Notre Dame Professor Fernandez-Armesto defends Columbus’ legacy

The Italian Club of Notre Dame invited Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto of the Department of History to speak in the Main Building about the legacy of Christopher Columbus and the murals located on the building’s second floor. The Columbus murals, which were covered in 2019, were uncovered for two weeks in the fall semester for instructional purposes from September 5-8 and October 23-27. 

Fernandez-Armesto listed his grievances against the decision to cover the murals. Firstly, that the occlusion of the murals caused physical damage resulting from the wooden frames placed over the tapestry. Moreover, Fernandez-Armesto argued that by covering the murals the administration “smothered the only monument on campus that demonstrates the Native American contributions to this country.”

The next part of Fernandez-Armesto’s talk aimed to “help those interested in understanding what the murals signify,” which was done through three different sets of contexts: where the murals fit in American history, the vision of Fr. Sorin who commissioned these murals, and the agenda of the painter.

Fernandez-Armesto argued that historically, “The single most common allegation against the Catholics was that they couldn’t be loyal patriotic Americans.” To this, he responded, explaining how Columbus was the “only Catholic uncontroversial icon,” who, though he never stepped foot in mainland America, “embodied for Americans the spirit of the founding fathers.”

Christopher Columbus was seen as the man whose legacy “bridged the gap between being American and Catholic.” Fernandez-Armesto further pointed out that Columbus Day was declared a national holiday in response to the largest mass lynching in the nation, which was against Italians, “to further the American cause of unity.”

Fernandez-Armesto argued that the murals themselves were more representative of Fr. Sorin’s vision than that of the artist. He pointed out that Sorin intentionally chose to place the murals in the lobby of the Main Building so that it was “the first thing people saw” when they walked in. In this way, Sorin’s vision for Notre Dame was “inseparable from his vision for America.”

Father Sorin viewed America as a land of opportunity; “not a land of commercial opportunity or democratic opportunity, but of Christian opportunity.” Central to this vision was the portrayal of Native Americans in the paintings, which demonstrated the moral superiority of the Americas over Europe. Subtle details in the paintings, such as depicting the Native Americans as bigger than the Europeans and with brighter lighting, showed Sorin’s goal of America to Europe as “an example of how to be more moral, virtuous, and Christian than in the old world”.

Furthermore, in the painting “Bobadilla Betrays Columbus,” which depicts Columbus’ arrest, Fernandez-Armesto argues that it is the indigenous people who are behaving in a Christian fashion toward Columbus, as they are comforting and caring for him in his imprisonment. 

The third context in which these paintings should be viewed, according to Fernandez-Armesto, is the agenda of the artist, Luigi Gregori, who served as a restorer in the Vatican before joining Notre Dame as a professor. Fernandez-Armesto pointed out, “A good part of his agenda was money,” as Gregori contended that he should be paid a commission for the paintings separate from his professorship. As a result, Fr. Sorin was tasked with finding a patron for each painting, whose name is displayed at the top of the painting. 

Gregori used Washington Irving’s biography of Columbus, A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus, as the main inspiration for the paintings. Fernandez-Armesto pointed out that this depiction of Columbus’ life was largely historically inaccurate, though this can be reconciled by the fact that the main purpose of these murals is “not to present the past accurately,” but rather to present Sorin’s vision for what America should look like through “moral truths.”

In the second half of the talk, Fernandez-Armesto led a tour of the murals in the hallway, which are displayed in pairs so that the two paintings on opposite sides display complementary themes. One such pairing was of the paintings “Columbus Coming Ashore” and “Return of Columbus and Reception at Court,” which contrasted what the Old World received from the New World with what the New World received from the Old World.

Elaborating on “Columbus Coming Ashore,” Fernandez-Armesto pointed out that the Natives’ reception of Christianity through the erected Cross demonstrated “their response with respectful attention.” He further pointed out that Gregori was conflicted between interpreting the nakedness of the Natives as either an example of savagery or a Christian innocence and dependence on God. These details further carry out Sorin’s vision of depicting the moral superiority of the Americas by elevating the Natives.

Of the depictions of Native Americans, sophomore Alexander Mitchell told the Rover, “One thing that struck me about the talk was how the murals’ depictions of indigenous peoples were far more positive than I realized.” To Mitchell, these depictions further represented “a uniquely American strength, nobility, and morality that Fr. Sorin hoped the Notre Dame community would come to embody as well.”

Towards the end, Fernandez-Armesto dispelled myths that tarnished Columbus’ legacy. Of the claim that Columbus enslaved Native Americans, he rebutted, “Columbus did not have personal slaves.” He further responded to the claim that Columbus committed genocide against Natives, saying, “The genocide accusation doesn’t make sense” because Columbus “couldn’t survive without them.”

Reflecting on the impact of the talk, Italian Club President Luca Fanucchi told the Rover, “I really hope that people were able to gain a well-rounded perspective of Columbus as a person and as a figure. For Italian Americans, and for many Catholic Americans as well, Columbus Day isn’t just a celebration of the man.”

Though the murals are once again hidden behind wooden paneling, they will again be uncovered during the spring semester.

Jose Rodriguez is a senior from Keenan Hall majoring in computer science with minors in theology and constitutional studies. He owns an Italian flag after having bought the wrong one as a kid, reach out to him at to discuss his adopted Italian heritage.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Columbus Murals Reception at Court

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