NOTRE DAME, Ind. – More than 130 years after their debut at the ceremonial entrance to the University of Notre Dame’s Main Building, murals illustrating the life of Christopher Columbus will soon be covered up.
To many, the 12 murals were “blind to the consequences of Columbus’ voyage,” university President Rev. John Jenkins said in a letter Sunday announcing his decision. At their worst? “Demeaning.”
Italian artist Luigi Gregori painted murals that show various stages of Columbus’ voyage to America. The paintings were created in the 1880s after the building’s reconstruction. They were painted directly on the wall of the Main Building, which is called the “centerpiece of Notre Dame’s past and present.”
Since the 1990s, students, faculty and guests who view the murals can read a university-provided brochure meant to give historic context to art many depict as affirming stereotypes. Jenkins now is saying that because the building is so busy, it’s not an appropriate place for contemplation about the art.
Jenkins is ordering that the murals be covered with a woven material that will allow them to be occasionally displayed. The focus now is designating another area on campus to showcase high-resolution photographs of the original work — offering more context than a brochure.
Notre Dame spokesman Dennis Brown told CNN officials are discussing many ideas for the new display of the photographs, such as adding descriptive memos on iPads and videos.
“This is a good step towards acknowledging the full humanity of those Native people who have come before us,” Marcus Winchester-Jones, president of the Native American Student Association of Notre Dame, said in reaction to the decision.
Students, alumni, staff and representatives of the Native American community have long debated whether the murals should stay or go.
The president’s statement said he recognized the “catastrophe” Columbus’ arrival was for native people and acknowledges what he called the “darker side of the story.”
“We wish to preserve artistic works originally intended to celebrate immigrant Catholics who were marginalized at the time in society, but do so in a way that avoids unintentionally marginalizing others,” Jenkins wrote.
The murals depict Columbus as a pioneer devout in Catholic faith. But, critics say, the realities of his exploration under the auspices of Spanish monarchs told a much less heroic narrative.
Many local governments and states have recognized Indigenous Peoples Day to replace Columbus Day. St. Joseph County, Indiana — where the university is located — has removed Columbus Day from its official holiday schedule.
Some groups have insisted that those who criticize the 15th-century Italian explorer miss his contribution to American society.
“We Knights celebrate his holiday, knowing Columbus gave voice and representation to generations of Catholics, helping pave a path for the diverse society we have today,” the Knights of Columbus, a fraternal benefit society, says on its website. An article on the site says Columbus “was a man of faith and courage, not a monster.”
Jenkins writes the solution will respect Gregori’s murals in context and the reality of what happened to Native Americans in the aftermath of Columbus’ arrival.
The president’s announcement came “deliberately” in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, his office told CNN.