The president of a Catholic university has apologized for the “confusion” a painting depicting the Virgin Mary holding a figure said to resemble George Floyd has caused the faithful. The artwork, so provoking to some, has been stolen twice from its display and likely won’t be reinstalled.
“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,” John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, said in a December 20 email, according to Catholic News Agency.
Despite dual interpretations, Garvey said he was “sorry” because the artwork “created needless controversy and confusion.”
The artwork in question is a painting created by Kelly Latimore, a White artist based in St. Louis, Missouri.
The CNA describes the painting as being in “a style reminiscent of Eastern Christian iconography.” The vibrant painting shows a Black Virgin Mary with a pained expression holding the dead, limp body of Jesus. Instead of looking downward at Jesus, as is common in such artworks, Mary looks upward and outward at the viewer.
Latimore created the painting as a way to mourn Floyd, the Minneapolis man who was publicly murdered by former police officer Derek Chauvin.
But is the figure being held by Mary supposed to be Jesus or George Floyd?
“Yes,” according to Latimore.
Latimore gave that response in an interview with the Christian Century, in which he also spoke on the inspiration behind his “Mama” painting and what guided his decisions.
“It was commissioned by my partner Evie Schoenherr as a way to mourn George Floyd,” he told the publication. “In my first sketch, Mary was looking at the savior, but we ended up shifting her gaze to the viewer. It was Evie’s idea. That subtle shift was powerful. It wasn’t focusing on the death, which was horrible, but the viewer, and guiding us to communal thought and prayer and action.”
He added: “There were so many voices that went into that icon. In the Black community, there’s dialogue about whether continuously showing dead Black bodies is healthy. I worried about that. But several Black friends of mine told me this was needed—God being present in the dead Black body—as a way to respond so this doesn’t keep happening.”
The painting was placed on display outside the chapel of The Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law in February, before it was stolen from its display in November and its replacement stolen again in early December.
Based on the president’s email to university members, it seems unlikely that Latimore’s “Mama” painting will be reinstalled a third time.
Latimore is a well-known iconographer whose depictions of the Holy Family are often shared by admirers online, particularly during holy seasons such as Advent.
Kelly Latimore. pic.twitter.com/miOVRBi6iA
— Estructura Disonante (@rizomagico) December 24, 2020
He has explained his desire to create new images that challenge traditional depictions, despite his work being viewed as offensive by some Christians — who have even sent him “death threats and spiritual denunciations” over his “Mama” painting.
“There are icons here that people may find theologically unsound and wrong, or for others, helpful and inspiring. I think both reactions are important. My hope is that these icons do what all art can potentially do, which is, to create more dialogue,” Latimore explained on his website.
The artist revealed that people of color have responded positively to his “Mama” painting for his decision to recast the common portrayal of a White Jesus, a depiction viewed as historically inaccurate.