Things I Did Not Know: Dinosaurs in the Manti Temple (Edit: New Images, ht Mina)

By August 4, 2013

A few weeks ago, I worshipped in the Manti Utah Temple for the first time. My parents were endowed, married, and sealed there, so it is a special place to me. Amidst my devotions and pondering, I was somewhat taken aback to find paintings of Mesozoic reptiles on the wall of the Creation Room. [1]

In 1886-87, Carl Christian Anton Christensen (usually CCA Christensen, 1831-1912) painted a 4.9-meter-high mural stretching completely around the Creation Room of the Manti Temple. The mural shows elements of creation up to, but not including, humans. The sequence is clouds and a sphere; volcanoes and storms; sunrise, mountains, and rivers; plants; earliest animals; fowls; non-domestic animals; domestic animals; and water creatures. [2] The ?Earliest Animals,? centered on the back wall, are what caught my attention (see image below). [3]

MantiCreationRoom Mesozoic DSCN2203 crop 650px 20130722a

The animals in this image seem to be, respectively, (starting at top, moving clockwise) two pterosaurs, a plesiosaur, a mosasaur [ichthyosaur; see end of post], and a crocodylomorph. Note that these groups are only ?dinosaurs? in the popular sense of ?extinct reptiles,? so my post title is imprecise. [4]

I don?t have much to say about the mural itself beyond: ?My religion is (was) so cool that we paint(ed) dinosaurs on the walls of one of our most holy buildings!?

I?d like to make a few other points, though. First, Christensen was painting the mural right in the thick of the ?Bone Wars,? 1877-1892, a personal conflict between two paleontologists that led to intense exploration for Mesozoic reptile fossils in the American West, with attendant publicity. One of the two scientists even searched for fossils in Utah in 1870.

Second, I don?t know anything about the mural other than its existence. That is, I don?t know about Christensen?s intentions, doctrinal interpretations, sources, consultations with church leaders, etc, nor about any reactions to the mural then or any time since. I am happy, however, to see the Mesozoic represented in the Creation Room and not in the Garden Room, and to have reptiles preceding birds. [5]

Third, Christensen wasn?t the only one. John Hanson Beadle?s anti-Mormon Polygamy: Or, The Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism (1882) includes the image below. [6]

SaltLakeBasin AsGeologistsRepresentIt Beadle Polygamy edit

The caption says: ?The Salt Lake Basin, as Geologists Represent It Thousands of Years Ago.? Present-day geologists would agree that much of present-day Utah was, in fact, at one point (actually, more than once) part of an inland sea though they would amend the ?thousands? to ?hundreds of millions.? Beadle?s comment was:

?in the geologic age, an inland sea,  in aboriginal times, the retreat of the most abject savages—long a region of misconception and fable—then the chosen home of a strange religion, and but yesterday found to be of use and interest to the civilized world.? [7]

Some images of other Manti rooms are found here; a BYU Studies article, ?Minerva Teichert?s Manti Temple Murals? (Doris R Dant, 38.3 (1999): 6-44) has complete photos of the World Room and a discussion of its painting.


—— Edit, 2013 Aug 05 Mon 0030 CDT —— 

Mina pointed out in the comments that Christensen’s Mesozoic reptiles are pretty standard and, in fact, look like versions in Louis Figuier‘s  La Terre avant le déluge (1863, French; English translation, The World before the Deluge, 1872, revised and translated by HW Bristow).  Following Figuier, what I identified as a mosasaur above is probably intended as an ichthyosaur. Henry de la Beche’s Duria Antiquior (1830) shows a plesiosaur and ichthyosaur fighting, as do other nineteenth-century images. Of course, correlation is not, itself proof that Figuier was Christensen’s source, but the similarity of the anatomy and staging between the images are, let us say, pronounced.
FiguierL WorldBeforeDeluge p231 Ideal Scene of the Lias Period with Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus
Above is “Ideal Scene of the Lias Period with Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus” (Plate XV, p 231 [English, continuous HTML or individual page PDFs] and 169 [French]).
FiguierL WorldBeforeDeluge p241 Ideal Landscape of the Liassic Period
Above is “Ideal Landscape of the Liassic Period” (Plate XVI, p 241 [English, continuous HTML or individual page PDFs] and 177 [French]). Not shown here is Plate XIII, p 192, which shows an animal (identified as a Nothosaurus) similar to the crocodyloform.
—— End Edit ——

[1] The endowment includes representations of the Creation, the Garden of Eden, and the Fall. In most present-day temples, the settings and events are portrayed by a combination of video and murals in different rooms or exclusively by video. The Manti Temple has no video. Initiates start in the ?Creation Room? and move, respectively, to ?Garden,? ?World? (or ?Telestial?), ?Terrestrial,? and ?Celestial? rooms.

