Student defends University’s decision to cover controversial Columbus murals
Petitions, counter-petitions, and letters to the editor to take down the Columbus murals featured prominently in the main building have been a tradition at Notre Dame for nearly a quarter century. The debate is often framed as an indictment or defense of the colonization of the New World as a whole, rather than as a referendum solely on the actions of Christoforo Columbo.
Indeed, Columbus is blamed for every abuse of the Spanish Empire and praised for stopping the bloodthirsty human sacrifices of the Aztec and Inca empire. When deciding whether or not to let the murals remain, we must examine Columbus’ own record, which reveals a man who should not be honored in any time, even his own.
On his return from his second voyage, Columbus sold 1,500 Native Americans to the slave markets of Seville. This marked the beginning of the transatlantic slave trade that created so much misery over the next three and a half centuries. Defenders of Columbus may say that Columbus was forced by economic necessity to do this; that with Hispaniola lacking the gold and spices he had set out to find, the only way to fund the colonization of the New World and the spread of the Faith was with the slave trade, which was seen as morally licit in his time. Regardless of one’s feelings about the effect of time on morality, Columbus’ actions as governor of Hispaniola were seen as beyond the pale even in his own time.
In a mural entitled “Bobadilla Betrays Columbus,” Gregori depicts the removal of Columbus from his post as governor of Hispaniola and his imprisonment in Spain. Although Bobadilla’s report to the Spanish monarchs was lost for centuries, a copy of it was found in 2006, describing Columbus’ tyrannical rule over the colony. A woman insulted Columbus’ status, and was punished by being stripped naked, paraded about the colony, and robbed of her tongue. Although Columbus was eventually freed by the Spanish monarchs, the fact that his post as governor wasn’t restored to him suggests that there must be some truth to Bobadilla’s report.
Defenders of the murals suggest that the University has already addressed embarrassing interior decorating decisions from a century ago via the pamphlets at their feet that “explain to viewers the context of the murals’ composition and some of the historical reality of the events depicted.” The context of the mural’s presentation, beneath our iconic golden dome, cannot be undone by a few scraps of paper. A picture is worth a thousand words, and there are 12 paintings “gracing the main corridor of the Main Building,” as the pamphlets phrase it. They send the message that, so long as Columbus’ actions led to the conversion of the Native Americans to the Faith, all else should be forgiven, an argument that few would make today.
So why then should the Columbus murals continue to exist, rather than being destroyed? On the one hand, the argument that we need them to learn from our history leads to some very questionable conclusions. There are enough architectural eyesores in the world that we do not need to preserve Stepan Center as a lesson in how not to make a beautiful building. However, unlike Stepan Center, the Columbus murals actually have aesthetic value. Their creator, Luigi Gregori, had been the Pope’s personal painter before coming to Notre Dame, and his work is found in the Basilica and the Main Building. There are many portraits of less-than-upstanding people in art museums, preserved for their artistic merit rather than their deeds. But as the murals cannot be moved from their current position without destroying them, a different solution is needed than moving them to the Snite Museum.
The “fig leaf” is a long-standing artistic convention, an element added to the larger piece to cover up genitalia or other unsightly features. The curtains over the Columbus Murals may well make the Guinness Book of World Records for largest fig leaf, but defenders of the murals can take solace in the fact that fig leaves come and go as social mores shift. Father Jenkins has managed to defuse the controversy while maintaining the murals in the chance a day comes when the public feels their display is permissible. It is the best decision he could make in this difficult situation.
David is a junior studying history, with minors in Computing & Digital Technologies and Business Economics. All of his spare time goes towards playing the trumpet in marching band. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.