Murals of Christopher Columbus Will be Covered at The University of Notre Dame

Stich, Abbildung, gravure, engraving from Th. de Bry (1590) & Bertrand & Huyot : 1877

To the slight delight of Native Americans and many others, murals of Christopher Columbus will be covered up at the University of Notre Dame.This comes after years of negative sentiment from Native Americans and others for the Catholic university showcasing the paintings in the main building of Notre Dame. According to Notre Dame’s president, the impact the explorer and so called founder of America is, “nothing short of a catastrophe for Native Americans.”

The 12 murals at issue were painted by Luigi Gregori over the years of 1882-1884. The paintings are located in the entrance building of the university where classrooms  and administration buildings are housed. In a letter written by Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, “The murals by Luigi Gregori that adorn the ceremonial entrance to Notre Dame’s Main Building depict the life and exploration of Christopher Columbus…were intended as a didactic presentation, responding to cultural challenges for the school’s largely immigrant, Catholic population.” In a sign of changing times many view the murals as insensitive to the Native’s who populated the land of America before Columbus’s arrival.

Students, alumni, faculty, staff, and representatives of the Native American community have voiced displeasure to the president in recent years. As such, after consulting with the University’s Board of Fellows, Rev. Jenkins has decided to cover the paintings with woven images in order to preserve them. In this manner, the paintings will still be able to be shown, but not regularly “in their current location.” The murals were painted directly on the walls and moving them would surely destroy them.

Even though Notre Dame brochures that have been published since the 1990s attempt to explain the “historical reality of the events depicted” opposition to the murals remain. In Jenkins’s view, the second floor hall of the main building where the paintings are located, it “is not well suited for a thoughtful consideration of these paintings and the context of their composition.” This is due to the high traffic of “visitors and members of the University community.” Consequently, a yet to be determined “campus setting” will host high-resolution images of the murals. In what could be considered a case of having ones cake and eating it too, Jenkins points out that at the time the paintings were created, Notre Dame’s Catholic population of mostly immigrants, “encountered significant anti-Catholic, anti immigrant attitudes in American public life.” He also acknowledges that upon the arrival of Columbus, the natives were exploited, land was expropriated, cultures were repressed, natives were enslaved, and millions died from new diseases on an epidemic scale.

All in all, this is not a case of having ones cake and eating it too. It is much more complex.  It is an attempt to have two perspectives on one issue coexist under one roof. As Jenkins so eloquently stated, “Our goal in making this change is to respect both Gregori’s murals, understood in their historical context, and the reality and experiences of Native Americans in the aftermath of Columbus’s arrival.”

James Cheef