What hath the Earth to do with the Angel?:
Sacred Space, Sacred Time, and the Gold Plates

For six weeks in the summer of 2011, researchers convened at the Maxwell Institute to discuss the topic “The Cultural History of the Gold Plates.” The seminar was sponsored by the Mormon Scholars Foundation, hosted by the Maxwell Institute, and directed by Richard Bushman.The Summer Seminar Working Papers 2011 were presented at a BYU symposium on August 18, 2011. Working papers are unpublished, unedited, unpolished drafts. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Maxwell Institute or BYU.


This image is one of the most common depictions of Joseph Smith receiving the Gold Plates. It positions Joseph kneeling in the earth having just lifted the plates from the buried stone receptacle. Joseph holds the plates on his knee showing his possession and claim on them. Although Joseph controls the plates, his gaze is directed upward at the Angel Moroni who stands authoritatively above Joseph. The angel has a hand extended toward Joseph in a gesture suggesting the stewardship transfer of the plates from Moroni to Joseph. In this pivotal moment, I suggest that as Joseph Smith exhumes the plates under the authority and supervision of Moroni, he appropriates sacred time and space making two significant claims. The first is a claim to be the heir of the history and geography of the Americas.1 The second is a claim to be the prospective heir of authority over the Judeo-Christian tradition.2 The artistic depictions of Joseph’s narrative by believers substantiate and solidify this claim.

In this paper, I will first situate the Joseph Smith narrative as an appropriation of sacred time and space by briefly giving examples of literature (usually a historical narrative appropriating time), objects (often used to appropriate space), and art (which depicts the literature and objects as a way to validate and perpetuate the appropriation. which redefine time and space. Second, I will consider the artistic depictions of Joseph Smith’s receiving the Gold Plates and how they interpret the narrative and its elements in order to validate Joseph Smith’s narrative. Finally, I will draw some conclusions about the similarities and differences of Joseph Smith’s narrative within this larger scope of appropriation.

According to a onescholar, emerging groups need to appropriate sacred time because “A continuous biography is the core. . .of a group’s sense of identity. It needs to be able to recognize itself as one and the same group enduring through time, the heir of its own past.3 ” In other words, a religious faction, especially a new one, validates itself by appropriating sacred objects and sacred history. Since Joseph Smith’s narrative serves as the sacred history and the Gold plates are a sacred object, I want to briefly consider how both literature and objects are used to appropriate time and space, as well as how the artistic depictions of them solidify these appropriations.4 In these examples my purpose is not to claim direct or perfect parallels since each example is more complicated and nuanced than I can describe here. My purpose instead is to offer a context of literature and objects each of which make some claim about sacred time or sacred space, in which was can situate the Joseph Smith narrative to better understand it. My first example is Vergil’s Aeneid. Over 1,000 years separate Vergil from his story, the fall of Troy. Vergil takes this story ancient even to him and retells it, inserting the hero Aeneas as the survivor who comes to inherit the geography of Italy.5 In essence, the Aeneid serves to appropriate both the sacred time (the history of the Trojan War) and the sacred place (from Troy 3 to Italy), which are necessary to validate Rome as the heir to world dominance.6 This narrative is depicted in this wall painting from Pompeii. Aeneas “is depicted as a future Roman, wearing not only Roman armor, but, as ancestor of the Julian clan, even patrician footware.”7 This connection of Aeneas to the Julian clan substantiates Augustus’ claim as Emperor.

Another Roman example of how iconography perpetuates this picture of world dominance is the arch of Titus. One section of the arch depicts the Roman conquest of the Jewish temple and the carrying off of its sacred objects. In this case Rome is not inheriting the sacred space of another culture but subduing it by appropriating its sacred artifacts.8 The use of a sacred object here is instructive because it is an example of how the heritage of an entire people can be symbolized through the transmission of a sacred object.

