After his crucifixion, the Virgin Mary carries her son Jesus Christ in her arms as his body is carried down from the cross. The tragedy was memorably rendered by Michelangelo in his 15th-century marble sculpture Pieta.
Mama, by artist Kelly Latimore, depicts the same timeless Christian story but with the Holy Mother as a Black woman and the body of Jesus replaced with the likeness of the martyred George Floyd.
Floyd’s sad last words as he died under the knee of the ex-Minneapolis police officer and convicted murderer Derek Chauvin are referenced in the title of the painting.
At the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., the art installation has raised eyebrows and elicited derision from others. It’s on display outside the Mary Mirror of Justice chapel at the Columbus School of Law. According to the New York Times, it has been there since February.
According to the Catholic News Agency, Mama was stolen and replaced in November. According to The Christian Century, its inventor has received hate mail and death threats from all across the world.
Due to religious sensitivities, student government officials passed a resolution prohibiting further presentations of the painting. A petition to have the painting permanently removed has also been created by the university’s branch of Young Americans for Freedom, conservative youth activism non-profit.
More than 5,000 people have signed the petition so far.
“The icon has no place at The Catholic University of America,” an anonymous junior at the school told The Daily Signal in November. “It is blasphemous and an offense to the Catholic faith, but it is not surprising at all that it was put there.”
Latimore, a white St. Louis artist, has defended the painting, which he claims was commissioned by his partner, Evie Schoenherr, as “a way to grieve George Floyd.”
“In the Black community, there’s dialogue about whether continuously showing dead Black bodies is healthy,” Latimore told The Christian Century in April. “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.”
Catholic University President John H. Garvey released a letter to students on Nov. 24, after the painting was taken and replaced with a smaller replica, noting the school has a policy against canceling speakers and preventing talks.
“Consistent with that policy, we declined suggestions in this case that we take the image down,” Garvey wrote. “Our ‘no cancellation’ policy does not apply only to the administration. 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.”