Catholic University president apologizes for 'needless controversy' of twice-stolen icon

John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, has apologized for the school's display of an icon some say depicts George Floyd as Jesus, saying the twice-stolen image has created “needless controversy and confusion.”

“Some critics thought that the identity of the male figure was at best ambiguous. Many saw the figure in the arms of Our Lady as a divinized George Floyd. This interpretation led to accusations that the work was blasphemous, something that is contrary to the respect due God and his holy name. Defenders of the work said it was meant to provoke thought about seeing Christ in the most distressed among us,” Garvey said in an email to the university on Dec. 20. 

“Regardless of your interpretation, it created needless controversy and confusion, for which I am sorry,” he said.

The painting, by the St. Louis-based artist Kelly Latimore, is titled “Mama.” It was installed in February outside the chapel at the university's Columbus School of Law. In a style reminiscent of Eastern Christian iconography, the artwork portrays a Black Virgin Mary and Jesus in a Pieta-like scene. Mary’s gaze looks outward towards the viewer.

After news reports of the icon circulated in November, the painting was stolen from its place in the law school. A second, smaller replica was put up as a replacement. But that, too, was stolen in early December

Floyd, 46, was killed in police custody in May 2020, sparking nationwide protests. Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes, was later convicted on three charges of unintentional second-degree murder, third-degree murder, and second-degree manslaughter. He was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison.

Latimore has said the painting was commissioned to “mourn” George Floyd. When asked if the figure in the pieta is George Floyd or Jesus, he responded ambiguously, answering “yes.”

In the email, Garvey called the thefts “unacceptable” and said that while thinking about a replacement, the wall will remain blank. 

“We will share additional details in the weeks to come, and we continue to encourage our students, faculty, and staff to engage in thoughtful dialogue about the role art plays in our faith and culture,” he said. 

Garvey said that there are “many examples of artwork that reflect the cultural richness and diversity of the Catholic Church, and that do so without creating confusion for faithful Catholics.”

He said that he asked the School of Theology and Religious Studies to organize a conference in the spring “to explore the topic of sacred art and inculturation.” The conference will have experts and will include discussion on “issues surrounding the creation of artwork that is both culturally relevant and faithful to tenets of our faith.”

In the beginning of the email, Garvey wrote that the celebration of Christmas is about the mystery of God becoming man, while noting that “the reverse is not true: man cannot aspire to become God.”

He acknowledged that man becoming God “was the principal criticism” of the icon. 

He said the controversy invited the community to consider the importance of depicting Christ in art, noting that “it should reflect what we believe about God, and our relationship with Him.” 

“Despite these setbacks, our intention remains this: we are striving to be a community that makes people of all races, cultures, and nations feel welcome,” he said. “The Catholic University of America is a faithfully Catholic university that is proud of its heritage, and eager to welcome all who seek a Catholic University education.”

After the first painting was stolen on Nov. 23, the next day Garvey sent an email to the university community denouncing the theft but said that the school received a “substantial number of emails and phone calls” criticizing the painting. 

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Garvey acknowledged some comments were thoughtful and reasonable while he called others offensive and racist. Most complaints came from outside the university, he said. 

In that email, he said he would not be ordering the school to take down the painting because of his “no cancellation” policy, a practice he has kept consistent through his tenure as president.

"We hope to continue to build on campus a culture that engages in thoughtful dialogue and debate, not the sort of bully tactics epitomized by this theft," he added.

After the second painting was stolen in early December, the student government passed a resolution asking that no forms of art titled “Mama” by Kelly Latimore be hung or put on display in any university buildings.

The university is currently investigating both thefts and has asked anyone with information to contact the university’s Department of Public Safety at 202 319-5111. 

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