A controversial painting was stolen from the Catholic University of America campus last month. When it was replaced by a smaller copy of the same image, that painting was also stolen.
The painting, created by Kelly Latimore in 2020, is an icon, considered a sacred image in the Roman Catholic faith. But exactly whom the artwork depicts is at the center of the controversy. In the traditional Pietà style, the painting shows Mary holding the dead body of Jesus after his crucifixion. However, a close look at the Jesus in the image reveals a face that bears similarities to George Floyd, the unarmed Black man whose murder by police in 2020 prompted national protests and widespread institutional scrutiny. Titled “Mama,” the painting seems to reference the fact that Floyd called out for his mother as he was dying.
The artwork was blessed by a campus official and unveiled outside a chapel on the second floor of Catholic University’s law school in February. In late November the painting was stolen after conservative websites wrote about it and online petitions circulated calling for its removal.
Following the theft, Catholic University president John Garvey showed support for the controversial icon, writing in a statement, “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 also addressed the confusion around who was depicted in the painting. “Many see the male figure as George Floyd, but our Law School has always seen the figure as Jesus,” Garvey wrote.
When the university replaced the stolen work with a smaller, identical copy already on campus, that icon went missing in early December.
Source of the Controversy
Blayne Clegg, an undergraduate at Catholic University, has been outspoken about the icon, calling it divisive, because he, and others, see Floyd in the image rather than Jesus Christ.
“The subject of that painting in my eyes, and I think in the eyes of millions of other Catholics around the world, is George Floyd. That, in my eyes, and in my opinion, is not up for debate,” Clegg said. He said he finds it offensive that “Christ has been equated to another specifically identifiable human being.”
Others have expressed concern about the fact that it depicts a politicized figure.
The artist—who did not respond to interview requests—has been vague on who is depicted in the painting. Latimore told Religion News Service that the painting is meant to mourn Floyd, but when asked if the painting is Jesus or George Floyd, he has consistently responded with a cryptic “yes.”
In the aftermath of this controversy, Latimore told RNS he has been receiving death threats, some openly racist and white supremacist in nature.
Beyond the painting itself, Clegg says students are also frustrated with the statement put out by school officials, which he felt obfuscated the issue of whom the painting depicts, and by the administration’s lack of communication when the second painting was stolen from campus.
“The university response to this was horrendous,” Clegg says. “It’s hard to imagine a situation where the university could have responded worse. The response was abysmal. It was unclear, it was vague, it was short, it didn’t answer any of the concerns that students had. And all it did was provide cause for further confusion among university undergraduates.”
Call to Replace Controversial Art
Even if the two stolen paintings turn up—an investigation involving local law enforcement is ongoing—some students don’t want to see the artwork returned to its original spot.
Maura Schlee, a Catholic University undergraduate and member of the Student Government Association, sponsored a resolution requesting that the campus not display the controversial icons but replace them “with other forms of art that represent diversity and bring forth representation of the African American community in a non-political and uncontroversial way.”
That resolution passed by a 15-to-9 vote earlier this month.
Schlee said her resolution was initially written prior to the theft of the second painting and called for the removal of all “Mama” icons from the Catholic University campus. Upon learning of the theft of both paintings, she amended the resolution to call for a noncontroversial replacement.
Schlee added that her resolution came about as a result of conversations with students unhappy with the paintings. Her resolution calls the paintings “blasphemous, offensive, and at the very least confusing.”
Should the artwork be recovered, the decision to display it is ultimately up to the administration.
“The Student Government Association is an independent body, and while its resolutions are not binding on the University, we encourage our student leaders to advocate for and debate with their classmates the ideas and issues they care about,” Karna Lozoya, a CUA spokesperson, wrote in an email. “We are encouraged by the fact that our student government representatives are such active and deeply committed members of our community, nation, and Church.”
Lozoya did not comment on the current status of the investigation.
Censorship or Catholic Values?
Schlee said her resolution isn’t about censorship, it’s about staying true to Catholic teachings: “We attend the Catholic University of America, which has the mission and responsibility to uphold Catholic values. They are a private institution that has the right to allow or not allow certain paintings from being hung on campus if they are deemed sacrilegious, like this one has [been].”
She described herself as a supporter of free speech with no intent to censor anyone.
Nicholas Perez, program manager of free expression and education at PEN America, an organization dedicated to protecting free expression, finds the resolution alarming. To Perez, the call to remove the controversial paintings is a blatant attempt at censorship. Perez said the university was right to replace the painting after the initial theft and applauded the statement from Garvey reaffirming the institution’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas. He worries, however, about the chilling effects that could come with the student resolution.
“That’s inherently concerning, because of the potential for such censorship efforts to backfire on campus and for the potential to chill freedom of expression and artistic freedom on campus,” Perez said.
He noted that student calls to ban artwork aren’t unique but are somewhat unusual and points to another case at Mary Baldwin University in 2019, where students successfully demanded the removal of art from a gallery exhibit at the school that included Confederate imagery. He also noted that it is especially common to see conversations around race and diversity silenced.
“In terms of artistic freedom, I think the university and the student community need to take this moment to reflect and ask themselves, what do they really want out of this?” Perez said. “Do they want to continue avoiding conversations around these topics, or would they rather talk about them and have that open dialogue and intellectual venture that brought them to Catholic University in the first place?”
Clegg—who is not a member of the CUA Student Government Association but has been outspoken about removing the painting from campus—said that while he supports free speech, he feels this is an issue where the artwork is out of accordance with Catholic teaching.
The “Mama” icon would be more appropriate in a museum, he said, not at Catholic University.
“I think that there’s a great case to be made that this painting should be hung up to reflect the thoughts and beliefs of people at a pivotal moment in American history,” Clegg said. “Maybe there is a discussion to be had there. But when you’re talking specifically about the Catholic University of America, its speech policies, its rules and regulations, this is not the appropriate space to have that painting hung up, or adorned, or unveiled, or blessed, which all happened.”
While the university didn’t reply to specific questions about the investigation—such as whether it has reviewed footage from cameras in the law school near the painting—it notes that anyone with information on the theft of the artwork should contact the CUA Department of Public Safety.