An icon-style painting that evokes the Pieta, while depicting Jesus Christ with a resemblance to George Floyd, was stolen Tuesday from the law school at The Catholic University of America. The painting was taken after student complaints about the painting prompted national media attention this week.
The dean of the university’s law school told The Pillar Wednesday that school administrators did not intend the painting’s display as a political commentary, and that he hopes members of the university community can discuss a controversial issue with respect.
Dean Stephen Payne added that the painting was a gift to the law school from the university’s campus ministry office. He said that when the law school received the painting, he did not realize it was intended to bear likeness to George Floyd, who was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin during a May 25, 2020 arrest.
“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 Wednesday.
The painting, entitled “Mama” was created by St. Louis artist Kelly Latimore who paints saints and religious scenes, as well as contemporary and historical figures, in the style of liturgical icons. While the paintings are not considered icons in a canonical or liturgical sense, they are commonly referred to as such, and the painting at Catholic University was referred to as an icon when it was blessed by university chaplain Fr. Jude DeAngelo, OFM Conv., at a law school ceremony earlier this year.
According to university president John Garvey, “the picture was stolen from its place outside the chapel,” Tuesday night.
“Our Department of Public Safety discovered the theft shortly after it occurred and continues to investigate,” Garvey said in an email to university faculty Nov. 24, which was obtained by The Pillar.
“We have replaced the picture with an identical, though smaller, copy that hung in our Campus Ministry office,” Garvey wrote.
Controversy over the painting began earlier this week, when The Daily Signal, a website sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, reported that several students, some of whom were quoted anonymously, considered the painting to be blasphemy, because the artist depicted Jesus Christ with the likeness of George Floyd. After that report, a petition emerged on campus calling for the painting to be taken down; the petition reportedly now has several hundred signatures.
In his email, Garvey explained that critics of the painting were varied in motivation: while some objected to depicting Christ with the likeness of a contemporary figure, others, Garvey said, expressed opinions he called racist.
“Some critics called the image blasphemous because they saw it as deifying or canonizing George Floyd. Some comments that we received were thoughtful and reasonable. Some were offensive and racist. Much of the criticism came from people unconnected to the University,” Garvey wrote.
University vice president for communications Karna Lozoya told reporters this week that the painting depicts Christ. Elements of the painting evoke traditional symbols meant to convey that, including the Greek letters in the halo which signify the divinity of Christ.
But the image also bears an intentional resemblance to Floyd, which has prompted the controversy.
Latimore, the artist, said in an April interview that “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. This nonanswer frustrated the hell out of a lot of people,” Latimore told The Christian Century.
Payne told The Pillar that he thought the image was “consistent with the Gospel message about the saving power of Jesus Christ and identifying with the least among us.”
“But, I would say, that the images Our Lord uses to describe himself in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, in my view, are very similar to George Floyd.”
In Matthew 25, Jesus Christ identifies himself with the hungry and thirst, the stranger and naked, the sick and the incarcerated. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me,” Christ tells his disciples.
Payne said that since the painting was hung months ago, he has heard only positive comments about it from people at the law school, but it has not been frequently mentioned or discussed. He said he was surprised that a controversy emerged in recent weeks.
If students or faculty unhappy with the painting had come to him, Payne said, he would have told them: “I understand and appreciate your reverence for Our Lord. Let’s talk about it and get other folks involved.”
“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.
“It’s the [law school’s] desire to have culturally relevant depictions of holy things,” Payne said, “just like all cultures have done for all time with Christian iconography.”
Amid the questions connected to the painting is the role of the university’s campus ministry office in the controversy.
Payne told The Pillar the painting was a gift from the campus ministry office, and noted that painting had been “quite literally blessed by our authority on campus for that — the campus chaplain.”
Some students who have criticized the painting — saying that it is not appropriate to depict Christ with the likeness of a contemporary figure — have questioned whether the campus ministry office, staffed by Conventual Franciscan friars, ought to have known the painting would be religiously controversial — especially as liturgical iconography is limited only to the depiction of recognized saints, and the style itself represents a particular aspect of Christian religious tradition.
The university has not said if it will conduct a review into whether the painting’s blessing — and the specific reference to the painting as an icon within that blessing — was in alignment with the liturgical norms governing the blessing of icons or sacred art. Canon law establishes that Eastern Catholic bishops are responsible for regulating the production, blessing, and liturgical use of icons within the Church.
In recent years, the university’s campus ministry has been criticized by some in the university community who say it is not receptive to students who are liturgically traditionalist or theologically conservative. Some students and faculty have called for the Conventual Franciscans at the university to be replaced, and questioned whether the campus ministry office is consistently faithful to the Church’s magisterium. DeAngelo has been campus chaplain since 2010.
For his part, Payne told The Pillar that he believes a university community has a unique responsibility to talk through controversies like the one that has surrounded the painting.
When a university encounters disagreement, “we talk about it, respecting each other as colleagues and hopefully friends. You know, we really want to be a place that convenes rational dialogue on controversial issues, because I have certainly found that the number of places where you can do that is shrinking. I think that’s become an issue on both sides of the political spectrum.”
When it reported on the painting this week The Daily Signal wrote that one student criticizing university administrators as “woke liberals” had requested anonymity because of the possibility of reprisal from university administrators. The Pillar asked the website earlier this week to explain why the student thought expressing a political or theological viewpoint might prompt reprisal, but has not yet received a response.
But Payne said university administrators are open to talk.
“We want to be a place that convenes people to have civil dialogues.”
On the painting at the center of the controversy, “we’re certainly willing to talk about it,” he added.
“You know, I think when something rises in this way a lot of people make up their minds before talking with the principals involved and then positions become entrenched. But nothing is too entrenched for the Holy Spirit.”
At the law school, Payne said, “we don’t have an agenda other than to faithfully pursue our Catholic identity and mission.”