Murals by Luigi Gregori that adorn the ceremonial entrance to the University of Notre Dame’s main building, depicting the life and exploration of Christopher Columbus, are to be covered. CNS photo/Matt Cashore, courtesy University of Notre Dame

University of Notre Dame to cover historic Columbus murals described as ‘demeaning’

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  • February 11, 2019

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The University of Notre Dame has decided to keep famed explorer Christopher Columbus under wraps.

The president of the famed Catholic university announced that in consultation with other school officials, he has decided to cover 19th-century murals in a prominent campus building that depict the life and exploration of Columbus.

The works by Luigi Gregori that adorn the building’s ceremonial entrance were painted in 1882-84, not long after a devastating fire and reconstruction of the structure, Holy Cross Fr. John I. Jenkins, said in a letter to the campus on Jan. 20.

The paintings “reflect the attitudes of the time and were intended as a didactic presentation, responding to cultural challenges for the school’s largely immigrant, Catholic population,” he explained. “In recent years, however, many have come to see the murals as at best blind to the consequences of Columbus’ voyage for the Indigenous peoples who inhabited this ‘new’ world and at worst demeaning toward them.”

So the murals will be covered by a woven material “consistent with the decor of the space, though it will be possible to display the murals on occasion,” he continued.

The paintings themselves cannot be moved because Gregori painted them “directly on to the plaster of the walls, and so any attempt to move them would damage and likely destroy the works,” Jenkins said.

He noted that since the 1990s, a brochure has been provided “that explains to viewers the context of the murals’ composition and some of the historical reality of the events depicted.”

“However, because the second-floor hall of the main building is a busy throughway for visitors and members of the university community, it is not well suited for a thoughtful consideration of these paintings and the context of their composition,” Jenkins said.

Therefore, the university will create a permanent display for high-quality, high-resolution images of the murals in a campus setting to be determined.

Columbus was hailed by Americans generally as an intrepid explorer, the “first American” and the “discoverer of the New World,” Jenkins said, and the murals depicted the popular image of Columbus as an American hero, who was also an immigrant and a devout Catholic.

The message to the Notre Dame community “was that they too, though largely immigrants and Catholics, could be fully and proudly American,” he said.

“But for the native peoples of this ‘new’ land, however, Columbus’ arrival was nothing short of a catastrophe,” the priest said. 

“Whatever else Columbus’ arrival brought, for these peoples it led to exploitation, expropriation of land, repression of vibrant cultures, enslavement and new diseases causing epidemics that killed millions.”

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