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Does art always accurately reflect history?

A recurring issue among some critics of the Restoration is inaccuracy in Mormon artwork. For example, “Joseph Smith Translating the Book of Mormon,” by Del Parson; “Translation of the Plates,” by Earl Jones; and “By the Gift and Power of God,” by Simon Dewey, depict the Prophet reading directly from the golden plates, without the Urim or Thummim and without a seer stone.

The church, say these critics, is lying about its history.

But artists aren’t historians. A stroll through almost any large art museum will show that religious art often gets the details of biblical stories wrong.

Search online, for example, for paintings of “the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.” Their actual route would have taken Joseph, Mary and Jesus either along the dry Mediterranean coast of Palestine or through the Negev Desert. But innumerable paintings take them through northern European forests or perhaps the Rhine River Valley, sometimes escorted by winged angels and little cherubs.

Similarly, in the classic 1959 film “Ben-Hur,” after the hero’s arrest in Jerusalem and his sentencing as a galley slave, he doesn’t pass from Palestine’s central hill country down to its fertile Mediterranean coast, but somehow, instead, through northern Africa’s Sahara Desert — or, perhaps, Asia’s Gobi Desert.

In Pieter Bruegel’s 16th-century “Procession to Calvary,” everybody but Christ is dressed in contemporary Flemish clothing, and the two soon-to-be-crucified thieves clutch crucifixes and confess to Catholic priests

Pietro Perugino’s 15th-century illustration of Matthew 16:13-20 (“Delivery of the Keys”), located in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, shows Christ handing actual physical keys to the apostle Peter in a large Italian Renaissance plaza with two Roman-style triumphal arches in the background that flank an octagonal building resembling the baptistry of Florence more than the intended temple of Jerusalem. Biblically, the story is set in the region of Caesarea Philippi — today’s “Banias” — a lush but wild spring-fed place at the foot of Mount Hermon.

Sandro Botticelli’s 15th-century “Temptations of Christ,” also located in the Sistine Chapel, locates the events of Matthew 4:1-11 — which actually occurred in the barren hill country of Judea — in Renaissance Italy. Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” has Jesus and the apostles seated at a table, not leaning on their left elbows as they would have done.

Paintings of “the adoration of the Magi” regularly depict three wise men, one of whom is black, and they’re often identified as “Caspar,” “Melchior” and “Balthazar.” But there is no biblical basis for that number, the ethnicity or the names.

Biblical and early Christian saints didn’t have haloes. Mary, a humble Palestinian girl, wasn’t a northern European noblewoman. Notwithstanding works by such artists as Peter Paul Rubens (“St. Peter”) and Grao Vasco (“St. Peter in His Throne”), Peter, a Galilean fisherman, probably never dressed like a Renaissance pope.

Were the creators of these works “lying”? Almost certainly not. The famous statues of David by Donatello (ca. 1440) and Michelangelo (1501-1504) depict David as having been naked when he fought Goliath. And they almost certainly knew better. Most likely, David’s nudity represents his vulnerability, without divine assistance, before the gigantic, seasoned warrior he faced. Likewise, haloes and rich clothing represent the esteem of the artists and their audiences for those they painted.

Challenged, one day, over his decision to film his epic 1965 movie of the life of Christ, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” in the United States, director George Stevens responded, "I wanted to get an effect of grandeur as a background to Christ, and none of the Holy Land areas shape up with the excitement of the American southwest. I know that Colorado is not the Jordan, nor is Southern Utah Palestine. But our intention is to romanticize the area, and it can be done better here."

And historical inaccuracies occur far beyond religious art. Consider, for example, Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which depicts an event on the evening of Dec. 26, 1776. The actual crossing occurred in very poor visibility on flatboat ferries that could transport cannons and horses. Had Gen. Washington stood upright in so small a rowboat, it probably would have capsized. And the flag shown wasn’t adopted until the following year. (For a more accurate representation, see Mort Kunstler’s “Washington’s Crossing.”)

The cyclopean walls and bulging biceps of Arnold Friberg’s Book of Mormon illustrations aren’t “lies.” They’re designed to represent the larger than life qualities of the stories that the artist wished to emphasize.