[2] The sphere/clouds are at front house-left and then proceeds house-right. The sequence is not rigid; there are some domestic and non-domestic animals mixed together. The sequence generally follows Genesis. I got a bit spatially disoriented by time I reached the Creation Room, but I think the congregation / company faces South, which puts the Mesozoic reptiles on the North wall. I am following Richard L Jensen and Richard G Oman?s naming of the ?Creation of the Plants,? ?Earliest Animals,? ?Creation of the Fowls,? ?Creation of the Non-domestic Animals,? ?Creation of the Domestic Animals,? and ?Creation of Water Creatures.? Richard L Jensen and Richard G Oman, C. C. A. Christensen, 1831-1912: Mormon Immigrant Artist, an exhibition at the Museum of Church History and Art (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1984), 58-62.

[3] Jensen and Oman, Christensen, 60.

[4] The word ?dinosaur? dates to 1841 and was invented specifically to distinguish ?dinosaurs? from the animals represented here, which were among the earliest Mesozoic fossils recognized by modern science. ?Mesozoic Reptiles in Manti? just doesn?t roll of the tongue the way I?d like.

[5] Jensen and Oman also point out the preponderance of fern-like plants in the Mesozoic part of the mural.

[6] Bureau of Illustration Buffalo, ?The Salt Lake Basin, As Geologists Represent it Thousands of Years Ago,? illustration in Polygamy: Or, The Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism by John Hanson Beadle and Ovando James Hollister (Philadelphia: National Publishing Co, 1882), 359. I haven?t done a careful comparison, but Polygamy seems to be an updated and expanded version of Beadle?s Life in Utah: The Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism (Philadelphia: National Publishing Co, 1870). Life in Utah does not have the discussion of geology / paleontology.

[7] Beadle, Polygamy, 360.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. My reaction is pretty much the same as yours, Edje. How cool is our religion? It would be interesting to know more about why CCA Christensen included dinosaurs in his mural. The timing is certainly interesting, and not that far removed from the Pratt brothers and other church leaders who felt that the church was not only divinely true, but also that it’s doctrines were rational and in accordance with accepted science of the time.

    Comment by kevinf — August 4, 2013 @ 8:21 am

  2. This is so cool. I’ve heard the rumor that the new temple video includes a dinosaur roar. Can anyone substantiate?

    Comment by EmJen — August 4, 2013 @ 10:35 am

  3. There are also dinosaurs in the Salt Lake Temple, the creation room if I remember right.

    Comment by Tod R. — August 4, 2013 @ 1:59 pm

  4. Cool!

    Comment by Ben S — August 4, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

  5. I’ve always wanted to see the Manti dinosaur mural. Plus, I’ve always loved that illustration in Beadle. The two even look a bit alike, so this was a double bonus for me!

    Comment by Mina — August 4, 2013 @ 5:04 pm

  6. Thankfully, they didn’t do what certain other Christian groups have done, and insist on painting the dinosaurs with Adam and Eve riding on them! 🙂

    Comment by Nick Literski — August 4, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

  7. I remember being struck by this when I first went to the Manti temple a few years back, Edje. I appreciate the historical context you provide here–fascinating.

    Comment by Christopher — August 4, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

  8. Thanks, all.

    kevinf: I think you are right that, whatever Christensen thought about geology, he expected science and faith to converge.

    EmJen: I have not heard about the roar. I am curious how it would be distinguished as a dinosaur versus any other type of roar.

    Tod: I have not heard of SLT dinosaurs and did not notice them myself. Pics?

    Ben: Thanks. The whole thing just makes me grin.

    Mina: glad you liked it. I, too, am struck by the similarity. I wonder if there is a genealogical relationship—was Christensen riffing on Beadle/Bureau of Illustration?

    Nick: me, too.

    Christopher: thanks.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 4, 2013 @ 8:44 pm

  9. Great post, Edje!

    Comment by J Stuart — August 4, 2013 @ 10:07 pm

  10. My guess Edje is that the similarity is due to common natural history depictions of “dinosaurs” at the time. What little I know about the natural history illustration of the dinosaur is from a later period. I have seen a set of early prints that are probably from the same era: they have the same general feel as both of these. I’m going to go track them down now.

    Thanks again. In my ignorance, I had always assumed the dinosaurs were painted by Minerva Teichert. I’m interested in the use of panorama paintings in history of the American West, so thanks for introducing me to C.C.A.!

