Image courtesy of The Daily Signal
By Renee Rasmussen
On November 22, controversy began surrounding a painting featured in Catholic University’s Law School and Campus Ministry office. This painting titled “Mama” by artist Kelly Latimore depicts an intimation of the Pietà—the Mother of Sorrows—but has been critiqued by Catholic University students as depicting George Floyd as Jesus Christ.
This controversy began due to an article published in The Daily Signal regarding the painting. An anonymous source, who according to The Daily Signal stayed anonymous out of fear of reprisal from the university administration, leaked the story due to their frustration.
“The icon has no place at The Catholic University of America; it is blasphemous and an offense to the Catholic faith, but it is not surprising at all that it was put there,” the source said according to The Daily Signal. “It is just another symptom of the liberalization and secularization of our campus.”
When asked by The Daily Signal about the painting, Karna Lozoya, vice president for university communications commented that, “You can identify Jesus by the marks in the halo.”
The artist has also commented on the controversy on whether the painting is actually depicting Jesus and Geroge Floyd. In an interview with Christian Century, Latimore states that the painting was commissioned by his partner Evie Schoenherr as a way to mourn George Floyd.
“The common question that people asked was, ‘Is it George Floyd or Jesus?’ The fact they’re asking that question is part of the problem. My answer was yes,” Latimore told Christian Century. “This nonanswer frustrated the hell out of a lot of people. Again, it’s them trying to protect God, and we can be pretty sure that when we try to protect God, we’re creating an idol.”
In response to the controversy surrounding the painting President John Garvey released a media statement explaining the logic behind placing the painting on campus.
“There are those who would like to see George Floyd as the male figure in the icon. That is not how we read it. The image represents to our community a good-faith attempt to include religious imagery on campus that reflects the universality of the Catholic Church,” Garvey said.
However, this did not satisfy some groups of students, such as the Young Americans for Freedom, who quickly released a petition asking administration to take down the painting.
Currently at 4,237 signatures, the petition reads, “As students at the Catholic University of America, we believe that it is extremely grave that our university, the official university of the Catholic Church in North America, would cast another in the image of our Lord in this way, particularly for political purposes. No political or social cause ever justifies depicting another in the place of Jesus Christ.”
In his interview, Latimore disagreed with this sentiment. “In the Black community, there’s dialogue about whether continuously showing dead Black bodies is healthy. I worried about that. But several Black friends of mine told me this was needed—God being present in the dead Black body—as a way to respond so this doesn’t keep happening.”
“I think Mama encapsulates my favorite part of iconography, the communal aspect. It makes the artist part of the community, part of the whole,” Latimore said.
On Tuesday November 23, the painting was stolen from the Law School. In response to the theft, the picture was replaced with an identical, though smaller, copy that hung in the Campus Ministry office.
In a letter to campus, Garvey further explained why the University found this behavior unacceptable.
“It has been the University’s policy, throughout my time as President, not to cancel speakers or prevent speech by members of the community. Consistent with that policy, we declined suggestions in this case that we take the image down,” Garvey said. “Our ‘no cancellation’ policy does not apply only to the administration. We hope to continue to build on campus a culture that engages in thoughtful dialogue and debate, not the sort of bully tactics epitomized by this theft.”
To some students, this matter is a question of Catholic University’s commitment to its Catholic mission, especially in the Campus Ministry department.
“The chaplain and the rest of Campus Ministry seem to think that their liberal version of social justice is the highest virtue, even more important than authentic expressions of the Catholic faith,” the anonymous source told The Daily Signal.
Stephen Payne, Dean of the Law School, gave a different perspective in an interview with The Pillar.
“We certainly didn’t mean to offend anybody, but it seemed like a culturally relevant depiction of Our Lord and Our Lady, that would give us a wonderful opportunity to talk about the gospel of Jesus Christ in a very difficult time,” Payne told The Pillar.
“I think well-intentioned people have great reverence for Our Lord and depictions of him, and I understand that Mr. Floyd, for some, represents cultural hot-button issues right now, and they probably don’t appreciate the juxtaposition of Our Lord and the current political environment,” Payne added.
There is no more information on whether the stolen painting will be recommissioned at this time. The print currently hangs outside of the Chapel of Justice in the Columbus School of Law.