Stained Glass Window Shows Jesus Christ With Dark Skin, Stirring Questions About Race in New England

WARREN (R.I.) (AP). -- A nearly 150 year-old stained glass church window depicting a dark-skinned Jesus Christ interacting in New Testament scenes with women has raised questions about race, Rhode Island’s role in slavery and the position of women in nineteenth-century New England society.

Experts have seen the oldest public stained-glass window depicting Christ as a person with color. It was installed in the now closed St. Mark's Episcopal Church, in Warren, in 1878.

Virginia Raguin, professor of humanities at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts and expert in the history of stained glass art, said that this window was unique and unusual. I have never seen iconography like this for that period.

The 5-foot-wide (12-foot) and 12-foot-high (3.7 meters by 1,5 meters) window portrays two biblical passages where women painted with dark skin appear as equals of Christ. The first shows Christ conversing with Martha and Mary (the sisters of Lazarus) from the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of John shows Christ talking to the Samaritan Woman at the Well.

Hadley Arnold, her husband and their family purchased the Greek Revival church that was built in 1830 but closed in 2010 to be converted into a home.

Arnold looked closely when four stained-glass window were removed to be replaced by clear glass in 2020. She was shocked to see that one of the windows had dark skin. It was a cold day in winter with sunlight at the perfect angle.

Arnold, a Harvard-educated art historian who was born in Rhode Island but grew up in California, said that the skin tones of Christ were not what you are used to seeing.

Scholars, historians, and experts have now scrutinized the window to try and determine the motivations behind the artist, church, and woman who commissioned it in memory of two aunts. Both of them married into families involved in slavery.

Is this a repudiation? Are these congratulations? Is this secret message? Arnold replied.

Raguin and other expert confirmed that the original and deliberate skin tones -- black and brown paint applied to milky white glass and then fired in an over to set the image - were intentional. She said that the piece has some signs of ageing but is still in excellent condition.

Arnold isn't comfortable with the term "Black Jesus" and prefers to call it a Christ who looks like a person of colour, most likely Middle Eastern. This would make sense given that Christ was primarily based in Galilee, i.e., he came from there.

Some people think that it is open to interpretation.

Linda A'Vant Deishinni is the former executive director for the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. She said, "I think it represents both people, as I am of African American and Native American descent." She is now the director of St. Martin de Porres Center in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence, which offers services to older residents.

A'Vant Deishinni stated, "The first time I saw this, it was just so amazing that it blew my mind."

Victoria Johnson, the first Black woman to be named principal of an Rhode Island high-school, believes that the figures on the glass are definitely Black.

"When I look at it, I see Black," said she. It was made in an era where the only people of colour they knew at a church in the North were Black.

According to the history of the town, Warren's economy was based on building and equipping ships, including some that were used in the slave-trade. Although there are records that show enslaved persons in the town before the Civil War the racial composition of St. Mark's is likely to have been mostly, if not entirely white.

Arnold stated that the window was commissioned in honor of Mary P. Carr, who had two aunts whose names appeared on the glass. Both Mrs. H. Gibbs, and Mrs. R. B. DeWolf married into slave-trading families. Gibbs was married to a captain of a ship who worked for DeWolfs.

Both women were listed as donors of the American Colonization Society. This organization was founded to aid the migration to Liberia, Africa, of slaves who had been freed. Black Americans overwhelmingly rejected the controversial initiative, which led many of its former supporters to turn into abolitionists. According to research, DeWolf left money in her estate to establish a church that adhered to egalitarian principles.

Arnold added that the timing is another clue. The window was commissioned during a pivotal moment in U.S. History when supporters of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, and their Southern Democrat opposition agreed to settle 1876 presidential elections with what's known as the Compromise 1877. This essentially ended Reconstruction era efforts to grant or protect legal rights to formerly enslaved Blacks.

What was Carr trying say about Gibbs and DeWolfs' links to slavery.

Arnold said: 'We do not know, but we would think that she honors people who have conscience, no matter how imperfect or ineffective their actions may be.' I don't believe it would have been there otherwise.

Raguin added: "Both stories were chosen to promote equality."

The window is propped up in the wooden frame that used to hold pews. It has been visited by college classes, and a group of eighth-grade boys from The Nativity School, a Jesuit school in Worcester, recently.

Raguin told the boys about the history and importance of this window.

Bryan Montenegro, a religion teacher, said that when he first mentioned this to the students in class, they were curious to know what it was about, and why it was important. I thought it would be valuable to see it and to be so close, to really feel the inclusion and diversity that were so different at that time.

Arnold hopes to find an institution, such as a college or museum that will preserve and display this window for public and academic study.

She said, "I believe this belongs to the public trust." "I do not believe it was intended to be privately owned."