A pieta painting displayed at The Catholic University of America’s law school that some see as depicting George Floyd in the place of Jesus was stolen Tuesday night, the school announced.
But in an email Wednesday, Nov. 24, President John Garvey said the artwork — which sparked a social media backlash and an ongoing petition drive demanding its removal — has been replaced by a smaller version of the same painting that previously hung in the school’s campus ministry office.
Titled “Mama,” the painting, by artist Kelly Latimore, was installed in February outside the chapel at the university’s Columbus School of Law.
Lattimore has said the painting was commissioned to “mourn” Floyd, but when asked by an interviewer if the figure in the pieta is Floyd or Jesus, he responded ambiguously, answering “yes.”
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.
“Many see the male figure as George Floyd,” Garvey said in the email, “but our Law School has always seen the figure as Jesus.”
In response to media coverage of the painting earlier this week, the university has received a “substantial number of emails and phone calls,” Garvey said.
“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,” he said.
Garvey wrote that as the controversy developed, the university issued a statement, which he included in his email.
“The icon ‘Mama’ is a pieta depicting Mary and her Son, Jesus Christ. The letters in the halo are Ὁ ὬΝ, which is shorthand in Greek for ‘I Am.’ The letters are used in icons only in connection with Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” the earlier statement said.
“There are those who would like to see George Floyd as the male figure in the icon. That is not how we read it. The image represents to our community a good-faith attempt to include religious imagery on campus that reflects the universality of the Catholic Church,” the statement said.
A group of CUA students started a petition to take down the painting because they “believe they are disrespectful, and sacrilegious.” The petition, which started on Tuesday, Nov. 23, had nearly 2,500 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.
Garvey said would not be ordering the school to take down the painting because of his “no cancellation” policy.
“It has been the University’s policy, throughout my time as President, not to cancel speakers or prevent speech by members of the community,” Garvey said in the email.
“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.
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