Sunday, March 11, 2012

Symbolic Arrangement of LDS Temple Rooms

Today I'd like to discuss how the arrangement of rooms in an LDS Temple can have symbolic significance.  

I was looking over old plans for a church and noticed that one wing was reserved for the Aaronic Priesthood, one for the Stake Presidency, another for the Relief Society, another for Bishoprics and clerks offices.  A large section was devoted to the Primary, and another for classrooms.  There was definite organization in this building.  The rooms used by various groups were each given a place and the organization helped make each auxiliary important.  Temples are similar.  Many are organized to emphasize certain aspects of the work we do.  On the exterior we often see two towers or sets of towers or two main sides representing the two priesthoods, the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood.  The Mesa Arizona Temple has four corners representing the gathering of Israel from the four corners of the earth (as the sculptures on the corners make clear).  So spatial arrangement of the exterior architecture is clearly used symbolically.  The interiors of many temples are no different.

The Kirtland Ohio Temple was the first temple built in this dispensation.  It has some unusual interior features.  Some, such as booths with doors for the pews are common in older New England architecture.  Other features are distinctly Mormon.  It is one of many temples with two main doors in the front and two main side aisles (similar to how our chapels are usually arranged) instead of a center aisle.  This is all the more peculiar because the two main rooms were often divided into four sections using curtains, something that would have been easier with a center aisle.  So what do the two aisles represent?  Well, there are various interpretations, but my two candidates are the two priesthoods, and males and females and their different roles - something that is evident in today's endowment.  The Kirtland Temple, and the other temples with Priesthood Assembly Halls, have two sets of pulpits in a room.  In Kirtland there were pulpits on the west and east sides of both the main floor and upper floor rooms.  These pulpits were reserved for the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods respectively with the Melchizedek side higher and more ornate.  The spatial arrangement here signified two priesthoods and their relative levels.  Finally, the Kirtland Ohio and Nauvoo Illinois Temples each originally used rooms in the attic for higher temple ordinances.  In Kirtland, this is where initiatory ordinances began to be performed.  In Nauvoo, the full endowment and sealings were originally performed in the attic level.  This signified that these were higher and important ordinances.

The Nauvoo Illinois Temple introduced another spatially symbolic room - the baptistery.  Joseph Smith wrote the following (recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 128:13):
Consequently, the baptismal font was instituted as a similitude of the grave, and was commanded to be in a place underneath where the living are wont to assemble, to show forth the living and the dead, and that all things may have their likeness, and that they may accord one with another—that which is earthly conforming to that which is heavenly, as Paul hath declared, 1 Corinthians 15:46, 47, and 48:
I have emphasized in this scripture that the font was commanded to be underneath as a symbol of the grave.  Because of this, most fonts are in a basement and the font often sinks into a sub-basement.  This preserves the grave symbolism of burying our sinful selves, and of the resurrection.  A few temples have fonts at ground level, so the sculpture is in a basement, while the baptistry is on the main level. This is sometimes required due to high water table, but it is still underneath, and not on a higher level.


The Logan Utah Temple began using progressive, muraled endowment rooms.  In that temple and several of the temples that followed, each room got higher up (there were a lot of stairs) and larger.  This taught about progression as you moved through the endowment ceremony.  Spatially you were being taught that as we move from creation to exaltation, through experience and covenants we are made higher, more important, holier, and closer to heaven and God.

The Salt Lake Temple's baptistry showed that baptism was an Aaronic Priesthood ordinance by having the font in the western half of the basement.

I have read that the Laie Hawaii and Cardston Alberta Temples (pictured) have progressive endowment rooms around a central celestial room.  Both buildings are essentially Greek crosses in plan and each wing is used for a different endowment room - Creation, Garden, World, or Terrestrial.  You end up in the central celestial room which has windows along the top.  This puts the celestial room, symbolic of the highest kingdom of God, in the most prominent place in the temple.  The Idaho Falls Temple does a similar thing and has the celestial room also under the single spire of the temple, adding to its prominent spatial placement.  Many temples have repeated this pattern.  I particularly like when the central celestial room has windows letting natural light flood in as the Draper Utah Temple does.