    Comment by Mina — August 4, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

  11. Here are my lovelies! Check out the Ichthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus and other beasties. From “The World before the Deluge,” by Louis Figuier, 1872:

    Comment by Mina — August 4, 2013 @ 10:38 pm

  12. Thanks, J Stuart.

    Mina: the link is excellent. Thank you, very much. I have amended the post to include two of the images from the Figuier book. I think the similarities between Figuier’s reptiles and Christensen’s are quite striking.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 5, 2013 @ 12:43 am

  13. Now I want dinosaurs in the buildings where I worship.

    Comment by Saskia — August 5, 2013 @ 1:56 am

  14. Coincidentally, during a home teaching visit earlier today, our host brought out what appeared to be an original 1882 edition of Beadle’s book, which I had never seen before. I had a chance to page through it briefly, but didn’t happen to see these particular plates. Fascinating!

    Comment by Patrick — August 5, 2013 @ 1:57 am

  15. I’ve always enjoyed the extinct reptiles in the Creation Room, though I had overlooked the second pterosaur. I guess I hadn’t looked closely enough to see that it wasn’t a bird.

    Christensen’s pterosaur certainly echos Figuier’s, but Christensen gets a lot of the anatomical details wrong, particularly in the wing. The fingers arise from near where the shoulder should be, and unlike Figuier’s and Beadle’s illustrations, Christensen’s pterosaur does not show an elbow or wrist. Christensen’s wing is supported by a fanciful and anatomically implausible structure.

    Still, it always makes me smile when I visit Manti. The room is designed to show the six days of creation, but could almost as easily illustrate the geological periods.

    Comment by Left Field — August 5, 2013 @ 6:59 am

  16. Thanks for the comments, Saskia, Patrick, and Left Field.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 5, 2013 @ 9:31 am

  17. And I just thought it was a pterodactyl. 🙂 Thanks Edje, the context is great.

    Can anyone second Tod’s comment? While I can verify the existence of a very michael jackson looking wolf in the world room (I swear there is some video where he morphs into a wolf–it is uncannily similar), I don’t remember any dinosaurs there.

    Comment by jjohnson — August 5, 2013 @ 10:47 am

  18. What, no feathers? My faith in 19th C. Mormon temple paleontology is shaken.

    Comment by Adam G. — August 5, 2013 @ 11:58 am

  19. JJohnson: [pedantry alert] A pterodactyl is type of pterosaur in approximately the same way that Cottontail rabbits (Genus Sylvilagus, with 13 species) are a type of rodent. The use of “pterodactyl” is, I think, nearly universal, excluding paleontologists and pedantic high-school Science teachers. Figuier called the winged creature in the image above a “Pterodactyle.”

    I, too, would really like a confirmatory report on SLT reptiles.

    As for the wolf, M. jacksonius, I believe you refer to the film-within-a-film in the _Thriller_ video, starting about 2:20 (as part of the 4:14 before the music starts). What a pre-embodiment Michael Jackson was doing in Salt Lake City in the 1800s I leave to theologians.

    Adam G: No theropods = no feathers. That said, if you got past the magical wings pointed out by Left Field and past the anti-gravity generators holding the plesiosaur’s neck out of the water with your regard for temple paleontology intact, only to trip on the alleged absence of protofeathers, then you, sir, are straining at a microraptor (which actually did have feathers) to swallow a gigantosaur.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 5, 2013 @ 1:13 pm

  20. I don’t recall any animals of any type in the SLT creation room. I always thought it a bit odd.

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — August 6, 2013 @ 11:53 am

  21. Also, Beadle wrote a number of books with illustrations in the 1800s. The ones I am familiar with are all anti-Mormon in one way of another.

    Comment by Marjorie Conder — August 6, 2013 @ 12:00 pm

  22. Marjorie: Thanks for the note about Beadle and the report about the SLT, even though it’s a bit disappointing.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 6, 2013 @ 12:10 pm

  23. love this post

    Comment by BHodges — August 9, 2013 @ 5:39 pm

  24. Thanks, BHodges.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 9, 2013 @ 6:41 pm

  25. […] Dinosaurs in the Manti Temple (Read Story) […]

    Pingback by The Cultural Hall Podcast – Articles of News/Week of August 12th — August 12, 2013 @ 9:17 pm

  26. Re: the dinosaur roar in the new temple film, according to my super secret source, it is actually a howler monkey.

    Comment by BHodges — August 14, 2013 @ 10:53 am


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