Archbishop Orders Destruction of Salvadoran Mural

San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral with the mural facade created by artist Fernando Llort. The banner is of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, hung for the anniversary of his assassination on March 24th, 1980. Image by Rachel Heidenry. El Salvador, 2006.

The facade of San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral after the removal of Fernando Llort's mural. Image by Rachel Heidenry. El Salvador, 2012.

San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral. Image by J. Stephen Conn, Flickr. El Salvador, 2008.

In late December, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Jose Luis Escobar Alas, gave orders to remove the ceramic mural facade of San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral—without consulting the national government or the still-living Salvadoran artist, Fernando Llort. A large white sheet covered the cathedral's front as workers chipped off all 2,700 pieces of mural tile.

As the news spread, Facebook groups, such as Indignados por el Mural, gathered photographs, popular opinion, and press releases, and demanded answers. Photographs showed the church steps covered in dust and ceramic pieces being thrown into dumpsters. The Secretary of Culture formally condemned the act and declared it against El Salvador’s cultural patrimony law, under which changes to historical and cultural monuments in need of restoration must be approved by his office. A week later, the destruction of one of the country's most famous murals was still the major topic of discussion.

Llort created the mural in 1997, five years after the 1992 Peace Accords that brought the country's civil war to a close. Combining folkloric images of campesinos, horses, crops and birds of peace, the mural bridged contemporary iconography with traditional indigenous and Christian imagery—a stark contrast to the European-influenced art that decorates the Cathedral's interior. The mural was designed in Llort's signature brightly colored and stained glass-like style, which has been adopted as the country's unique folk aesthetic. Titled Harmonia de mi pueblo, or “Harmony of my people,” the mural was a monument to the everyday Salvadoran who had persevered through the struggle; it was a celebration of peace.

As Salvadoran news agencies published story after story, and outrage mounted, the archbishop released an apology. He said he was unaware that the cathedral—and the mural on the facade in particular—was in the process of becoming an official cultural monument. Reasons given for the mural's destruction continue to change and conspiracy theories grow, but officially the archbishop claims the mural was falling into ruin and had become a hazard to visitors. He also said the tiles were fading and that an engineer advised him that restoration would be impossible, so he decided to remove the mural and erect a new monument to the Divine Salvador del Mundo, the patron saint of El Salvador.

On Jan. 2, Llort, initially silent, held a press conference. “I have always believed that my hands were made to construct, not to destroy,” he said. “I feel surprised and immeasurably saddened because they (the Church) have refused to give me the opportunity to reclaim with dignity the most important work of my life.” He also said he believes the act was a slap in the face to all Salvadoran artists and that he would try to reclaim the pieces of tile to create a new work entitled Dignidad y Respeto a los Artesanos y Artistas Salvadoreños or “Dignity and Respect to Salvadoran Artisans and Artists.”

This declaration is being echoed around the country as many established Salvadoran artists and new talents are coming forward and demanding respect. Some have used an analogy to the artist Diego Rivera, declaring that if the Catholic Church decided to destroy one of his great murals in Mexico, without consulting the people or national government, there would be international outrage. Yet in El Salvador, the country's most famous artist has just had his most respected work destroyed without hesitation or notification. Salvadoran artists, who have struggled for international recognition and national financial support, view the mural's destruction as testament to their plight.

What many Salvadorans are feeling, beyond the loss of a beloved work of art, is a stab at their contemporary cultural identity. “This mural pertained to everyone and was an expression of Salvadoran culture,” Llort said at his press conference. Cultural monuments such as the cathedral embody collective memories, becoming integral in the construction of a shared cultural identity. Thus the cathedral, originally constructed in 1842, but having been restored many times after numerous earthquakes and fires, speaks to the country's struggle to construct and preserve a collective historical memory.

In 1977, Oscar Arnulfo Romero became Archbishop of San Salvador and took control of the cathedral. As military violence escalated, Archbishop Romero declared that no more of the Church's money would go toward the restoration of the cathedral, but instead would be used to serve the poor. Facing a large central plaza, the cathedral saw public protests throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including a peaceful protest turned violent in May 1979, when the National Guard opened fire and left several dead. The cathedral also carries the memory of Archbishop Romero's funeral, when the plaza quickly turned from an endless sea of people in mourning into a panicked crowd seeking shelter from government bullets. And in 1992, at the signing of the Peace Accords, the facade of the cathedral was draped with the images of Archbishop Romero and others in celebration of the war's end and the hope of peace to come.

Peace remains somewhat elusive. With a rapidly growing commercial center and a significant influence by North American corporations and media, El Salvador finds it increasingly difficult to claim and preserve a national culture. This westernization, combined with an average of 12 murders a day and gang graffiti saturating the country's walls, hinders holding onto a cultural identity and historical memory. Class and political divides continue to be stark: the conservative right wishes to forget the war and the left incorporates historical memory projects as crucial components of its political platform. The Church's action speaks not only to a disregard for national cultural patrimony but also to the historical memory that conservatives want to erase.

As Salvadorans begin preparations for the 20th anniversary of the Peace Accords on Jan. 16, the destruction of the mural is itself another such memory in the country’s continuing struggle toward peace and reconciliation.

(Rachel Heidenry is researching muralism and street art in El Salvador on a Fulbright fellowship.)