After securing the commission, Arnold embarked on the series. It now turned into endless discussions with the church officials as to just what 12 subjects to paint. For to illustrate the Book of Mormon in 12 pictures would be as baffling as trying to illustrate the Bible in 12 pictures.
There were those who wanted only paintings of great sermons being delivered, such as those given by Ammon or king Benjamin. Had the artist yielded to such demands, we would have ended up with only 12 pictures of orators. But Friberg knew that no matter how inspiring the sermon, a picture of the speaker delivering the sermon doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting pictorial scene. The Book of Mormon is not just a record of great sermons.
When all the pictures were completed, only two of them depicted speakers, one being Abinadi delivering his message to king Noah, and the other Samuel the Lamanite preaching from the city wall. These scenes qualified, for in both there were dramatic events surrounding the speaker, providing the exciting pictorial substance for the painting. The pictures were completed in the same order as the historical time sequence in which the events occurred.
The story of the Jaredites being by far the earliest historical event, the first painting was logically that of the brother of Jared as he laid the crystal stones before the Lord. Friberg called it THE BROTHER OF JARED SEES THE FINGER OF THE LORD. Being, as the book says, a man of immense faith, the brother of Jared fully expected the stones to be lighted. It was seeing the finger as it touched the stones that astonished and terrified him. It is this stunning surprise that the artist sought to capture.
Some church leaders felt that no mortal artist could adequately picture the divine hand and finger. Friberg solved the problem by picturing some of the stones, while concealing the finger within a dense cloud, broken only by the rays of an intense blinding light. By this simple means, the whole scene was now drenched in mystery, burning into our imagination a more sublime glory than could ever been pictured in a physical reality.
As might be expected when confronted with subjects never before pictured, there were opinionated, personal versions on almost every detail. Little things like the color of Nephi’s hair were open to debate and everyone had an opinion.
A baffling question involved the picturing of the Liahona. Of course every reader of the Book of Mormon knows the very limited description of the instrument. So Friberg painted something that seemed reasonable, of a size easily handled, and he designed a suitable tripod to rest it in. When asked, “How do you know the Liahona was that size?” He answered, “I don’t know.” “Then how can you paint it that size if you don’t know!” Friberg remarked that it was G.K. Chesterton who once said: “Art, like mortality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.”
At last Friberg decided than an historical painting was not a wax-works museum reconstruction. If every detail had to be proved, there would be no creative work of any kind, and strict orthodoxy must yield to some degree.
In the next picture, YOUNG NEPHI SUBDUES HIS REBELLIOUS BROTHERS, Nephi is in the very first stage of building a ship. Building a ship!!! Of course his brothers thought he had taken grandiose leave of his senses. Before construction could begin, Nephi had to take ore from the mountain and build a primitive forge to make the tools to build the ship. Talk about starting from scratch!
Since we don’t know what Nephi looked like, Friberg of course couldn’t paint a portrait. So what he did paint was the image of a man who looks as though he could do what Nephi did. This, of course, required quite a man. Friberg made Nephi strong, not only in body but in spiritual power, as his bullying brothers soon learned.
The question when painting LEHI AND HIS PEOPLE ARRIVE IN THE PROMISED LAND was, how to picture Nephi’s ship. In the Book of Mormon we read the puzzling words that it was not built after the manner of men. So what did it look like? Again, Mr. Words can duck, but Mr. Pictures can’t. He must paint something that somehow satisfies us as looking real and reasonable. Faced with this decision, Friberg reasoned that God, who works by natural laws, not in defiance of them, isn’t going to instruct Nephi to build a bizarre oddity defying all engineering logic, just to be different from man’s usual designs. Just to conjecture, God’s instructions to Nephi might have revealed something merely in advance of its time, unknown in that period of shipbuilding. Possibly such a simple thing as the steering rudder, not yet invented in Nephi’s time, might have made his ship “not after the manner of men.” At least we may be sure that they did have sails. For we are told they “were driven forth before the wind.”
In the picture of the ship’s arrival in the promised land, research has added a bit of interesting detail: the flying birds are not seagulls. They are the swallow-tailed Roseate Terns, included because they are found in the waters off Central America, thus adding a touch of geographical authenticity without trying to pinpoint any precise location. In the painting, Father Lehi holds the sacred “Liahona in his hands. It is the symbol of the Lord’s fulfilled promise to His people.
Illustrating as it does the Book of Mormon, this picture my rightly be labeled as “religious art.” Yet, far from expressing mere piety, it is filled with the bursting excitement of an adventure story, bringing to our ears the joyous cry of “Land Ho!”
The sacred Liahona held by Lehi has fulfilled the Lord’s promise to His people, and has truly led them to the shores of the promised land.
