The Plain Building: Gregori's Columbus Murals at the University of Notre Dame

It is the intent of this wikispace to examine three of twelve faux fresco paintings located in the main corridor of the Administration Building with special emphasis on their distorted representation of Native Americans. Painted by artist Luigi Gregori between 1882-1884, they depict events in the life of the Christopher Columbus, the infamous Italian explorer.

The Artist:

Luigi Gregori (1819-1896) was born in Bologna, Italy. His creative talents earned him a job at the Vatican as a portrait artist. In 1874, he was sent, by papal order, to the United States, where he would serve as an artist-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Father Edward Sorin, the founder of the university, had hoped that Gregori would color the walls of the campus' buildings with imagery that would "inspire, uplift, and educate" (Gregori Pamphlet). Gregori, over his twenty-one year career at the university, left a large body of distinguished work and is noted for his creative efforts in the Main Building as well as in other facilities.

The Explorer:

Christopher Columbus and his ever complicated legacy have been contested for centuries, which should come as no surprise to the reader. Is he an American hero who discovered the "New World" or an unscrupulous villain who invaded it? Context is crucial in understanding the kind of narrative being presented in any text or work of art, which is a notion the university emphatically claims when discussing Gregori's Columbus murals:

"Perspective should be the operative word for contemporary visitors as they view the Columbus murals."

When Gregori's work commenced in 1882, Columbus had gained a mythic status in American culture, as the stories and fabrications regarding his life had grown exponentially since his death. This veneration for Columbus came from all sides. Most importantly for our investigation, the Catholic church saw him as not only an American hero, but a Catholic hero. Columbus was a devout Christian who took great means to spread his religious beliefs throughout the New World. Representations of Columbus from the 19th century, which can be seen in a litany of artistic projects, reflect this congratulatory mindset and, as many historians have shown, fueled the persistence of a misinformed public conception of who Columbus was. An all too flawed narrative of the events and peoples that shaped his life became the accepted standard. "Writers and artists, always hoping to create a Columbus worthy of discovering and founding a great nation, went beyond reality to further the reputation of the admiral" (Bushman 145).

Thus, the university posits that it is "not surprising" that the administration at that time would want to commemorate Columbus' life through some sort of aesthetic display.

A much more modern portrayal of Columbus debunks this long-standing apotheosis:

  • He was not the first non-Native American to reach the Americas.
  • His tyrannical approach to leadership sparked dissent amongst his crew and eventually led to his removal from power in Hispaniola.
  • He played a pivotal role in implementing the encomienda system that exploited, enslaved, and exterminated the Taino and Carib people.

Verbatim quotes from his journals like "they ought to be good servants" and "with 50 men, we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want" tarnish the idea that Columbus was a man of compassion, morals, and ethics.

The Tainos

The Tainos were the first native group to encounter Columbus, openly greeting him and his crew. They lived in a society best described as a village chiefdom based around agricultural production. The Tainos were talented artisans and craftsman. They mined gold, which Columbus took quick notice of upon his arrival. Men were either naked or covered their genitalia with cotton loincloths. Unmarried women wore headbands and married women wore shorts skirts, whose length corresponded to the wearer's social status. Both sexes adorned themselves with paint when participating in ceremonies or battle. Red was the most common pigment. Skull-binding, flattening the forehead by binding a hard object against it during childhood, was popular. Ears and septums were pierced and adorned with feathers plugs and other decorations. Waists and necks were decorated with belts and necklaces. They practiced an advanced, more permanent form of agriculture and devoted much of their cultivation to the potato. Their religion revolved around two deities: one held power over water and the other controlled fertility.

The Taino population is estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000 before Columbus' arrival in 1492. By 1524, The Tainos had cease to exist, as its own population group, due to the effects of "overwork, malnutrition, epidemics of introduced diseases, rebellion, emigration, and outmarriage," had completely died out.

