A church window in Rhode Island depicts Jesus with dark skin

A nearly 150-year-old stained-glass church window depicting a dark-skinned Jesus Christ with women in New Testament scenes has sparked outrage. questions about race, Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade and the place of women in 19th century New England society.

The window placed in the long-closed St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Warren in 1878 is the oldest publicly known example of stained glass in which Christ is depicted as a person of color seen by an expert.

“This window is unique and very unique,” said Virginia Raguin, a professor of humanities emerita at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and an expert on the history of stained-glass art. “I had never seen this iconography at that time.”

The 12-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide (3.7 meters by 1.5 meters) window depicts two biblical passages in which women, also painted black, are seen as equivalent to Christ. One shows Christ in conversation with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, from the Gospel of Luke. Another shows Christ talking to the Samaritan woman at the well from the Gospel of John.

The window made by Henry E. sharp The New York studio was largely forgotten until a few years ago when Hadley Arnold and his family bought the 4,000-square-foot (371-square-meter) Greek Revival church building, which opened in 1830 and closed- in 2010, to become their home.

When the four stained-glass windows were removed in 2020 to be replaced with clear glass, Arnold took a closer look. It was a cold winter day with the sunlight shining at the right angle and he was stunned by what he saw in one of them: Human figures with black skin.

“The skin tones are not like the white Christ you usually see,” said Arnold, who teaches architectural design in California after growing up in Rhode Island and earning a degree in art history from Harvard University.

The window is now being examined by scholars, historians and experts trying to determine the motives of the artist, the church and the woman who commissioned the window in memory of her two aunts, both married into families linked to the slave. trade.

“Is this rejection? Is this the congratulations? Is it a secret sign?” said Arnold.

Raguin and other experts confirmed that the skin tones – in black and brown paint on milk white glass fired in the oven to set the image – are original and intentional. The piece shows some signs of aging but remains in excellent condition, he said.

But does it depict a Black Jesus? Arnold is uncomfortable using that term, preferring to say that it describes Christ as a man of color, perhaps Middle Eastern, which he says makes sense, where the Galilean Jewish preacher came from.

Some think it’s open to interpretation.

“For me, being of African American and Native American heritage, I think it can represent two people,” said Linda A’Vant-Deishinni, the former executive director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. He currently runs the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence in St. Martin de Porres Center, which provides services to elderly residents.

“The first time I saw it, it kind of blew me away,” A’Vant-Deishinni said.

Victoria Johnson, a retired teacher who was the first Black woman to be named principal of a high school in Rhode Island, thinks the figures in the glass are definitely Black.

“When I see it, I see Black,” he said. “It was done at a time when in a white church in the North, the people of color they knew were Black.”

Warren’s economy was based on building and outfitting ships, some used in the slave trade, according to the town’s history. And although there are records of enslaved people in the town before the Civil War, the race in St. Mark is probably mostly if not all white.

The window was commissioned by a Mary P. Carr in honor of two women, apparently her deceased aunts, whose names appear on the glass, Arnold said. Mrs. H. Gibbs and Mrs. RB DeWolf are siblings, and they both married into families involved in the slave trade. The DeWolf family made a fortune as one of the leading slave trading families in the country; Gibbs is married to a sea captain who works for the DeWolfs.

Both women are listed as donors to the American Colonization Society, which was founded to support the migration of slaves freed in Liberia to Africa. The controversial effort was overwhelmingly rejected by Black people in America, leading many former supporters to become abolitionists instead. DeWolf also left money in his will to build another church with similar principles, according to the research.

Another clue is timing, says Arnold. The window was opened to a critical period in US history when supporters of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and their Southern Democrat opponents agreed to settle the 1876 presidential election in the so-called Compromise of 1877, which ended Reconstruction-era efforts to provide. and protect the legal rights of formerly enslaved Blacks.

What is Carr trying to say about Gibbs and DeWolf’s links to slavery?

“We don’t know, but he seems to credit people with a conscience no matter how imperfect their actions or their effectiveness,” Arnold said. “I don’t think it would be there otherwise.”

The window is also unique because it shows Christ interacting with the woman as equals, Raguin said: “The two stories were chosen to match the profile.”

Currently, the window remains propped up on the wooden frame where the pews once stood. College classes come to see it, and on a recent spring afternoon there was a visit from a diverse group of eighth graders from The Nativity School in Worcester, a Jesuit boys’ school.

The boys learned about the window’s history and significance from Raguin.

“When I first told them in religion class, it was the first time the kids had heard about something like this and they were really interested in what it was all about, why it was important, why it existed,” religion. teacher Bryan Montenegro said. “I thought it was really valuable to come and see it, and be so close to it, and really feel the diversity and inclusion that was so different at the time.”

Arnold hopes to find a museum, college or other institution that can preserve and present a window for academic study and public appreciation.

“I think it belongs to the public trust,” he said. “I don’t believe it was meant to be a privately owned thing.”

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