A Mormon temple with two spires, at dusk.
© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

Despite its olive trees and piazza, the new temple will look familiar to American eyes.

There are more than 900 churches in Rome, many of them jaw-droppingly beautiful inside, like the Sistine Chapel and Santa Maria in Trastevere. The Eternal City’s newest religious structure doesn’t boast any medieval mosaics or Renaissance frescoes. But it’s sumptuous by 21st-century standards, with high, curved walls of white granite, two tall spires, inlaid marble floors, and a grand staircase surmounted by a huge crystal chandelier.

The temple’s grand staircase and foyer. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

The dedication last week of the new Mormon temple in Rome marked the arrival of Mormonism—a comparatively young denomination that still meets with bias and suspicion—in the global center of Catholicism. It is the 162nd operating Mormon temple in the world, thanks to a relentless building campaign over the past few decades by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS Church) to serve its growing ranks, which now number above 16 million.

The piazza of the Rome temple complex. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

Back in 2006, Mormon leaders petitioned for official religious status in Italy, and even hired a Washington lobbyist to advance their cause. Official status was granted in 2010, and construction on the 40,000-square-foot temple began that year.

Kathleen Flake, a professor of Mormon Studies at the University of Virginia, said the opening of the temple has “enormous cultural significance” for Mormons. The church dispatched all 15 of its highest-ranking leaders to Rome for the dedication—which was unprecedented—and LDS President Russell Nelson had an audience with Pope Francis on March 9, the first-ever such meeting.

“This is a hinge point in the history of the church. Things are going to move forward at an accelerated pace, of which this is a part,” said the 94-year-old Nelson. Forty more temples are currently being either planned or constructed, from Phnom Penh to Pocatello, Idaho.

Temples are not, it should be noted, where Mormons—as members of the LDS Church are commonly known—attend regular services. (They have simpler, often mass-produced chapels for that.) Mormon temples are devoted to the highest sacraments of the faith, and following a public open-house period and dedication ceremonies, only church members who have shown themselves worthy are allowed to enter. This is why building them is a matter of such importance to LDS leaders.

“Temples aren’t used for ordinary worship, but for particular rituals—rituals for the living and the dead, by which church members make covenants and bonds that they believe will persist for eternity,” said John G. Turner, a historian of religion at George Mason University and author of a biography of Brigham Young.

Part of a complex covering 15 acres, the Rome temple (which is now closed to the public) faces a piazza whose other sides are flanked by supporting buildings. Its architect, Niels Valentiner of VCBO Architecture in Salt Lake City, has described Italian influences on his design. He credited the elliptical plan to the Baroque 17th-century church of San Carlo alle Quatro Fontane. Star patterns used on the temple’s floors derive from the paving in Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio.

But in truth, the style of the temple is more reminiscent of Art Deco—and, somehow, unmistakably Mormon. Why are Mormon temples so distinctive-looking?

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded in 1830 in New York State by Joseph Smith. The church’s second temple, in Nauvoo, Illinois, begun in 1841, was a large Greek Revival hall with a tower topped by a weathervane. Inside, it had a full basement containing a baptismal font; lower and upper assembly rooms; and in the attic, a council room.

The Nauvoo temple anticipated later temples’ spires and statues of Moroni with its tower, topped by a Moroni-shaped weathervane. (Library of Congress)

This floor plan illustrates the key difference between Mormon temples and most other Christian churches: Instead of being dominated by a large sanctuary, the interior of the temple is divided into several rooms, which worshippers move through to perform specific rituals (or “ordinances”).

That’s why the interior of the Rome temple looks more like a four-star hotel than a vast Gothic cathedral, with its plush carpets, sofas and armchairs, and small tables. Temples have an intimate scale and domestic character that reflect the central place of the family in Mormon culture and theology.

The Rome temple’s celestial room. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

After Joseph Smith’s death in 1844 at the hands of a mob, his followers, led by Brigham Young, migrated to the Great Salt Lake Valley and founded Salt Lake City in 1847. The early Utah temples of St. George, Logan, and Manti all have a sequence of ordinance rooms culminating in the celestial room, “a place of quiet peace, prayer, and reflection meant to symbolize heaven.” On the outside, these temples are castellated and fortress-like, suggesting security in a time of persecution and crackdowns by the federal government—which feared the rise of a theocratic kingdom in Utah.