The Art:

"The University of Notre Dame recognizes that the Columbus murals on the second floor of the Main Building reflect 19th century white European views of race, gender, and ethnicity which may be offensive to some individuals." (Gregori Pamphlet)

Taking Possession of the New World


Return of Columbus and His Reception at Court


Bobadilla Betrays Columbus

Taking Possession of the New World, based on its title alone, reflects a Euro-centric point of view. The "New World" was not new to the Taino and other indigenous American groups. Moreover, to assume that one man could somehow gain control over a vast section of the world's land mass with a cross, a pale complexion, and a fancy attire is not only laughable, but, more importantly, trivializes Native culture and society, thusly establishing a paradigm of inequality between Europeans and Natives. Physically, the Taino are not egregiously misrepresented in this piece, as they were known to dress themselves with little if anything at all; Columbus noted in his journal that they were naked when he first glimpsed them. What is so inaccurate about this scene is the timid, hesitant behavior of the Taino, who, by all historical accounts, were superfluously friendly to their European guests, swimming out to the boats and engaging with the crew without restraint. Furthermore, what is most troubling about this scene is that some of the Taino can be seen cowering at the mere sight of Columbus, which is reflective of the artist's belief of a supposed European dominance over the rest of the world, a theme which is foreshadowed by the mural's title. As mentioned before, Gregori was born and raised in Italy.

Just from this painting alone, one can see how art transmits a confluence of certain ideologies and perspectives. "Indian images reflected the creator of the images more than the people themselves, thus creating the Indian that never was" (Bataille 4). This is an important concept to understand, as it forms the basis for the rest of our analysis. What Gregori's work does is perpetuate an antiquated perception of Native peoples that generalizes and confines their behavior to a limited spectrum of agency. In Taking Possession of the New World, the Taino fit the "Indian-as-noble-savage" template.

"European America holds a mirror and a mask up to the Native American. The tricky mirror is that Other presence that reflects the Euro-American consciousness back at itself, but the side of the mirror toward the native is transparent, letting the native see not his or her own reflection but the face of the Euro-American controlling this surveillance. For the dominant culture, the Euro-American controlling this surveillance, the reflection provides merely a self-recognition that results in an utter absence of certainty of self [...] In order to be recognized and to thus have a voice that is heard by those in control of power, The Native must step into that mask and be the Indian constructed by white America [..] He or she who steps behind the mask becomes the Vanishing American, a savage/noble, mystical, pitiable, romantic fabrication of the Euro-American psyche (Bataille 17)

This excerpt illustrates the structural means by which the dominant culture defines itself: it first assesses then reasserts its cultural/ethnic distance from the subordinate group. The subordinate group is then expected to act in accordance with the dominant group's gross generalizations of what the subordinate group should be, thus maintaining the social imbalance of power, as the subordinate group will only be legitimated and recognized if they adhere to their stereotypical expectations. It is a powerful system of possession and control.

Return of Columbus and his Reception at Court provides us with another Native template, the Plains warrior. In this scene, the Tainos are dressed in Plains Indian regalia, complete with metal-tipped weapons non-existent in Tainos culture. They are also dressed in a variation of a Mandan war shirt, which is the cultural property of another native tribe located in modern day North and South Dakota. In most artistic work from this era, especially ones that feature Native Americans in some aspect, "costumes and settings were more important than historical accuracy in the artistic depictions" (Bushman 184). The appearance of the Plains Indian warrior has, through time, become the image most associated with any and all Native American groups, regardless of tribe.

"They play up or play off a set of cultural features that are often wrongly associated with the indigenous peoples of North America: the feathered hair-dress; buckskin paints; warfare dance; and the tomahawk. They make use of these elements to create moving, meaningful, and entertaining icons that many take to be authentic, appropriate and even reverent. The condensed version of 'Indianness' rendered through signs and spectacles confine Native Americans within the past and typically within the popular image of the Plains warrior" (King 6)

This negligence toward the immense diversity found among different native cultures reiterates the dominant cultures lack of respect and appreciation for Native peoples as well as affirms their power over the collective idea of what an Indian should look/act like. The dominant group determines the parameters by which the general public calibrates their understanding of how things should be, which is crucial to the construction and reinforcement of social hierarchies built upon class disparities. The message is simple: "all Indians are essentially the same and possess characteristics different from and inferior to most of the characteristics possessed by the dominant culture" (Newton 1011).

Finally, the scene's spatial arrangement evokes a sense of dehumanization, as the Tainos seem to be presented to the Spanish court, not as humans, but as the objectified spoils of conquest, replete with fanciful plumage and atypical clothing, which stands in contrast to their much more subdued appearance in Taking Possession of the New World.

