Experts are debating the motives of the artist, the church and the woman who ordered the windows.
WARREN, RI – A nearly 150-year-old stained-glass church window depicting dark-skinned Jesus Christ interacting with women in New Testament scenes has raised questions about race , Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade and the place of women in 19th-century New England society.
Windows installed at St. The long-closed Mark’s Episcopal in Warren in 1878 is the oldest public example of stained glass on which Christ is depicted as a person of color that an expert has seen.
“This window is unique and very unusual,” said Virginia Raguin, professor emeritus of humanities at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and an expert on the history of stained glass art. “I never saw this icon at the time.”
The 12-foot-high, 5-foot-wide window depicts two biblical passages in which women, also painted with dark skin, appear equal to Christ. One shows Jesus conversing with Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, from the Gospel of Luke. The other shows Jesus Christ talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John.
The window made by Henry E. Sharp’s studio in New York was largely forgotten until a few years ago when Hadley Arnold and her family purchased the 4,000-square-foot Greek Renaissance church building, which opened in 1830. and closed in 2010, to convert into their home.
When four stained-glass windows were phased out in 2020 to be replaced with clear glass, Arnold took a closer look. It was a cold winter day with sunlight at just the right angle, and she was stunned by what she saw in one of them: dark-skinned human figures.
Arnold, who taught architectural design in California after growing up in Rhode Island and earning an art history degree from Harvard University, said: “Skin tones don’t look like the white Christ you normally would. see.
The window has now been scrutinized by scholars, historians, and experts to try to determine the motives of the artist, the church, and the woman who commissioned the window in memory of her two aunts, both were married into families related to the slave trade.
“Is this a rebuff? Is this a congratulation? Is this a secret sign? Arnold said.
Raguin and other experts confirm that the skin tones — in black and brown paint on milky white glass fired in an oven to create the image — are original and intentional. She said the piece has some signs of aging but is still in very good condition.
But does it depict a Black Jesus? Arnold doesn’t feel comfortable using that term, preferring to say that it describes Christ as a person of color, possibly Middle Eastern, which she said would make sense, given the tradition’s hometown Galilean Judaism.
Others think it’s open to interpretation.
“For me, as African-American and Native American, I think it’s probably representative,” said Linda A’Vant-Deishinni, former executive director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Association. for both of you. of the St. Martin de Porres of Providence, which provides services for older residents.
A’Vant-Deishinni said: “The first time I saw it, it blew me away.
Victoria Johnson, a retired educator who was the first Black woman to be appointed principal of a Rhode Island high school, thinks the figures in the glasses are definitely Black.
She said: “When I look at it, I see black. It was made in an era when, in a white church in the North, the only people of color they knew were black.”
According to town history, Warren’s economy was based on building and equipping ships, some of which were used in the slave trade. And despite the record of enslaved people in the town before the Civil War, St. Mark’s may be predominantly if not all white.
Arnold said the window was commissioned by Mary P. Carr in honor of two women, who appeared to be her late aunts, whose names were on the glass. Mrs. H. Gibbs and Mrs. RB DeWolf were sisters, and both were married into slave-trading families. The DeWolf family made a fortune as one of the nation’s leading slave-trading families; Gibbs is married to a captain who works for DeWolfs.
Both women are listed as donors to the American Colonial Association, which was established to support the migration of freed slaves to Liberia in Africa. The controversial effort was strongly opposed by Blacks in America, leading many of its former supporters to become abolitionists. According to the research, DeWolf also left the money to found another church in line with the principles of equality.
Another clue is timing, Arnold said. The window came into play at a pivotal moment in American history when Republican Rutherford B. Hayes supporters and their Southern Democratic opponents agreed to settle the general election. system in 1876 with what became known as the Compromise of 1877, which essentially ended licensing efforts during the Reconstruction period. and protect the legal rights of former Negroes.
What is Carr trying to say about Gibbs and DeWolf’s connection to slavery?
“We don’t know, but she seems to be honoring people with a conscience no matter how imperfect or effective their actions may be,” Arnold said. “I don’t think it would be there otherwise.”
“Both stories were chosen to show equality,” Raguin said.
Currently, the window is still erected in a wooden frame where the benches used to be. College classes came to see it, and on a recent spring afternoon there was a visit by a diverse group of eighth graders from The Nativity School in Worcester, a Jesuit boys’ school.
The boys learned about the history and meaning of windows from Raguin.
“When I first talked to them about this in religion class, it was the first time the kids had heard of something like this and they were really curious to know what it was all about, why it was happening. is important, why does it exist,” said religion teacher Bryan Montenegro. “I think it would be valuable to go see it, be around it and really feel the diversity and inclusion which was so different at the time.”
Arnold hoped to find a museum, college or other institution that would preserve and display the window for scholarly study and public appreciation.
“I think this is about public trust,” she said. I don’t believe it was ever intended to be a private property.”