Many temples have their sealing rooms below the endowment rooms.  This tends to be for practical reasons.  I love it when a temple instead makes the sealing rooms the highest in the temple.  The Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple and the Rexburg Idaho Temple both have sealing rooms on a floor above the endowment and celestial room floor.  This helps to signify that the sealing ordinance is higher than the endowment ordinance.  The Portland Oregon Temple has one sealing room off the celestial room in the spire of the temple which also helps to show that the sealing ordinance is required to attain the highest degree of glory in the Celestial Kingdom.  Other sealing rooms in this temple are on a higher floor.  In the photo the sealing room in the spire is entered on the right, below the mirror.  The others can be reached by going up the staircase to a mezzanine level of the Celestial Room and then through doors.

Most of the small temples have progressive endowment rooms with an A room leading into a B room leading into the Celestial Room.  These are often arranged in a line with the Celestial Room at the end of the temple where it can be in the most prominent position and have windows for natural light.  I'm glad that they are able to use this spatial symbolism.

Not all temples have their rooms placed with spatial symbolism in mind.  That is fine.  Sometimes having a room near a window for light may be a more important consideration.  Often, smaller temple plans have rooms arranged to be cost effective and preserve a small building footprint which doesn't always coincide with arranging rooms symbolically.  In these circumstances the architect must find other ways to teach.  I am glad that many of our temples are able to use the interior arrangement of rooms to enhance the teaching power of the temple.

Those are my thoughts.  Please comment and let us all know what you think about this topic and other great examples that you have seen.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I really love your blog. I've spent many a Sunday afternoon reading it.

I have always been interested in the way the Endowment rooms are laid out in Temples and Temple floor plans in general, both original and current. There are many sources of floor plan drawings for Nauvoo, Kirtland, and Salt Lake. Do you or anyone else have floor plans for St. George, Logan, Manti, Hawaii, Cardston, Mesa, or other Temples?

Maybe you could devote a post to Temple floor plans.

Scott said...

The original Logan Temple floor plans are in one of the books that came out at the temple's centennial. Ogden, Provo, and Washington D.C. Temple floor plans are in issues of the Ensign from near the time that they were built. There was a copy of the Vancouver B.C. Temple's plans on the city of Vancouver's website for a while.

Crystal HW said...

I also know that the baptismal font of the Cardston Temple is also in the center of the temple, so directly below the Celestial Room.

I too enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for sharing!

Brett Stirling said...

The Hamilton New Zealand Temple has the Celestial Room at the front of the Temple below the centrally located spire. It would be nice to have one way windows out as it looks down to the Christus Statue in the visitors centre.

The Sydney Temple originally had it's chapel styled font at the front on the main level. When the new extensions were completed it was relocated to the back one level down with a full traditional style.

Brownie said...

One of the things that I find fascinating about the arraignment of newer temples is the fact that so many Stake Centers/Chapels share the parking lot with the Temple. I realize that this is for practical reasons, however, I have used that arraignment to explain the importance of the Aaronic Priesthood ordinances (which predominantly occur in Chapels) and the Melchizedek Priesthood ordinances (which reach their quintessential in the Temple). I am also pleased that although the Church has need to make the Temple experience, they have attempted to show a distinction within the Temple by making 2-room progression. In the Portland, Jordan River, Provo, DC etc... Temples you experience only one room and in some ways lose out on what is going on between our Telestial (World) state and Terestial (Millennial) state. In fact, Brigham Young teetered with the idea of making them 2 separate ordinances in order to impress upon the patron's mind the distinction between the 2. My wife and I were in Rexburg but would often go to Idaho Falls to do a session just so we could get the room progression experience.

Cortney said...

Thank you so much for all your insight and information on temples in your blog! These are all things my family and I find very interesting and like to talk about. I will definitely be referring to your blog more in the future.

Mfundo Radebe said...

I haven't seen a picture of the interiors of the Johannesburg Temple. Please get them for us

Scott said...

I don't have pictures of the interior of Johannesburg

Rhonda said...

The Oquirrh Mountain Temple is one of the smaller ones.
The entrance to the baptistry is on the west, as you mentioned for one of the other temples indicating an Aaronic Priesthood side.

There are progressive endowment rooms. You start out in the chapel, which is on the west side of the temple, then progress eastward until you reach the Celestial Room. Each room has a higher ceiling than the last. The Celestial Room has a whole wall full of windows on the east side of the temple, with those increasing-as-you-go-upward stars in the glass.
The murals in the first endowment room are painted with the light coming from the west, just before sundown, and the leaves on the trees are just beginning to turn yellow. In other words, it's about to get dark and cold. All the more reason to progress towards the source of light and warmth.