Pieta ‘George Floyd’ stolen after artist receives death threats
(RNS) – A painting of Jesus and his mother, Mary, in which Jesus is seen by many as being painted with the likeness of George Floyd in response to his excruciating death, was stolen from the Law School of the Catholic University of America in Columbus this week after a wave of conservative media attention and death threats directed at the artist.
âMama,â by St. Louis artist Kelly Latimore, shows a black Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus after his crucifixion in a style known as the PietÃ . He was discovered missing Wednesday morning (November 24) outside the Mary Mirror of Justice Chapel at Washington Law School. School officials have since replaced it with a smaller version.
Latimore said his performance had drawn criticism since its inception last year, but things intensified this week after the Daily Signal, a website owned by the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, published an article on the painting Tuesday afternoon. An online petition, allegedly written by AUC students, arguing for the removal of the board also began to circulate and collected more than 3,600 signatures.
Meanwhile, Latimore told Religion News Service, death threats against him have increased.
“I think, unfortunately, racism is part of it, especially the death threats (which include) derogatory remarks about George Floyd in particular,” he said, adding that some of the threats cast doubt on any representation of Jesus as black.
âReally white supremacist, racist stuff – which theologically is what racism is: a complete denial of the incarnation of Christ,â he said.
Latimore said the painting was meant to “mourn” Floyd, but explained that he often answered the question “Is it George Floyd or Jesus?” with a simple “yes”.
He said that an image of “a black mother and a son unjustly murdered by the state” was true to the “character of Christ’s personality.”
“I believe that Christ is in this picture, just as much as he would be in the ‘normal’ PietÃ – the European version of Christ,” he said. âIn the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks us to find it in all people, especially those who suffer as George Floyd did. “
AUC officials were more reluctant to establish direct associations with Floyd in a statement released earlier this week.
“There are those who would like to see George Floyd as the male figure of the icon,” the statement read. âThis is not how we read it. The image represents for our community a good faith attempt to include religious images on campus that reflect the universality of the Catholic Church.
Portrayals of Jesus have varied tremendously throughout history, but some recent iterations that raise racial justice issues have sparked controversy. When the Pontifical Academy of Life, an official Vatican think tank, tweeted a photo of Michelangelo’s iconic PietÃ featuring a black Jesus in September 2020, some conservative Catholics have criticized the move.
Academy director Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia told Religion News Service the image was inspired by a depiction of Michelangelo’s PietÃ created by Italian sculptor Fabio Viale in 2015. Exhibited in Milan at Stronger from a debate over immigration to Europe, the statue, titled “Lucky Ehi”, replaced Michelangelo’s version of Jesus with a 22-year-old Christian Nigerian who fled his country to avoid persecution.
CUA President John Garvey said in a public letter that some of the comments sent to school officials about the painting were “offensive and racist,” although a school spokesperson said they had also received messages of support.
Garvey also noted that the school had rejected requests to remove the image on its own, citing an existing “no cancellation” policy.
“We hope to continue to develop a culture on campus that engages in thoughtful dialogue and debate, and not the kind of intimidating tactics embodied by this theft,” he wrote.
The original version of the painting resides at the Holy Communion Episcopal Church in St. Louis and the Episcopal Bishop of Missouri, the Rt. Rev. Deon Johnson also owns a copy. Johnson defended the representation in an interview with RNS, arguing that images of the divine are impressionistic by nature and that icons function as “a window into how we see ourselves and a picture of how we imagine Heaven.”
âNo one was running around taking pictures of Jesus,â Johnson said. âAn icon is always how we imagine Jesus and those saints we worship. “
Johnson, a black man who has participated in racial justice protests, said he does not consider portraying Floyd as Jesus to be “in any way sacrilegious.”
âOn the contrary, it makes it more sacred, for there was a real person here who became an image of Christ,â he said. âWhy is the image of a black man who has been publicly lynched such a challenge for religious people? “
He added, âIf there was ever an icon we needed, it was an icon of those who have historically been put aside to remind us who we follow. “
As for Latimore, he said the theft and controversy surrounding him only inspired him to create more art. He recalled the story of an artist from Kentucky who was commissioned by a local congregation to paint a mural of the Biblical Jordan River. Instead, the artist painted the nearby Ohio River.
“What he was trying to get me to understand was, ‘Are you looking for a sacred river? Your Ohio River is a sacred river. Are you looking for Christ among you? Walk around your neighborhood and you will find it, âLatimore said.
âIn America, especially with the images of Christ, we really look too small. We don’t pay attention to what’s around us.