After many years, even centuries, the next scene was ABINADI DELIVERS HIS MESSAGE TO KING NOAH. In the book we read that those of the court could not touch the prophet until he had delivered his message. For a mighty, divine force surrounded him, repelling those who tried to lay hands upon him.
To express this superhuman force in picture form, Friberg has shown the guards hurled backwards, the king astonished, the animals snarling.
The animals were included for three reasons: 1) Chained to the throne, they suggest a touch of savage royalty. 2) Though spotted like the leopard, these beasts are jaguars, more compactly built animals, which are native to Central America, thus adding an authenticity of geographic location. 3) Animals are known to be receptive to psychic forces, so by snarling, they react to the spiritual force surrounding Abinadi.
There is in art an approach called the principle of the jewel, such as a large stone dominating a setting. In a picture, the area at the center of interest contains the greatest richness; the full color chord, in contrast to more neutral tones surrounding and echoing the center. In this opulence of the surrounding court to contrast and emphasize with neutral tones the humble bold simplicity of the prophet. It is by such means that a picture can enhance the emotional content of a historical event.
This picture recalls a personal incident: When the artist was a boy of seven in Arizona, the family was converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by a man named Altop, who was working as a carpenter alongside Arnold’s father. After losing contact for over 30 years, the Altops paid a surprise visit to the artist’s Utah home, at the time the king Noah picture was being painted. Impressed with Altop’s remarkable shape for age 70, Friberg immediately headed for the studio and put his visitor to work as his model for Abinadi.
The scene in king Noah’s court leads directly to the next picture, ALMA BAPTIZES IN THE WATERS OF MORMON. For it was one of Noah’s priests, one called Alma, who was so impressed with the words of Abinadi that, with repentance, he in turn became a mighty spiritual leader, drawing unto himself a multitude hungering to hear his words and to be baptized in the waters of Mormon.
Rather than a picture of Alma preaching, the artist has chosen to paint the lovely scene of baptism. Both Alma and his followers were in great danger. We see in the foreground armed guards, alert to any threats from the soldiers of king Noah. Yet even with its danger, it is a scene of transcendent tranquility. Friberg here sought to drench the whole scene, from one corner of the canvas to the other, in the divine spiritual beauty of the scene. While the physical facts are there, the more important is the invisible part, the part more felt than seen, that portion that we hold within our hearts.
In painting this picture, the artist’s deepest inspiration sprang from the eloquent words of Mosiah: “Yea, the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their redeemer.”
The hero in the next picture, AMMON DEFENDS THE FLOCKS OF KING LAMONI is Ammon. He is described as, “a strong and mighty man.” He had to be, to do the superhuman deeds he accomplished.
It takes just such a man to stand alone against an enraged mob and to conquer them. It is a scene almost reminiscent of Samson standing alone against the Philistines. Each stood forth in the strength of the Lord!
Such pictures as this, or such men as this, are the basis for all hero stories, from Moses to Tarzan. For that lone hero figure strikes something deep within us, something to which we aspire, something larger than we can ever achieve. One man viewing this painting told the artist, “If I were there, that’s the way I’d stand, true and faithful.”
Friberg has here chosen to depict the tense moment just before the actual fight. Friberg commented, “The ensuing action described in the book is too gory—hacking off of every arm lifted against him, then laying the stack of arms before the king as evidence of his faithful service. Apparently that’s the way they did missionary work in those days.”
In the next picture, CAPTAIN MORONI RAISES THE TITLE OF LIBERTY, we see yet another towering figure, that of Captain Moroni, rallying followers to fight for liberty. When this picture was being considered, it raised a problem concerning Moroni’s writing on the Title of Liberty. In the English version of the Book of Mormon, we read that Moroni wrote upon his torn coat, “In memory of our God, our religion, our freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children.” We read it in English, but Moroni didn’t write it in English. He wrote it in the language of his time, probably a version of Hebrew.
There were those who insisted the lettering be in English. But in a picture of this historical event the artist wanted the writing to look as close as possible to how it appeared on the actual flag. The nearest anyone could come to the original language was to go back to Hebrew as it was at the time when Lehi left Jerusalem.
So Friberg went to his friend Rabbi Cardon and asked him to write out the words of Captain Moroni as it would have appeared at the time of Lehi and Jeremiah. At that time the squarish lettering we know today as Hebrew had not yet been invented, so they selected an earlier writing style, closer in appearance to that of the time of Moses.
Of course, more than 500 years had passed between Lehi’s time and that of Moroni. A language can change a great deal in that time and we have no way of knowing what such changes might have been.