My second example is Christianity. As believers in Jesus Christ began to promote him after his death, the converted Jews needed to explain how Jesus was the continuation of Judaism. Much of the New Testament is a literary appropriation of Jewish history, which is then reflected in Christian iconography. One example is The Gospel of Matthew, which takes great pains to prove that the life of Jesus Christ fulfilled Jewish prophecies of the Messiah, including representing Jesus as the new Moses.9 This depiction of the Mount of Transfiguration is situated between Moses and Elijah, but Jesus is superior to both of 4 them.10 In this image of the top of St. Peter’s Basilica, the trees from the Garden of Eden are set diagonally from each other. On the other diagonal the Ten Commandments are represented. Above these images of Adam and Moses, keys representing Peter are suspended as a continuation of and authority over the Jewish heritage.11

Not only the Jewish Christians needed to appropriate Jewish history, but the gentile Christians also. Peter’s vision in Acts 10 is a pivotal moment for the gentiles to appropriate and reinvent Judaism into Christianity. As the angel descends with the animals on the sheet, the history of God’s people shifts from Jewish exclusivity to Christian inclusivity claiming the Jewish history as an inheritance for Christianity.

Also, much of the Pauline corpus contains arguments demonstrating and validating this gentile appropriation of Jewish history.12 One example from Paul is Corinthians 15 where Paul portrays Jesus as the New Adam. This appropriation can be seen in this mural currently in the Vatican Musseum. In this image, Jesus is dressed in blue in the center of the upper portion. On his right sits Moses with his staff. On his left sits Adam with a toga-like robe covering his nakedness. Beneath the heavenly scene is an earthly one where the pope stands directly beneath Jesus Christ as the earthly inheritor of the Christian culture.13 This Christian claim that the gentiles are now God’s people isan 5 appropriation of sacred time and sacred space circumscribed into a new cultural and religious tradition.

Notably, the Christians did not attempt to appropriate the sacred space of Judaism. That appropriation comes later in the fourth century AD when the social situation of Christianity changed under Constantine.14 Competing Christian factions vied for primacy as the valid inheritors of Christian history.15 Markus explains how the “‘Constantinian revolution’. . .forced Christianity to re-assess itself in relation to its own past. . . It had to wrest the legacy. . .from more plausible claimants” such as the varying gnostic factions. The Constantinian revolution “also raised other far-reaching questions about the nature of the community. . .If it was in their history that Christians saw themselves as distinct from all others, their geography was the projections of this history on the ground. . .The cement that most potently aggregated the community of the saints straddling heaven and earth was the martyrs’ relics.”16 This use of objects is illuminating because the appropriation of the relic served to create a new sacred space where it was housed.17

Another Christian object is the Holy Grail. This object does not become a relic because no one can find it or even prove it exists, but like the Gold Plates, it carries a promise of sacred time and space and creates a mythology around it. From Indiana Jones 6 and the last Crusade to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code, the hope of obtaining a sacred object can still captivate an audience.18

Appropriation of sacred time and space is not limited to Romans and Christians. The Koran, the sacred text dictated by God to Mohammed, also functions as an appropriation of both Jewish and Christian history. Reza Azlan describes the Koran as an “attempt to reform the existing religious beliefs and cultural practices of pre-Islamic Arabia so as to bring the God of the Jews and Christians to the Arab peoples.”19 Instead of converting Arab peoples to either Judaism or Christianity, Islam appropriated the sacred time and space of both religions and reinvented them.20 The Judaic temple mount becomes the Dome of the Rock where Mohammed’s foot touched as he was lifted into a visionary experience. The Koran itself states that God “has established for you the same religion enjoined on Noah, on Abraham, on Moses, and on Jesus.”21 Because of the injunction against idol worship, no iconography exists to depict this appropriation. Passages from the Qu’ran are presented as art. However, sacred space is appropriated through the architecture of Islam.22 The Dome of the Rock preserves the sacred space from which Mohammed left on his night journey and where Abraham attempted to sacrifice Ishmael. Both the literature and the architecture serve to appropriate sacred time and space.

