What Is Touchdown Jesus? (Notre Dame Statue)

While I was a theology student, I had the opportunity to visit the University of Notre Dame in Indiana for a few days. During my visit, I was quite fascinated by the Notre Dame mural (or statue as some would refer to it), also called Touchdown Jesus.

The mural was quite popular even back at my university and seeing it up close piqued my interest. I wanted to understand the meaning of Touch Down Jesus, how it came to be and it’s relation to Christian faith.

So, I spent a significant amount of time in the Theodore Hesburgh Library campus at the University combing through any information I could find on the mural.

I also interviewed a few of the students and faculty to get a better idea of what it symbolized. More recently, while teaching, one of my theology students asked about Touch Down Jesus.

This was because it was one of the things constantly mentioned around campus since the beginning of the football season. Based on my prior research, I was excited to share my knowledge with them.

After an hour long discussion with them, I was inspired to write this article for those of you who may also have similar questions regarding University of Notre Dame’s mural.

So, what is Touchdown Jesus?

Touchdown Jesus or ‘The Word of Life’ refers to a large mural of Jesus Christ painted on one side of the Theodore Hesburgh Library campus at the University of Notre Dame. The mural depicts Jesus Christ surrounded by several great teachers, doctors, and theologians like Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. Notably, the historic Word of Life Mural has gained worldwide recognition for its unification of the art, spiritual, and academic scenes.

In this post, I’ll share more about the Touchdown Jesus, its historical significance, how it got its name, its role and symbolism in football touchdowns, and its relevance today. Keep reading!

History of Touchdown Jesus mural

The history of Touchdown Jesus goes back to early in the 1960s when resident priest Father Theodore Martin Hesburgh’s dream to make Notre Dame a top echelon of all American Universities was born.

Father Hesburgh wanted Notre Dame to be more than one of the best Catholic Schools of the time. Additionally, he understood all too well the importance of symbolism.

So, with the campus’ eastward expansion for Stanford, Keenan, Stepan Center, a computer center, and the ACC in the works, he saw an opportunity to make a significant symbol.

At the time, it was decided that Notre Dame would have one of the largest on-campus libraries in the country. So, architects were commissioned to create an imposing yet eloquent and functional structure.

The new Hesburgh Library was meant to replace the older and smaller one that now serves as the campus’ University of Architecture.

All these developments were further guided by the need to make Notre Dame the best research and graduate institution. So, the Library’s design was designed for versatility with expansive carrels and table space on the basement and the bottom two floors.

The space design was intended to accommodate all undergraduates that appreciated the value of a feng shui library instead of studying in the dorms. Then, the top library floors were meant for graduate and specialized studies.

With these interior plans mapped out, it was time to find how to finesse the exterior works. In the design process, it was obvious that the Library Tower’s South Panel would have to make a visual statement.

A mural on this exterior wall was settled upon. But not any other mural; the South Panel would have the mural to commemorate Christ and the Saints of Learning.

The mural’s working title was designated as Word of Life, a symbol of unifying the divine with the Academic. So, other than the image of Christ representing the great theologian, the mural also features the paintings of great doctors, scholars, and theologians like Augustine of Hippo, the Gregorys,

Thomas Aquinas, and Jerome’s. This Library opened in 1963, and the mural was commissioned in May 1964 after a dedication ceremony.

After its completion, it was ideally referred to as the Word of Life. Still, with the unequivocal difference between Jesus’ outstretched hands and the referees’ signal for touchdowns during football matches, the mural became the Touchdown Jesus Mural.

Why do they call it Touchdown Jesus?

The mural was named Touchdown Jesus because of the similarities between Jesus and football referees, signaling that a team has made a touchdown.

The name stuck from the first football season after the mural’s commissioning in 1964. The University of Notre Dame’s football team reported having won many of the games after the Statue was dedicated, not to mention the strategic location of Touchdown Jesus for the TV cameras to capture it.

Finally, its similarity with the referees’ signal for touchdown, the name makes sense.

How the mural became Touchdown Jesus

Touchdown Jesus mural. Source: Pinterest

After its creation, the mural was essentially referred to as the Word of Life. However, when the 1964 Football season kicked off, TD passes by Heisman John Huarte to Jack Snow during Ara’s first year changed things, and the mural got the name Touchdown Jesus.

It also got its name because the University of Notre Dame football team won the championship in 1964, 1966, 1973, 1977, and then 1988.

Additionally, the nickname came from the visual similarities between the image of Christ and the referees signaling touchdowns. The name stuck such that not many people know that the Notre Dame mural Touchdown Jesus is referred to as the Word of Life. 