In a 2003 article published in The Observer, entitled "Genocide Under the Dome," BJ Strew gives a scathing account of who Christopher Columbus actually was and takes offense to the university's seeming support of Columbus' efforts in the Americas. Much of his historical data is taken from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States:

  • "On Columbus second voyage, he demanded tribute from the Taino. All were expected to yield a certain quantity of gold per capita, or 25 pounds of cotton. Many who produced neither were brutally murdered, their hands were cut off, and they were left to bleed to death."
  • "Kidnapping, torture and rape were the order of the day. In fact, many Taino were hunted for sport"
  • "Directly after his so-called discovery, he took natives as slaves, seizing 1,500 from the island of Hispaniola. They were paraded naked through the streets of Seville, then sold as slaves in 1495"
  • "Columbus blazed the trail for slavery in the Americas. It was after there weren't any natives left that the Europeans turned to Africa"

Surprisingly, there was no response to Strew's article, nor has there been much debate regarding the murals, or at least not according to archives collection at the Hesburgh Library.

Bobadilla Betrays Columbus is the last of the murals to contain native persons. In this scene, Columbus is flanked by two nameless Native Americans. Though this assertion may be incorrect, it is hard to believe that Columbus had any Native sympathizers. What is their purpose? Why were they included? It is plausible to assume that they were included in order to remind the viewer of Columbus' "achievements" in the New World as well as heighten the "tragedy" of his eventual fall from grace. Above all else, he brought "civilization" and Catholicism to the Americas, and these Indians are undoubtedly "grateful" for his contributions. I say all this facetiously, but I do not think I am very far from artist's original intent. Taking into account the incalculable suffering that followed in the wake of Columbus' arrival in the West Indies, it is hard for me to imagine that he had very much, if any, support from Native peoples.

The Epilogue:

The University's position on this matter is troubling, as it recognizes the murals inaccuracies and stereotypes, yet deftly circumvents ever addressing these issues by never taking a clear stance. This is the popular trend amongst schools when faced with opposition to offensive Native American depictions. "Institutions hope to convey an image of action while avoiding engagement with the fundamental issues of stereotyping, dignity, and terror" (King 7). The question that the university has failed to answer is why should the murals stay? To stand as a testament to the bygone days of ignorance and repression?

What I have found to be markedly fascinating is the paucity of literature regarding Gregori's paintings. In 1997, a pamphlet, currently distributed in the main corridor, was developed by a faculty committee to help "[interpret] [...] the artistic, historical and social contents of the murals." What this pamphlet implicitly does is rationalize the university's reasons for not removing the murals. It is my assumption that the administration, if coerced into providing an explanation, would attest that the murals stand as an historical artifact from Notre Dame's past that, though mired in error, have become an indelible trademark to the Main Buildings aesthetic. Or, as some undergraduate automatons would unquestionably decry, "it's tradition!" A photo I was exposed to recently best captures my rebuttal:


Furthermore, even if the paintings were somehow redone to be historically accurate and, at the same time, were completely inoffensive, to honor a man who was instrumental in the deaths of an estimated 70 million people is absolutely antithetical to the Catholic Church's message of love and respect for all humankind. This, however, is an issue for another wikispace.

It is time to "destabilize the stereotypes that make up the dominant society's image of Indianness and replace these ahistorical, timeless, static, passive decontextualized images" (Newton 1004). Despite their artistic merit and historical significance, these murals fall far beyond the bounds of our current ethical consciousness.

Works Cited

Bataille, G. M. Native American Representations: First Encounters, Distorted Images, and Literary Appropriations. University of Nebraska Press. 2001.

Bushman, C. America Discovers Columbus. University Press of New England. Hanover, NH, 03775. 1992.

Newton, N. "Memory and Misrepresentation: Representing Crazy Horse." Symposium Rules of the Game: Sovereignty and the Native American Nation. Connecticut Law Review (1994-1995).

King, C. Richard. "Defensive Dialogues: Native American Mascots. Anti-Indianism, and Educational Institutions." Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education. Vol. 2. Issue 1 (February 2002). Online

Rouse, Irving. The Tainos : Rise and Decline of the People who Greeted Columbus. Vail-Ballou Press, Binghamton, NY. 1992.

Shlereth, Thomas J. "Columbus, Columbia, and Columbianism." The Journal of American History (1992): 937-968. Print.

Shlereth, Thomas J. A Dome of Learning: The University of Notre Dame's Main Building. Notre Dame Ind.: Notre Dame Alumni Association, 1991.

Shlereth, Thomas J. The University of Notre Dame: A Portrait of Its History and Campus. Notre Dame, Ind. University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.

Strew, BJ. (2003, October 13) "Celebrating Genocide Under the Dome." The Observer. Viewpoint.

Summerhill, Stephen J. Sinking Columbus. The University Press of Florida. 15 Northwest 15th Street. Gainesville, FL. 1992

Tyler, S. Lyman. Two Worlds: The Indian Encounter with the European 1492-1509. Utah Press. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1988.