One final more modern example is the set of Gold Horns found in Demark in 1639. These horns were the relics of an indigenous people. They become the subject of a poem by Adam Oehlenschlager who uses them to honor the peoples of the past as well as 7 to validate the current peoples right to their geography. Oehlenschlager tells the story of a Danish maiden who unearths a gold horn. He juxtaposes the peasant maid with whose innocence allows the earth to reveal its treasures with the sterility he finds in current academics. His poem is a call for academics to appreciate and acknowledge the value of the previous culture. In his acknowledgement of the objects, though, he also validates the maidens right to the object as an inheritance from the indigenous culture. In this case the object inspires the literature which claims to inherit the time and space of the object.

Now we turn from the first purpose of situating the Gold Plates among other traditions of literature, objects, and iconography, to the second purpose of the paper, i.e. analyzing the depictions of Joseph Smith receiving the plates.The narrative of Joseph Smith makes similar literary claims as the Aeneid, many of the New Testament books, and the Koran. The Gold Plates function within the narrative as a sacred object representing the appropriation of the people who created it and the narrative it contains. Within the Joseph Smith narrative, two elements are essential to making this appropriation of sacred time and space, the Gold Plates and the angelic authority. 23

In Mormonism, Joseph Smith’s reception of the Gold Plates is a pivotal moment. While the First Vision is often used to describe the return of God’s presence in human history and Joseph’s prophetic role, it seems to be the reception of the Gold Plates years later that signifies Joseph’s emergence as a prophet. Although the events around it contain detailed descriptions in the 1838 account, the narrative of this moment is very brief. Depictions of this moment in Mormon history reveal much about the appropriation of sacred time and sacred space, as well as how Mormonism redefine them. The three 8 elelemts I want to point out in the images that follow are 1) the angel Moroni, his position, hand gestures, and appearance as a European angel; 2) Joseph Smith kneeling in the earth, possessing the plates, while looking upward at Moroni, and 3) the Gold plates and their context as from the earth.

This image from 1893,24 depicts Joseph receiving the plates from Moroni rather than unearthing them. Joseph holds the plates and stands almost at eyelevel with Moroni. Moroni holds the Urim and Thummin in one hand and the other is reaching upward as if exhorting Joseph. The breastplate and sword of Laban lie at their feet. Two interesting elements of this image are the relationship between of Moroni and Joseph and the presence of the other relics on the ground. Moroni is elevated above Joseph but only by one or two inches. Moroni resembles an apostolic father more than a white-robbed angel. The relics on the ground are the only hint that these items are related to the earth. The viewer is looking only slightly upward at the figures.

We now turn to the twentieth century images where the depictions all seem to follow a standard construction. This series of pictures25 shows the transformation of the boy Joseph who first encounters the plates to Joseph the Prophet receiving stewardship over the plates with Moroni watching over. Joseph first discovers the plates alone and then is visited by the angel Moroni. The gaze between Joseph and Moroni is again angled with Moroni (almost) standing on the earth but radiant.

These three pictures focus on the discovery part of the Joseph Smith’s narrative. Joseph is kneeling in the ground, but the plates remain interred within the stone box, but with the stone covering displaced in order to make them.26 Each image emphasizes the hefting stick and the physical/earthy location of the plates. In this depiction, the supernatural element of the story is “off-stage,” which keeps the focus on the plates while pointing to the angel.

Here again Joseph is kneeling with the plates resting on his knee looking up at Moroni whose hand is raised to the square. The gaze this time is reversed because Moroni is situated on the left of the picture so that the viewer gaze starts with Moroni and proceeds to Joseph.27

For this stained glass depiction allows the viewer a glimpse of both Joseph’s and the angel’s face.28 This depiction is a relief.29 One copy of this depiction is currently located in the loby of the Church history library, and another is located on the hill Cumorah. In the Church History library this depiction hold the additional element of being placed above the eye-level of the viewer. Such a placement necessitates that the viewer look up to see the depictions. It also shows Joseph connected to the earth by kneeling in it. Moroni stands over him.

