In the wake of controversy surrounding an icon at the Catholic University of America’s Columbus Law School, the school’s undergraduate student government passed a resolution Monday requesting university officials replace the painting with art that is “non-political and uncontroversial.”
The university’s campus ministry unveiled the icon, “Mama” by St. Louis artist Kelly Latimore, in February and it hung outside the law school’s Mary Mirror of Justice chapel until it was stolen in November. The icon came under scrutiny after conservative news outlet The Daily Signal published an article in November drawing attention to some students’ dissatisfaction with the painting’s likeness to George Floyd — an interpretation the university has denied.
Latimore, who created the icon, told Sojourners that to say the painting is either Floyd or Christ is “not the most faithful answer.”
“George Floyd had the imago dei within him, the image of God, as we all do, but it is Christ,” he said.
Made in a style known as a pietà, the painting depicts the Black Virgin Mary cradling Jesus’ dead body. The university released a statement addressing pushback, which said the icon was “a good-faith attempt to include religious imagery on campus that reflects the universality of the Catholic Church.”
As backlash mounted, online petitions demanding the university remove the icon garnered thousands of signatures. One petition, started by the CUA student group Young Americans for Freedom, called the painting “disrespectful, and sacrilegious.” The university’s president, John Garvey, responded to media attention by issuing a statement that said much of the icon’s criticism came from “people unconnected to the University.”
Garvey said the university had replaced the stolen icon with a smaller version that had been hanging in the campus ministry office, and emphasized that the university would continue “to build on campus a culture that engages in thoughtful dialogue and debate, not the sort of bully tactics epitomized by this theft.”
In CUA students’ resolution, which was first reported by the conservative National Review and passed 15-9, representatives said that the icon “is seen as blasphemous, offensive, and at the very least confusing not only to students but many in the general public and only serves to further divide the community.”
The students requested that the university instead reach out to the surrounding Brookland neighborhood in Washington, D.C. to find less controversial art that increases representation of the Black community. According to demographics data, Brookland is 27 percent white and over 61 percent Black. The neighborhood has long been a hub for Washington’s Black community. Currently, there’s an ongoing fight to save the city’s largest remaining affordable housing complex — located in Brookland — Brookland Manor.
Rev. Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary and the canon theologian at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., told Sojourners that the point of icons and religious symbolism is to point beyond what’s physically displayed, to a greater understanding of God.
“What’s going on at Catholic University has shown us that people at Catholic University aren’t ready for Black life to reflect not just human life, but also the sacred,” Douglas said after the painting was stolen.
Neither CUA nor CUA’s Student Government Association immediately responded to media requests before publication.