 1847.
The soil on which the Palmyra Temple stands is hallowed by the First Vision of Joseph Smith that took place nearby. Similarly, the Winter Quarters temple site is sanctified by the interment nearby of the remains of Latter-day Saints of the 1840s and 1850s who, in the words of William Clayton's now world-famous hymn, died before their journey was through.
A depiction of Elder Clayton's writing of that hymn while camped with the Pioneers on the plains of Iowa, "Come, Come, Ye Saints," is included among 18 stained-glass art scenes that tell the story of the epic gathering of Zion by way of Winter Quarters. The artist, a member of the Highland 6th Ward, Highland Utah Stake, said he had a recording of the hymn playing continuously as he formed the William Clayton scene. Thus inspired, he was able to portray Elder Clayton with a pleasant countenance, "happy to be a Saint." (Indeed, Brother Clayton was jubilant, having learned that morning of the birth of his son back in Nauvoo.)
But sadness mitigated by hope is depicted as well in the window scenes. A father and mother are shown in winter walking away from the grave where they have buried a loved one, he supporting her in their mutual grief. The shovel he carries points toward the grave site. Near the grave grows a tree, laden with fruit. Yes, it is an unseasonable element in a winter scene, but intended so: It depicts the tree of life, symbolizing the hope of exaltation and eternal life for those who die in the Lord. (See Doctrine and Covenants 42:45-46.)
Other art scenes in the stained-glass panels depict the wooden roadometer the pioneers fashioned to measure their travel; the building of cabins at Winter Quarters; Brigham Young signing papers calling for the Mormon Battalion enlistment; pioneers crossing the Elkhorn River; the chief of the Omaha Indians, who showed kindness to the Pioneers at Winter Quarters; the log tabernacle at Kanesville, on the Iowa side of the river, where Brigham Young was sustained as president of the Church in December 1847; and the handcart pioneers.
One of the art scenes is a portrait of President Young himself. "Personally, I think it's the best thing I have ever done in my life," Brother Holdman said of the portrait, which depicts President Young as a figure of strength and fortitude. "Here, he has all of these people stretched out across the plains. People are dying; people are asking him, 'What should we do to survive?' He had to be going through a lot, don't you think?"
The scriptural allusion in the temple's windows is present immediately as one enters. The window behind the recommend desk features a river with seven trees adjacent to it, symbolic of seven gospel dispensations in the history of the world. The river alludes to Psalm 1:3, which speaks of a righteous man who is "like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf shall also not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper."
The leaf in this passage Brother Holdman interprets as representing the posterity of God's righteous children, and he has shown the leaves on the tree linked together, as righteous posterity are linked in an endless chain.
Moreover, the scene alludes to Revelation 22:1-2, "And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it and on either side of the river was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits. . . ."
Thus, Brother Holdman used pulverized crystal to form the river, symbolic of the use of the word crystal in the scriptural passage. That also signifies the sacrifice of the early Church members who crushed their china and silver to mix with mortar in the walls of the Kirtland Temple to make it shimmer.
The river of life, in fact, is a unifying motif, flowing down through the window images, beginning at the Celestial Room, alluding to Ezekiel 37, which speaks of living waters issuing from the House of the Lord. In the baptistry, the river appears to flow into the baptismal font.
Windows in the baptistry are bordered with quilt patterns from that era, a log-cabin pattern and crown-of-thorns pattern, signifying the sacrifices of the pioneers who wrapped the bodies of their departed loved ones in quilts before burial.
Some of the stained-glass themes hearken to designs on the Salt Lake Temple. And in one of the dressing rooms is a representation of the North Star and the Big Dipper constellations in the exact orientation that they would have to each other on April 6, the anniversary of the birth of the Lord and also of the organization of the Church in 1830. (The stars are formed by holes drilled in the glass, which makes them appear to twinkle.)
Throughout the temple on art-glass windows are represented the state flowers of the five states through which pioneers trekked — Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and Utah. In the Celestial Room is the sego lily, designated as the state flower of Utah because its roots provided sustenance for the Pioneers during their first winter. It was as manna from heaven for them, Brother Holdman noted. Thus the presence of the flower in the celestial room represents the completion of their journey to the promised land and alludes to Revelation 2:7,17, "To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life which is in the midst of the paradise of God. . . . To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna."
A self-taught artist, Brother Holdman felt the Spirit directing him to pursue the art of stained-glass window making when he returned home from his mission 10 years ago. He learned the process from books. Generally, it is a painstaking work that involves setting myriad pieces of glass in a precise pattern surrounded either by lead cane or copper foil. Art scenes involve spreading a sheet of glass with a dust of pulverized glass and then removing portions of the dust to form the highlights of the picture. The sheet is then heated to a high temperature, and the glass dust melts permanently into the pores of the glass sheet.
He accomplished the work for the Winter Quarters temple in eight months, a miracle, he said, because the task ordinarily would have taken about two years.
Beset with a speech impediment, Brother Holdman applies the Book of Mormon passage, Ether 12:7, to his own circumstance, explaining that a weak thing has "become strong unto" him in that from the time he was very young he has been obliged to develop his art as an alternate avenue of expression. He recalled that when commissioned by the First Presidency to do the art glass windows for the temples, President Gordon B. Hinckley told him not to worry unduly about his speech: "You speak to people through your art."
The temple will be dedicated in four sessions Sunday, April 22. As previously announced, one session will be broadcast to stake centers in the United States and Canada for attendance by temple recommend holders. The public open house runs from March 30 through April 14 except Sundays, April 1 and 8.
Photos courtesy Tom Holdman