In the painting, as in the book, there is a factor easily skipped over but of historical importance. We read that Moroni tore his coat and wrote upon it. This doesn’t mean that in a burst of passion he ripped the coat to shreds. Rather, his action bears out a long-established Israelite ritual.
To rend one’s coat was the most extreme emphatic expression of one’s statement or belief, something akin to swearing with a great oath. Some even carried a small knife to make a modest incision, constituting “tearing.” We recall that at the trial of Christ, the high priest “rent his garment” as evidence that there was no further proof required to sentence Christ before the Jews.
To carry this custom even further, the men rallying to Captain Moroni’s call, tore their garments and cast them about Moroni’s feet as a token or covenant of the fervency of their support. Such details are carefully shown in the painting.
This last point, that of tearing the cloaks, is a strong evidence of the authenticity of the Book of Mormon. For if, critics claim, Joseph Smith had written the book just as a novel, it is stretching the imagination to believe he could have known such an obscure bit of Israelite ritual.
It is misleading that they should be called “stripling soldiers.” They were not little boys, but young men who volunteered to go into battle. They were strong and valiant, marching forth in the strength of the Lord. The book speaks at some length of them as men of truth and soberness, “men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted.” Here the artist sought to express their interior testimony of faith through picturing their physical strength.
There is in this pictures something that skeptics will be quick to pounce upon—commonly accepted “scientific proof” that there were no horses in ancient America. “Why, everybody knows the Spaniards brought the first horses,” they smartly point out. But no matter what “science” may say, in direct confrontation stands the Book of Mormon, which in several places makes clear mention of horses.
Although the Book of Mormon doesn’t expressly say that Helaman rode on horseback, the artist has taken the liberty of showing him mounted. Since the book does speak elsewhere of these animals and since Friberg was known for his equine paintings, he could not resist including in these 12 pictures at least one horse.
With the next picture, SAMUEL THE LAMANITE PROPHESIES FROM THE CITY WALLS, we are drawing close to the time of the birth of Christ. It is a notable point in the Book of Mormon that long before the Savior’s time on earth there was clear talk of His name and of His future appearance. His followers were already called Christians, and there was cruel persecution of those who believed and who looked forward to His coming.
One strong voice for Christ was the prophet Samuel the Lamanite. He proclaimed not only the coming of the Savior, but boldly foretold the signs, and even the very time of His birth and death.
Here we are witness to the violent determination of his enemies to silence him, seeking to kill him with their slings and arrows. So that for his “pulpit” he had to stand atop the high walls of the city, from whence he then escaped. The artist has sought to convey the powerful drama of this epic event.
The pinnacle of the book of Mormon is portrayed in the next work, JESUS CHRIST APPEARS UNTO THE NEPHITE PEOPLE. Here we witness a glorious scene fulfilling the words of prophets and holy men from all the ages past; the sublime climactic event of the Book of Mormon.
It is after the three days of darkness and the terrible destruction upon the whole face of the land that now the darkness lifts, a divine voice is heard, as the figure of the glorified resurrected Lord descends from heaven to an awestruck multitude below. It is truly the time foretold.
The artist here sought to express in paint the transcendent spiritual glory of the wondrous thing that happened there that day. He painted the divine figure so high in the air to fulfill the written description, and yet small enough to avoid any criticism of trying to paint a likeness of the risen Lord.
With the last picture in the series, MORMON BIDS FAREWELL TO A ONCE GREAT NATION there was a gap in history of several hundred years since the coming of Christ. During this time the Nephite people had fallen into wickedness so grave that the Lord decreed that they should be destroyed. And so they were, all in one overwhelming epic battle. It is hard to imagine the enormity of death that took place, hard to conceive an entire nation of men, women, and children, destroyed from off the face of the earth.
The artist felt and strove to capture the epic, downright Wagnerian tragedy of the solemn scene at the end of the last battle. Mormon has been fatally wounded in the fight, and so they have laid him down on the hilltop, supported by his son Moroni. As he grieves for his fallen people, he holds the plates of gold, graven with his own hand, leaving a few plates for Moroni to add some final words. That one last leaf on the tree carries its own symbolism, as well as the buzzards circling over the tragic scene.
The bloodstained flag Friberg has shown leaning against the tree is that venerated Title of Liberty raised so long ago by Captain Moroni. It seems only natural that they would have saved and nurtured that old flag. Knowing it was the end, they might well have said one to another, “We weren’t worthy to live under that flag, but now, at least like men, we can die under it.”
This painting could hardly have been done without suggesting the carnage and death that took place on that terrible day. Friberg did include a few token dead, but he did it tastefully, not a lot of blood and wounded bodies. Indeed, there is, with all its tragedy, a feeling of peace, a silent final tranquility for those who rest now, in death’s slumber.