This image30 from a child’s storybook shows Joseph receiving the plates in his formal clothing with a lantern placed beside him.31 This recent image again represents Joseph as holding the plates while kneeling in the earth and gazing up at the angel with the stone box, stone covering, and hefting stick lieing in the foreground.

From these images we can posit some generalizations about what the depictions tell us about the Joseph Smith narrative. Most of the modern images organize the elements in a similar way. Joseph is kneeling, connected to the earth, gazing up at Moroni, with the plates either on his knee or still interred. The angel Moroni is depicted in white robed clothing usually with a hand extended. With these images and generalization in mind, I want to discuss three elements of the depictions, I referenced earlier, namely, 1) the angel Moroni, 2) Joseph Smith, and 3) the plates and their context.

First, the angel: Moroni’s presence above Joseph demonstrates the superiority of the angel to the man. Joseph is the steward of the plates, but Moroni has authority over Joseph. When Moroni is depicted with one arm raised, he appears to be exhorting Joseph account the gravity of becoming the plates’ steward. When he is positioned with his arm outstretched toward Joseph, Moroni seems to be “handing” over the responsibility of the plates to Joseph. Both the position and gestures of Moroni demonstrate the “sacred” part of the appropriation of sacred space and time.

In addition to the position and gestures of Moroni, the general appearance of Moroni is that of an angel from the European Christian tradition. The angelic Moroni is not the same body-builder Moroni from Book of Mormon depictions. He is a light-skinned, light-haired, non-muscular, angel with gentle hand gestures. He is a angel sent from God granting authority over the sacred record. Depicting Moroni with elements of Christianity iconography suggests an appropriation of the Judeo-Chrisitian history and a reinvention of that history in the new space of America.

Next, Joseph Smith. In images of Joseph’s first encounter with the plates he is often portrayed as the farm boy. When Joseph receives the plates, he is regularly in formal 11 clothing. Many depictions place Joseph kneeling in the ground, which is a necessary position to lift the plates from the ground but also shows Joseph’s physical connection to the earth and the reality of the experience. The presence of the hefting stick serves to emphasize the physical nature of Joseph’s endeavor to acquire the plates.32

Finally, the topic of this conference, the Gold Plates. Each picture attests the physical reality of the plates and the plates’ connection to the earth. Most of the images include the hefting stick Joseph used to remove the rock and reveal the plates. Despite the presence of the angel Moroni at the scene, the plates do not come directly from the supernatural source. The plates are interred beneath a rock. Joseph has to physically heft the stone in order to dislodge it and make the plates visible. This is significantly emphasized in the pictures of Joseph Smith’s discovery. When Joseph goes looking for the plates, he does it at Moroni’s command, but Moroni himself is absent. Joseph is alone on the hill as he lifts the stone to reveal the plates. This depiction of the story suggests that Joseph has a claim upon the plates because he recovers them from their buried state. After Joseph has discovered the plates, the angel Moroni enters the picture. However, the plates are connected to the earth either by still being depicted in the stone box or on Joseph’s knee with the empty box shown. Joseph Smith does not receive the plates directly from the angel but from the earth.

This brings us to the final section of the paper in which I want to briefly draw some conclusions about the similarities and differences of how the Joseph Smith narrative appropriates time and space. Like many other depictions of narratives and objects, the artistic depictions encapsulate the role of the Gold Plates and the angel Moroni as an 12 appropriation of sacred time and sacred space. This appropriation legitimizes Joseph Smith’s claim to both the geography and history of the Americas as well as the Judeo-Christian tradition. The angel serves to validate the “sacred” element of the appropriation because Moroni is presented as an angel of light sent from God. The Gold Plates serve to appropriate the time and space elements because the plates come from the earth, i.e. the space, of the inheritance and they tell the story of the time, i.e. history, including how Joseph Smith is the continuation of that history. The images then portrays these elements in a way which legitimizes the cultural inheritance claimed by the Joseph Smith narrative and symbolized by the Gold Plates. In other words, the angel and plates serve to legitimize the Joseph Smith narrative, which is then represented in art as factual history.

