Entering the atrium of the new Raclin Murphy Museum of Art, visitors will immediately confront a purposeful collage of classic and contemporary art.
The famous 1891 painting Absolution Under Fire by Paul Henry Wood is visible on the second-level east wall, showing Rev. William Corby, C.S.C., blessing the Irish Brigade before the Battle of Gettysburg. The chaplain’s outstretched hand mimics the statue in front of Corby Hall.
But look to the south wall to see a newly commissioned piece, Silver Saint Joe Watershed, by Maya Lin, the artist who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Or look down and tread on Kiki Smith’s atrium floor art, Sea of Stars, where 39 hand-drawn stars were cast into bronze, drawing inspiration from medieval, Renaissance and Byzantine depictions of the Madonna as protectress and Star of the Sea.
Or walk into Italian artist Mimmo Paladino’s Mary, Queen of Families Chapel. His arresting ceiling mosaic includes images symbolic of the Catholic liturgy, the Virgin Mary, Notre Dame’s founding congregation, and the Pokagon people native to the region. Yet the altarpiece in the center is from about 1500, flanked by two earlier religious images from Italy. Two niches displaying chalices split the difference between classic and contemporary.
“I wanted to help people understand that all the religious art they see in other places was not made for a museum,” said Joseph A. Becherer, the museum director and sculpture curator. “One time or another, every object was contemporary. It was for a house or a chapel or a church or a convent.
“But I also wanted people to understand that the making of the images is not strictly something of the past. It continues today. And so the mosaic in the ceiling, the stained-glass windows, the drawings in the wall are all by a very important contemporary Italian artist.”
A stroll through the gallery dedicated to African art contains 4,000 years of artistic production starting with Cleopatra in ancient Egypt. But it also includes a contemporary sculpture called Earth Boy by British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare that combines traditional cloth and patterns with a head that’s a globe on fire, a statement about colonialism and the environment.
In the Americas gallery, textiles and traditional beaded clothing are interrupted by a pair of Prada boots that Native American artist Jamie Okuma reimagined with similar beadwork techniques.
“If you want to study Renaissance painting, or 19th-century painting, the ideas are in here, they’re intact—but we’ve taken the opportunity to tell bigger stories when we can,” Becherer said. “It’s sort of like the snow globe; it’s got all the little pieces that are in there. We’ve just shook it up and it’s landed a little bit differently. That is not uncommon today in art museums.”
That combination of old and new doesn’t even wait for visitors to get inside. The four stately columns at the main entrance are centered by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa’s Endless, a 2023 steel column of letters, numbers, and characters. The base is inscribed with a quote: “Our search for knowledge is endless—it joins earth and sky.”
On either side of the entrance, large limestone panels display carved text by conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, who chose quotes by female artists and titled her piece Reorder the World.
“It’s a very historic collection, but what we’ve tried to do is to tell the longer, more accurate story of the history of art,” Becherer said. “It’s not just about the past; it is about how we continue to dialogue today and we move ourselves forward.”
Becherer also emphasized that the museum is not just an extension of the art department. Each semester, the museum will work with more than 40 departments on campus. The last graduating senior survey found that 91 percent of the students had visited the now-closed Snite Museum for a class or research project. Besides the 23 exhibit galleries, there is a teaching gallery designed to display rotating works for specific classes.
Therese Cory,who teaches philosophy, has a final assignment in her class Image and Truth that asks students to design a 20–to–45-minute “philosophical art tour” and conduct the tour for one or more friends from outside the class. Students are to select several pieces and explain how they speak to fundamental class questions such as “How do images engage with us emotionally?” or “What determines what an image is ‘about’ (its intentionality)?” Students document their assignment completion with a selfie of the tour group and their tour notes.
Emilia Justyna Powell, who teaches political science and law classes, embraces an interdisciplinary approach for her seminar classes focusing on international justice or the Islamic legal tradition. Bridget Hoyt, the curator for academic programs, will bring out pictures of conflict or tragedy in the modern world that were sometimes too graphic to make it into mass media. Hoyt will model the kind of analysis for one photo that groups will do of others displayed in the teaching gallery.
