UPDATED Statement on Painting Entitled “Christ on the Water” at the United States Merchant Marine Academy – February 17, 2023
In early January, the Academy received a complaint about a painting located in the Astronaut Elliot M. See Room. The Room is in the Academy’s main administration building—Wiley Hall.
The painting, titled “Christ on the Water,” depicts an image of Jesus appearing before merchant mariners adrift in a lifeboat. From 1942 to 1961, the Elliot See Room served as the Academy’s interfaith chapel.
Since then until February 2023, the Room was used by administrators, faculty, staff, and midshipmen for meetings and events. The Elliot See Room was also used as a venue for proceedings held to determine whether a midshipman had violated the Academy’s Honor Code.
The complaint suggested that the painting sends an improper message of preferred faith in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The Academy evaluated this complaint. In balancing our responsibility to foster a community of mutual respect and adhere to the law, we have decided to discontinue use of the Elliot See Room for official business.
The Room will remain available to members of our community who wish to view the painting. Finally, we will engage a vendor to clean and restore the painting and eventually display it at the Academy’s Chapel.
Statement on Painting Entitled “Christ on the Water” at the United States Merchant Marine Academy – January 26, 2023
The Academy has taken immediate steps to respond to the constitutional concerns related to a painting hanging in the Elliot See Conference Room in Wiley Hall.
The 10-foot by 19-foot painting, entitled “Christ on the Water” and also known as “Jesus and Lifeboat,” was painted in 1944 by noted marine artist Lt. Hunter Wood, USMS, to hang in the chapel built at the USMMA Basic School in San Mateo, California.
The painting depicts an image of Jesus and merchant seamen adrift in a lifeboat, presumably after being torpedoed in the Indian Ocean during World War II.
When the San Mateo campus closed in 1947, the painting came to the Academy, and was installed in its current location, which served as the Academy’s interfaith chapel from 1942 to 1961.
The American Merchant Marine Museum has custody of the painting and holds it as a heritage asset.
When deciding on a solution to the concerns raised, the Academy explored multiple options to comply with the law while seeking to balance the interests of everyone in our community.
Our priority is to ensure the Academy is a welcoming environment for all and that it respects all religions without endorsing one over any others. In light of this, the Academy has chosen to cover the painting with curtains, and will also install a plaque describing its history.
The curtains will remain closed when official Academy meetings and events are conducted. This solution balances legal requirements with the concerns of those who have an interest in the painting.
We value the opinions of all in our community, and we are committed to making the Academy a better place.
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