Main Building’s Christopher Columbus murals
BridgeND | Wednesday, January 30, 2019
There’s been a lot of national attention surrounding Notre Dame’s recent decision to cover our Main Building’s Christopher Columbus murals. Father Jenkins had a primetime interview on Martha MacCallum’s Fox News program, influential newspapers are publishing op-eds and Twitter users of all ideologies are crawling out of the woodwork to share their opinions. Many conservative voices see the decision as a violation of our University’s Catholic identity. Moving forward with the University’s plan, though, presents a unique opportunity to more fully live out our Catholicism.
On Jan. 25, the Smithsonian Magazine analyzed the situation. There are 12 murals, and as Fr. Jenkins describes in his letter, their purpose was to help Notre Dame’s largely immigrant Catholic population feel more welcome in the United States at a time when anti-Catholic sentiments ran high. Jenkins writes, “The message to the Notre Dame community was that they too, though largely immigrants and Catholics, could be fully and proudly American.” This purpose has been fulfilled. Social trends have shifted since these murals were commissioned. I’m the grandson of Irish immigrants, and I’ve never felt unwelcome in the United States or in the Notre Dame community. The results of the Campus Inclusive Climate survey prove that other white Catholic males (overwhelmingly) feel the same way. The same is not true for members of our minority communities.
The South Bend Tribune, in a piece originally published in 2012, explained the history of the artist behind the murals. Luigi Gregori was an Italian artist who lived at Notre Dame from 1874 to 1891. Fr. Edward Sorin was looking for an art professor while visiting the papal court in 1874, and offered Gregori the job. Gregori is the mind behind the majority of the art in the Main Building and the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. His work is deeply intertwined with Notre Dame’s most iconic structures (these murals are painted directly on the walls). Choosing to cover the murals, though, is not an attack on Gregori’s artistry, or art in general. His art is frequently displayed in the Snite, adorns our beautiful Basilica and will remain elsewhere in the Main Building and in other areas across campus.
In a blazing op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Alejandro Bermudez writes, “Columbus may be the momentary object of hatred, but the real target is the Catholic faith itself.” Tweets with thousands of interactions that have compared the decision to censorship in the style of “Iranian regimes,” tell us we’re “erasing history” and say the “anti-American PC mob” is destroying our school. A particular point of pain is the discussion about Columbus’ personal merits (or lack thereof). Bermudez, a Catholic, said he “particularly value[s] Columbus for bringing the first of many missionaries who showed millions of people the path to salvation.” Historical accounts, though, also recall Columbus as a brutal colonizer, who personally led kidnapping and enslavement campaigns against indigenous people. These aren’t traits Catholics should idolize.
Bermudez eventually writes, “History is nuanced, and seldom does it present binary choices between pure evil and pure good.” It’s evident that Columbus himself is polarizing.
To move forward in this conversation, we have to look outside the personal virtues (and vices) of Christopher Columbus. Fr. Jenkins is spot-on when he writes, “the second-floor hall of the Main Building is a busy throughway … it is not well-suited for a thoughtful consideration of these paintings and the context of their composition.” It’d be challenging to find football fans listening to trumpets under the Dome discussing the historical complexities these murals present, and students and administrators who frequent the Main Building are probably more concerned with their own busy schedules than they are with reflecting on the complex story that surrounds them.
Creating a permanent display with high-quality images of the murals “in a campus setting to be determined that will be conducive to such an informed and careful consideration” is the next step. I hope that this location is in a central area with a lot of foot traffic, provides more context than a pamphlet and invites people to engage in thoughtful dialogue and reflection, both through the design of the physical space itself and the provision of historical resources. The colonization of the Americas, for whatever benefits might be recognized, was, as Fr. Jenkins writes, a “catastrophe” for indigenous communities. The murals in their current state do not reflect this perspective in the slightest, eliminating an entire narrative that is essential to an accurate representation of world history.
Notre Dame is now inviting a deeper dialogue about history and its intricacies, not “erasing” it. By explicitly making efforts to protect the dignity of all peoples and taking tangible steps to initiate thoughtful conversation and empathy-building, we’re enhancing our Catholic identity, not damaging it.
Kevin Gallagher is a sophomore finance and international economics major. He currently serves as BridgeND’s vice president. The viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the individual and not necessarily those of BridgeND as an organization.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.