“Those photographs bring war and conflict, atrocities and the human heart, to life for them,” Powell said. “The students find when they see the actual photographs on the wall, it’s really moving. It’s different from seeing jpegs on a screen.”
Even more unexpected, chemistry professor Bahram Moasser is co-teaching in the spring a new course called Only Connect Chemistry and Art with Michael Schreffler, an art history professor. Splitting time between a classroom, a lab, and the museum, the course asks students to explore the intersection of art and chemistry, including symmetry, perspective, color theory, and light and shadow, as well as the origins of creativity.
Rev. Austin Collins, C.S.C., a sculptor who serves as the University’s vice president for mission engagement and Church affairs, said he takes his sculpture students to the museum on the first class day. He also preached at the recent dedication Mass for the new museum, speaking of the long, close relationship between the arts and the Catholic Church, which often employed art to express everything from sacredness to ecstasy.
“Beauty is a key to the mystery and a call to transcendence,” Father Collins said. “It is an invitation to save your life and to dream of the future. That is why the beauty of created things can never fully satisfy. It stirs that hidden nostalgia for God.”
He also quoted the donors’ plaque at the museum: “Art is the window into the soul.”
Father Collins also noted the formidable history of the arts at Notre Dame, stretching back to founder Rev. Edward Sorin, C.S.C., and continued by Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C.
Father Sorin invited Luigi Gregori, the Vatican artist-in-residence, to Notre Dame for a short stint in 1874 to create 14 Stations of the Cross panels. Gregori instead spent 17 years at the University, painting the interior of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and the third Main Building after its predecessor burned down in 1879. The new building featured an art museum on its top floor.
Likewise, Father Hesburgh invited renowned Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović to Notre Dame in 1955, where he taught and worked until his death seven years later. His 21 sculptures scattered across the campus include the marble Pieta in the basilica and Christ and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well in front of O’Shaughnessy Hall. A bookstore and coffee shop in the new building are named Ivan’s Café in his honor.
Notre Dame is a unique place for art, Father Collins said, because nearly every museum has religious artwork, but nowhere should feel more “comfortable talking about that relationship.”
The Snite Museum of Art opened in 1980 and its collection of more than 30,000 works is considered one of the oldest and finest at American universities. Becherer said most staff will stay in the old facility, while the new building will be able to display more of its collection.
“Every good museum only shows about 3 percent of its collection at any one time,” he said. “However, we can bring things out from the past and from storage and we can change it and keep things fresh.”
Designed by Robert A.M. Stern Architects LLP, the 70,000-square-foot building is the first phase of a planned 132,00-square-foot complex. The second phase will provide more galleries, a works-on-paper study center, more teaching space, collection storage, and an auditorium.
The museum is a cornerstone of the University’s Arts Gateway, purposely inviting the public onto campus. It stands at the northwest corner of the Charles B. Hayes Family Sculpture Park. The DeBartolo Performing Art Center stands to the northwest, Walsh Family Hall of Architecture to the north, and O’Neill Hall of Music to the northeast.
The Raclin Murphy Museum of Art is named for its lead donors, the late Ernestine Raclin and her daughter and son-in-law, Carmi and Chris Murphy, residents of South Bend. About 25 museum staff began preparing for the move in May 2022, though the Snite didn’t close its doors until last April. Notre Dame Magazine covered the complex process of transferring the collection.
In late October, Becherer brought coffee for staff members who were working hard on final details at 4 p.m., nowhere near going home. He said they are excited to display for all to see a collection of art and images that represent the classic and contemporary in a format that represents education today.
“The reality of the situation is that the lingua franca of today is not English even; it’s the visual, it’s images,” he said. “I think our collection, it’s long, long been a candle under a bushel, and now we have the chance to get out from under that bushel and to ignite some flames.”