The other reason the Word of Life mural became Touchdown Jesus is its unique location and strategic alignment with the northern end zone of the infamous Notre Dame Stadium.

And with the football games being the biggest part of Saturdays at Notre Dame, most of which premiered on National TV, the mural wouldn’t go unnoticed.

Its proximity to the stadium and unique design made it an easy shot for television cameras. The cameras showed Jesus’ raised hands, and the image looked like a portrayal of Christ anointing the fans – a motion made by referees after a touchdown.

Soon, all these came together, a connection was made, and the Word of Life mural turned into the Touchdown Jesus mural.

What was Touchdown Jesus made of?

Most murals are made of acrylic, oil, or tempera paints applied on the walls using a brush, aerosol, or roller.

However, the Touchdown Jesus Mural is made of granite; but more specifically, it features 6700 individual granite pieces combined into 324 panels. Note that this mural is made of multicolored granite in 140 colors.

These colored granite pieces were imported from 16 foreign countries and 11 US states. 

Granite use was guided by its durability – the fact that it’s among the hardest known stones, the harsh weather in Notre Dame, and the richness of natural granite color.

Its natural resilience meant it would last years and allow for unique engineering works. 

Who created Touchdown Jesus?

Touchdown Jesus Mural was created by Millard Sheets, suggested by Father Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, the president emeritus at the University of Notre Dame, in the spring of 1964. 

Millard Sheets was the artist behind the mural, and he got the job because his ideas represented what Father Theodore had in mind.

He came up with the idea of placing Jesus at the top of the mural, with His arms raised to symbolize rejoicing and anointing over the work done by the great teachers, scholars, doctors, and theologians who were portrayed below Jesus.

How old is Touchdown Jesus?

Notre Dame’s Touchdown Jesus, created in 1964 in South Bend, Indiana, is 58 years old. It is a stunning, long-standing mural of Christ and some of the most outstanding scholars, doctors, and theologians.

And thanks to its strategic location and the similarity between Jesus’ spread-out hands and football referees’ signal for a touchdown, it remains one of the most famous murals in the University and Notre Dame stadium.

How tall is the Touchdown Jesus mural?

The Touchdown Jesus mural in Notre Dame boasts a height of 134ft, and a width of 68ft, making it one of the tallest of Jesus Murals in the US. Most other murals are less than half its height.

This tall Touchdown Jesus mural was a well-thought-out idea by the University of Notre Dame’s emeritus Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, who was keen on making the university an echelon of all American Universities.

To realize this dream while recognizing the importance of religion and spirituality and how they interact with all other areas of knowledge, it was paramount to create an unmatched piece of art capturing all that the university represented.

Rev. Hesburgh further noted that the mural, whose theme incorporated Christ, saints, and the many great scholars from different ages, would become a kaleidoscope for their personalities while capturing historical accounts before and during the age of Christianity.

Where is the Touchdown Jesus mural most visible?

Where is the Touchdown Jesus mural most visible?
Touchdown Jesus mural, Notre Dame Stadium. Source: Pinterest

Given its size, the Touchdown Jesus mural is quite visible from Notre Dame Stadium. However, this mural on the South façade of the Library is quite visible from the stadium’s Southern Half. From the University of Notre Dame, there are many spots where the Statue is visible, and it peeks over the stadium’s northern End.

With the mural’s renovations in the mid-1990s, the mural is now more visible to fans sitting on higher levels at the stadium. 

Is Touchdown Jesus still there?

Yes, Touchdown Jesus at the University of Notre Dame is still standing. 

This Statue shouldn’t be confused with the 62-ft Touchdown Jesus (aka King of Kings) Statue in Monroe, Ohio, at the Solid Rock Church. This Statue caught fire after it was struck by lightning in 2010.

This rich theological and philosophical mural now stands as one of Notre Dame’s iconic art pieces that capture the essence of the university while acknowledging all the great minds that make the high level of education enjoyed today possible.

Besides its historical essence, the Touchdown Jesus mural is also an essential architectural feature whose design elements are marveled at to date.

All these, and the fact that the mural now forms an essential part of Football in Notre Dame Stadium, give it its iconic status.

The mural is a great tourist attraction today.

Is Touchdown Jesus worth visiting?

Yes. With its unique design, the strategic structural engineering & architectural design, and the deep symbolism that is reflective of the intersection of spirituality, art, and academia, not to mention a reference to historical figures throughout Christianity, there is no doubt that this is one mural that is worth visiting. 

The football connotations notwithstanding, this mural not only demonstrates the importance of academics but also acknowledges the important roles played by figures in the old world from the time of Jesus to the significant figures from the Byzantine, Renaissance, and Medieval eras.

It is, therefore, one of the most essential forms of art and in academia today.

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