One unique aspect of Joseph Smith’s narrative is the emphasis on the material and earthly aspects of the plates. Many religious figures receive texts, but few dig up a sacred object containing a sacred record. Why the need to extract the plates from the earth? If Moroni had a cave of Nephite records, why bury these in upstate New York? Furthermore, even if they were buried, why have Joseph Smith discover them instead of simply handing them to him during an angelic visit? Why does Joseph need a hefting stick to remove a stone? Why does Joseph find the plates and see them before Moroni appears? In other words, what does the earth have to do with the angel?

I would like to suggest that there is something significant about unearthing an object that gives claim to the heritage and culture it comes from even, or especially, when that heritage is not the finder’s own. Like the Gold Horns, finding an object from an indigenous people in the earth you call home, gives you a claim upon their land and culture. In addition to the iconographic connection of the plates to the earth, the narrative 13 of Joseph Smith insists on the physical reality of the plates as a sacred object. The fact of the Gold Plates as an ancient object containing a record from an angel and translated by Joseph Smith validated Joseph Smith as a prophet. Also, the placement of the testimonies of the 3 and 8 witnesses at the front of the Book of Mormon point to the importance of the Gold Plates as a sacred object even more than the text. It seems that often these witnesses testifying to the physical reality of the record was a prominent tool of conversion.33

In conclusion, many religious and cultural groups use iconography and literature to define themselves at the center of earth’s history. These appropriations can serve to legitimize one culture by claiming the sacred time and space of another. In the case of Mormonism, the Gold Plates and the angel Moroni serve to appropriate the sacred time and space of the Americas circumscribing Joseph Smith as the continuum of history and legitimate heir of religious authority. The artistic depictions of the narrative and its objects serve to solidify and substantiate this appropriation of sacred time and space. Particularly in the instance of Joseph Smith’s receptions of the plates, the artwork appropriates time and space in order to place that authority in the hands (and on the knee) of Joseph Smith.




1. For a discussion of how the book of Mormon functions as a “remarkable cultural and symbolic bridge”between the “immigrants to the North American continent and the Native Americans,” see C. Jess Groesbeck, “The Book of Mormon as a Symbolic History,” Sunstone.

2. Because the Joseph Smith narrative was included in the first editions of the Pearl of Great Price which was eventually included in the Mormon canon, most Mormon art comes from that account and is the one assumed when discussing the Joseph Smith narrative.

3. Robert Markus, The End of Ancient Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 85.

4. The Gold Plates function as a sacred object and a sacred history. The object itself is lost and the history comes to us as the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon makes many claims about sacred time and space including inserting the gentile inheritance of America and Joseph Smith’s role as prophet. However, this paper will focus on the Joseph Smith narrative and the Gold Plates as a sacred object instead of the narrative from the object.

5. To a 20th century Christian it may not be obvious how this story appropriates the “sacred” element of the time and space. However, the story of the Trojan War is a myth about gods and men. As Aeneas escapes from Troy he cares his family’s Lares on his back, rescuing the gods from destruction. When Aeneas reaches Rome, Vergil gives the list of Alban kings in order to securely tie the hero to Rome’s founder Romulus. This story serves to appropriate the Greek history of the Trojan War into the cultural identity of the Roman Empire as well as move the geography of that history to Rome herself.

6. Karl Galinshy in Augustan Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) characterizes the Aeneid as “the epitome of Augustan culture in its combination of tradition with new departures,” 251. See also, H.P. Stahl, “The Death of Turnus: Augustan Vergil and the Political Rival,” in Between Republic and Empire, Kurt A. Raaflaub and Mark Toher (Berkeley: University of California Press 1990), 174-211. Similarly, Livy’s recounts the early history of Rome by listing the Ablan kings in order to connect the fall of Troy and the lineage of Romulus. R. M. Ogilvie, A commentary on Livy Books 1-5 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), 43-44.

