Columbus murals temporarily uncovered, recent damage revealed

Murals depicting several scenes from Christopher Columbus’s arrival and activity in the New World located on the second floor of the Main Building will be uncovered through Friday, September 9, 2022 and from Monday, October 24 through Friday, October 28.

University president Fr. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., decided in autumn 2020 to cover the murals with a removable tapestry, after what the university website refers to as “an intensive period of discussion, research and reflection across the Notre Dame and regional communities on how best to address a complex narrative that was considered celebratory in the late 19th century but had become troubling by the early 21st century—especially in its depiction of Native Americans.”

The decision caused much debate—a range of opinions have been expressed within the pages of the Rover, including a defense of the administration’s decision from Rover faculty advisor and Notre Dame Law School Professor Richard W. Garnett. Garnett argues in the article that “the murals were intended to make a statement, and to convey a message, at a particular time, in a particular context, to particular audiences. It is not a retreat from or a repudiation of our Catholic character to conclude that, today, they are not succeeding at their task.”

The murals were painted between 1882 and 1884 by Luigi Gregori, former artist in the papal household of Pope St. Pius X, as a sign of pride for American Catholics at a time when Catholics were widely ridiculed and ostracized as unfaithful Americans. Notre Dame was to be a center for Catholics in the largely Protestant country, and Columbus was a figurehead for American Catholics because of the intersection of his Catholic faith and his centrality in the history of North America leading up to the formation of the United States.

Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, William P. Reynolds Professor of History at the university, has taught a class on Columbus and used the murals as educational material. He wrote a report detailing damage that has been done to the murals due to the method of covering and uncovering that was implemented in 2019.

The report does not address the question of whether the murals should be covered, but argues for their usefulness and their artistic and moral value in view of the damage they have experienced. The principal issues with the murals noted by Fernandez-Armesto include disfigured paint due to placement of rivets and adhesives, scraped paint due to placement of the covers’ wooden frames, with several additional damages reported.

Professor Fernandez-Armesto informed the Rover that he had corresponded with President Jenkins on this issue: “The president’s answer to me is that he’s satisfied that the method they used was consistent with the advice of Conrad Schmitt,” the company commissioned by the university to install the coverings. He continued, if one “could demand to see the correspondence between Conrad Schmitt and the university on this, I strongly suspect there wouldn’t be any.”

When asked about the logic of the decision to cover the murals, Fernandez-Armesto responded, “There’s a very prominent statue on our campus of somebody who killed many people, and even committed genocide. Do you know who that is? Moses.” He continued, “There’s no logical connection between what’s publicly displayed and what’s approved of. We display things in public for many reasons, one of which is education.”

Professor Fernandez-Armesto concluded by reiterating that he is not arguing for the murals to be permanently uncovered: “I think they did the wrong thing, but that doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is the preservation of the art. If the university doesn’t preserve its patrimony, it’s doomed.” He emphasized once again the importance of keeping separate the question of whether the murals should be covered and whether the way we cover them damages them.

The Rover also spoke to Fr. Brian Ching, C.S.C. rector of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and chaplain of the Notre Dame Knights of Columbus Council #1477, about the Knights and their relation to the controversial figure. Ching told the Rover that while the Knights continue to bear Columbus’ name, “our current mission is not bound to the mission of Christopher Columbus. Not to his traits, negative or positive. Our mission and goal continues to be helping the Church thrive.”

Ching continued, “The point and main goal of the order remains the mutual benefit and support of Catholics in the U.S. Our primary goal is not the preservation of the legacy of Christopher Columbus, though his role in our founding speaks to something about who we are and why we exist.” 

When asked about how Christians ought to think about controversial historical figures, Fr. Ching said, “The fall is a real part of our narrative as the children of God. It’s easy to look back and put historic peoples’ lives on scales and say they were good or bad.”

Michael Bender, Grand Knight of the Council, noted that there is a diversity of opinions on Columbus and his legacy within the Knights: “We don’t hide the fact that he had downfalls like everyone else. We also don’t hide the fact that he was an extraordinary man with a great faith; we have a photo of Columbus in our council chambers.” 

Bender concluded, “In the end, it’s all about charity and helping out the community. We try not to let the controversy overshadow that. The way to defend his name and the order is to be as charitable as possible.”

Joshua Gilchrist is a senior from Keenan Hall who now lives off campus. He is a proud member of both the Program of Liberal Studies and the Department of Theology, and you can find him preparing for his large Columbus Day party or celebrating the fact that his Seminar V class has moved on from War and Peace.