Exploring the legacy of Notre Dame’s greatest artist

Scattered across Notre Dame’s campus are 21 sculptures by world-renowned Croatian artist Ivan Mestrovic. These works include the Pieta in the basilica, Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well in front of O’Shaughnessy Hall, and The Last Supper relief in North Dining Hall.

In 1955, Father Ted Hesburgh invited Mestrovic to Notre Dame to hold the positions of distinguished professor and artist-in-residence. Father Hesburgh successfully recruited Mestrovic with the promise that his religious works would receive greater appreciation from Notre Dame’s heavily Catholic population than from his audience at Syracuse University. Mestrovic remained at Notre Dame teaching and creating works of art until his death in 1962.

Born in Croatia in 1883, Ivan Mestrovic’s early works demonstrated a strong sense of national identity and a desire to create a new independent South Slav state. However, following World War I, Mestrovic became disillusioned with politically driven work, and instead created religious and folk works for the remainder of his life.

In 1947, Mestrovic became the first living artist to have an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. His works initially generated great acclaim, but were later criticized by artists for being antiquated. Nevertheless, his sculptures, which combined classical and modern styles, remained incredibly popular with the general public and the Notre Dame community.

Bridget Hoyt, Curator of Education, Academic Programs at Snite Museum, told the Rover: “Mestrovic’s tenure on campus marks an important period in the history of the arts at Notre Dame.”

Mestrovic’s works are widely considered to have inspired a modern enthusiasm for public sculpture at Notre Dame. This enthusiasm for sculpture has generated interest for the Charles B. Hayes Family Sculpture Park and works such as the large depiction of Moses (“First Down Moses”) and the statue In Celebration of Family (“The Holy Hand-off”).

Hoyt added, “We encounter Mestrovic’s work not just at the Snite Museum, but in our daily movements around campus: in front of O’Shaughnessy Hall, at Hesburgh Library, and in so many dorm chapels, to name a few sites.”

Mestrovic’s religious sculptures across campus are wide and varied. Three crucifixes by Mestrovic exist on campus: one in the St. Teresa of Avila Chapel in Lewis Hall, one in Stanford-Keenan Chapel, and one in the Great Hall of O’Shaughnessy Hall. The basilica contains his dramatic marble Pieta with the anguished Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, and the Blessed Mother surrounding the body of the just-crucified Christ. Marked by harsh angles, the figures in the sculpture demonstrate the profound sorrow of the scene. The Basilica also contains Mestrovic’s roughly sculpted bronze depiction of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which gives the viewer a sense of the love and mercy of God.

Five of Mestrovic’s works are also present in the Eck Visitors Center. One of these sculptures, Seated Figure/Meditation, depicts a despairing woman in Croatian national dress. This white marble sculpture, an earlier work of Mestrovic, portrays his feelings towards the tragedies of his homeland. The Snite also houses five of Mestrovic’s works, including an oil self-portrait and Ashbaugh Madonna, an elongated walnut sculpture of Mary and Jesus carved from a single piece of wood. In addition, Lewis Hall’s courtyard contains a bronze sculpture, Madonna and Child, dedicated to the nineteenth century Sisters of the Holy Cross.

Freshman Clay Jaskowski, who is well-acquainted Mestrovic’s work, commented, “Although they may be overlooked by many Notre Dame students, Mestrovic’s sculptures add beauty and character to Notre Dame’s historic campus. His unique ability to express emotion in his sculptures makes Mestrovic both one of the great modern European artists as well as a vital part of Notre Dame history.”

The history and memory of Mestrovic is preserved in the Shaheen-Mestrovic Memorial on the west side of O’Shaughnessy Hall. Created in 1985 to be a place of appreciation for Mestrovic’s sculptures and a gathering place for students, the memorial includes sculptures of the evangelists Luke and John. Luke and John were selected in order to present the two types of scholars: the contemplative and the inspired writer. The memorial also contains the work Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well.

Senior Maria VanBerkum explained that she was not aware of Ivan Mestrovic, but that she appreciated the work Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well. She reflected, “Whenever I pass by the statue of Jesus talking to the woman at the well, I am reminded of how we are called to be like Christ–to be ready to approach all people, even those radically different from ourselves, in order to bring them peace and truth like Jesus did with the Samaritan woman at the well.”

Ivan Mestrovic has left a legacy of art that brings a religious presence to the campus of Notre Dame. As Bridget Hoyt said, “Mestrovic’s spirituality, made visible through his work, shapes the spirituality of campus.”

Ellie Gardey is a freshman living in Lewis Hall studying philosophy and political science. She has a love for sushi and country music. Contact Ellie at egardy@nd.edu.