The St. George temple has crenellations and gleaming white-plaster walls.  (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

The massive Salt Lake Temple, begun in 1853 but not finished for 40 years, was given a similar progression of spaces to St. George, but with special meeting rooms for the church leadership. Its outward architecture is highly symbolic. Brigham Young instructed its architect, Truman Angell:

There will be three towers on the east, representing the President [of the Church] and his two counselors; also three similar towers on the west representing the Presiding Bishop and his two counselors; the towers on the east the Melchisedek priesthood, those on the west the Aaronic preisthood. The center towers will be higher than those on the sides, and the west towers a little lower than those on the east end. The body of the building will be between these.

The upper priesthood in the church is the Melchizedek and the lower is the Aaronic, which is why the Salt Lake Temple’s western (Aaronic) towers are shorter than those on the east (Melchizedek).

The sun sets behind the Gothic Revival-style Salt Lake Temple, the centerpiece of Temple Square in Salt Lake City. (Douglas C. Pizac/AP)
A cutaway model of the Salt Lake Temple showing the ordinance rooms and upper assembly room.  (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

There isn’t one “Mormon style” of architecture—many styles have been used for temples over the years, with occasional nods to regional and pre-Columbian traditions. Instead, there are recurring features that transcend style. Temples are often tiered in form, like wedding cakes, and stand on prominent, well-buffered sites. They tend to have solid white or buff-colored walls with few (or small) windows, a tall tower or spire(s), and a statue of the Mormon angel Moroni.

After decades of conflict with the U.S. government, the LDS Church renounced polygamy in 1890, and the turn of the 20th century was a period of assimilation and striving for wider legitimacy. Temples were important symbols of Mormonism in the eyes of America, and increasingly, professional (Mormon) architects began to be hired to design them.

The Cardston Alberta temple (1913-23) by Hyrum Pope and Harold Burton was the first modern temple, showing the strong influence of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois. It has horizontal massing, with no spire or Moroni statue, and is laid out in the shape of a cross, which is very unusual for a Mormon building. (The near absence of crosses in Mormon architecture reflects a theological focus on the resurrected Christ rather than the Crucifixion.)

The Prairie Style-inspired Cardston Alberta temple, a break with tradition. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

But this bold experiment, the result of a design competition, didn’t prompt a lasting shift, as Brooke Kathleen Brassard writes:

The key characteristics of Gothic Revival, such as towers, steeples, and Gothic windows, connote qualities of religion and faith for many Christians. ... Church members criticized modern architecture for its “awkward” and “unchurchlike” style. It did not communicate the desired message.

According to the late Mormon architectural historian Paul L. Anderson, “a preference for traditional styles alternated with modern tendencies” in temple design for much of the 20th century. Among the various strains of Modernism, Art Deco was the favorite, since it lent itself to vertical designs and allowed for ornamentation. The Idaho Falls Temple (begun in the late 1930s) strongly resembles certain New York City skyscrapers of the era. By contrast, a rare LDS building in the International Style, the Glendale Ward in California, won a national design award from Architectural Forum magazine, but church leaders were so uncomfortable with the building that they never displayed the certificate.

The Idaho Falls temple, completed (after delays due to World War II) in 1945, with a skyscraper-esque crown. (© Intellectual Reserve, Inc.)

The church grew significantly from the 1940s through the 1980s, a period that coincided, of course, with suburbanization and the rise of car culture in the U.S. Unlike the Salt Lake Temple, which is in Temple Square—the geographic center of Salt Lake City—postwar temples such as Washington, D.C.’s and Oakland’s were located off major roads in the fringes of cities. They rise up shimmering in a driver’s windshield, otherworldly, like the Emerald City of Oz. The lead church architect during much of this period was Emil B. Fetzer, whose populist-modern style is reminiscent of Edward Durrell Stone.

Aerial view of the Washington, D.C. temple in Kensington, Maryland, just off the Capital Beltway. (Carol M. Highsmith/Library of Congress)

Practical considerations such as the high cost of central urban land and the need to build ancillary structures have no doubt pointed to suburban sites. But Mormon leaders and architects also understand the visual power of a gleaming edifice, taller than anything around it, seen by tens of thousands of passing motorists every day. Through their position, height, scale, and brilliant whiteness, Mormon temples express a sense of confident mystery as well as any buildings in the modern world.

And the Rome temple is no exception. In an ancient city where churches of every shape and century rub shoulders with their neighbors, it stands aloof on the city’s northeastern edge—clearly visible from the Grande Raccordo Anulare, Rome’s beltway.

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