7. Paul Zanker, The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1990), 201-203. Image from http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/aeneas_triad.jpg picture by Barbara McManus, 2003.

8. Picure of Titus’ arch taken in Rome by author. Cf. Babylon demonstrated how the removal of sacred artifacts constituted domination over a people when it removed the two pillars from Solomon’s temple.

9. For a discussion of Matthew’s theological perspectives see, Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1991), Sacra Pagina series, Daniel J. Harrington, S.J. ed., 17.

10. Other books in the New Testament also offer the appropriation of sacred time. The Epistle to the Hebrews is a carefully constructed argument demonstrating how Jesus is superior to Abraham, Moses, the high Priest, and angels.

11. This image is the top of St. Peter’s basilica in Vatican city. Photo taken by author. For additional discussion of early Christians and Jewish scripture see Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partitionof Judaeo-Christianity (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvannia Press, 2004), 37-73.

12. This is quite well established through the Pauline epistles but brought into more stark relief by some commentators such as E.P. Sanders, Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1983) and Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005).

13. The first image is a Mural from Vatican museum and the photo was taken by the author. The second image is a mosaic in St. Peter’s, this altarpiece is a reproduction of Raphael’s ‘deathbed’ painting, now in the Vatican Museum. Jesus is shown between Moses and Elijah. http://scripture-for-today.blogspot.com/2010/05/1-kings-18-people-may-know-that-you-o.html

14. Timothy D. Barnes in Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge, Massachusetts:Harvard University Press, 1981), 247 comments, “Constantine’s religious policy was coherent and comprehensive. He did not merely suppress paganism and establish Christianity as the official religion of the state; he set out to ensure that Christianity replaced the cults, which is ousted.”

15. Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 21 discusses how orthodox Christianity reinterpreted scripture in order to combat the popularity of other factions especially gnostics factions.

16. Markus, 85, 137, 139. The image is of an urn which contains the chains of St. Peter. It is located in the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains in Rome. Photo from Joan Carroll Cruz, Relics (Huntinton, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, 1984), 152.

17. Splinters from the True Cross are one of the most common artifacts used to create sacred space around a housed object.

18. Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882).

19. Reza Aslan, “No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam” (New York: RandomHouse paperbacks, 2006), 17.

20. Faris Esack, The Qu’ran: A Users Guide (Oxford: One World, 2005), 8 gives examples of writers who see “Muslim history as essentially a product of a Judeo-Christian milieu.

21. Qu’ran Sura 42:12.

22. Images from http://web.grinnell.edu/courses/rel/s04/rel115-01/index.html and http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/jerusalem-dome-of-the-rock

23. The presence of the Gold Plates excavated from the hill under the authority of an angel sent from God is the pivotal claim of Mormonism to inherit the religion and geography of the Americas (as well as inheriting Christianity and Judaism).

24. Reminiscences of Joseph, the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Stevenson, 1893), 21.

25. Robert T. Barrett, “How we got the Gold Plates,” Friend, July 1997.

26. Clark Kelley Price, “There Indeed,” 2008. Primary 5 manual picture kit 5-9. The Gospel art picture kit 406 is also Primary 5 manual picture 5-11. http://www.ldsces.org/manuals/pearl-of-great-price-teacher-manual/pgp-tch-jsh-27.asp

27. Moroni: Smith receiving the Book of Mormon from the angel Moroni. Photograph. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

28. This image is of a stained glass window inside a Nauvoo church.

29. This image is a relief in lobby of Church History Library.

30. Doctrine and Covenants Stories, (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), 17.

31. Gary Kapp, “A Voice Form the Dust,” 2008.

32. The viewer’s perspective: In most of the Mormon art, the viewer is placed beneath both Joseph and the angel. Such vantage point suggests the superiority of the sacred experience as authoritative over the viewer.

33. See Terryl L. Givens, “By the Hand of Mormon” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 62-88 for a discussion of the Book of Mormon as a signified, proof positive that Joseph Smith was a prophet.