The Notre Dame murals are not a hill to die on, but where does the war on art stop?Ihappened to be in South Bend, Ind., a couple of days after the University of Notre Dame, a distinguished place, announced that it would cover twelve murals by Luigi Gregori from the early 1880s depicting scenes from the life of Christopher Columbus. Some students, local organizations, and several national Native American advocacy groups found the murals offensive to indigenous people. In their view, the paintings whitewashed the ruin of many along the route of Columbus’s four voyages, which took him nowhere near Indiana but to faraway Trinidad, Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas. Triggering bad feeling were scenes of the locals embracing Christianity when forced conversion, enslavement, or murder were more likely to occur, sometimes, complainers insist, at Columbus’s instigation.
On the one hand, the murals are part of the university’s aesthetic history. Many people still look at Columbus as a revered figure. No one, much less the stewards of a Catholic institution, wants to be called an iconoclast. Only mobs, nuts, and Puritans get their thrills destroying art. On the other hand, lots of people, not only the Native American groups and outside mischief-makers, are uneasy. The offense taken is more than fringe fractiousness. Serious people committed to the school’s Christian mission find the artworks unfair and divisive. The university is removing a longstanding irritant.
The murals are not triumphs of painting. They’re workmanlike and professional. This isn’t a hill to die on. I understand that. The school’s leadership has looked at its options carefully. They’re people of goodwill and have to deal with Native American students as well as local Native Americans looking for new causes now that they’ve gotten a casino. There’s a national corps of outrage pimps agitating against Catholics and Catholic institutions now. They are bottomless-pit people, with an agenda that goes well beyond Columbus. They’ll be back on campus before long, aggrieved by something new and more essential to the school’s ideals.
I visited the building this week and looked at the murals. They occupy choice real estate in the first-floor ceremonial entrance hall of the university’s elegant Victorian Main Building. The hall leads to an impressive rotunda and dome. The murals were commissioned for the space immediately after the building opened and are part of its architectural integrity.
The school proposes to cover them with a bland, blank woven material. This sea of beige won’t be ideal. To the university’s credit, it will do nothing that’s permanent. Years from now, Columbus might be rehabilitated. Like the fig leaves slapped on Roman and Renaissance nudes by the prigs of the day, the Columbian cover-up may then be stripped away. Everyone, of course, will ask, “What were they thinking?”
Notre Dame is a great university with pretty, comfortable, but conspicuously undistinguished architecture. It continues to build in a wimpy collegiate Gothic style that was most in vogue in the 1920s. It’s getting a new art museum designed by Robert A. M. Stern. I hope it’s not as hideous as Stern’s residential colleges at Yale, done in what is now a very unfresh collegiate Gothic style. Its oldest buildings, such as the Main Building, done in what I call the “state capitol style” popular in the 1870s and 1880s, offer restrained, dignified opulence, solidity, and a sense of purpose. They don’t have much swagger, but flourishes like the Columbus murals are part of their character and presence. People with good design taste will miss them.
I’m a Methodist, so I’ll leave it to others to articulate the profound significance of Columbus in combatting the terrible anti-Catholicism in America dating from the Irish immigrant wave in the 1840s and 1850s through subsequent waves from southern and Eastern Europe. Columbus was a central figure in integrating Catholic Americans into the national story. It’s probably more faithful to the artist’s intent to say the murals rebut hate in the manner of their day rather than foment it.