“This window is unique and highly unusual,” said Virginia Raguin, a professor of humanities emerita at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. This is a representational image. Tinnakorn Jorruang/Gettyimages

An almost 150-year-old stained-glass church window that shows a dark-skinned Jesus Christ engaging with women in New Testament scenes has stirred up questions about race, Rhode Island's involvement in the slave trade, and the status of women in 19th-century New England society.

According to one expert, the oldest known public specimen of stained glass on which Christ is shown as a person of color has been found in the window that was placed at the long-closed St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Warren in 1878.

"This window is unique and highly unusual," 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 have never seen this iconography for that time."

Two biblical texts are depicted in the 12-foot-tall by a 5-foot-wide window, where women—also painted with dark skin—appear to be Christ's equals in both.

One depicts Christ speaking with Martha and Mary, Lazarus' sisters, in the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of John, the other depicts Christ conversing with a Samaritan lady at a well.

Before Hadley Arnold and her family purchased the 4,000 square foot (371 square meter) Greek Revival church structure, which opened in 1830 and closed in 2010, to turn into their home, the window created by the Henry E. Sharp studio in New York had mostly been forgotten, New York Post reported.

Arnold took a closer look when four stained glass windows were taken out in 2020 and replaced with clear glass.

She was astounded by what she noticed in one of them: The human figures had black complexion. It was a chilly winter day with the sun beaming at precisely the right angle.

"The skin tones were nothing like the white Christ you usually see," said Arnold, who teaches architectural design in California after growing up in Rhode Island and earning an art history degree from Harvard University.

Scholars, historians, and other specialists have examined the window in an effort to understand the motivations of the creator, the church, and the woman who commissioned it in honor of her two aunts, who both married into families that had participated in the slave trade.

"Is this repudiation? Is this congratulations? Is this a secret sign?" said Arnold.

The skin tones, which were painted in black and brown on milky white glass and burned in an oven to set the image, were original and intentional, according to Raguin and other specialists.

She claimed that despite some aging symptoms, the artwork is still in excellent condition.

However, does it show a Black Jesus? Arnold prefers not to use that phrase and instead claims that it portrays Christ as a person of color, most likely of Middle Eastern descent, which would make sense considering that the Galilean Jewish preacher was from that region.

Others believe there are other ways to read it.

"To me, being of African American and Native American heritage, I think that it could represent both people," said Linda A'Vant-Deishinni, the former executive director of the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society. She now runs the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence's St. Martin de Porres Center, which provides services to older residents.

"The first time I saw it, it just kind of just blew me away," A'Vant-Deishinni said.

Victoria Johnson, a retired educator who was the first Black woman named principal of a Rhode Island high school, thinks the figures in the glass are most certainly Black.

"When I see it, I see Black," she said. "It was created in an era when at a white church in the North, the only people of color they knew were Black."

According to the local history, the economy of Warren had been built on the construction and equipping of ships, some of which were employed in the slave trade. And although though there are records of slaves living in the area before the Civil War, St. Mark's was probably primarily, if not entirely, white.

According to Arnold, a Mary P. Carr commissioned the window in memory of two women who figure on the glass as her late aunts. Sisters Mrs. H. Gibbs and Mrs. R. B. DeWolf both married into families that participated in the slave trade. The DeWolf family was one of the top slave traders in the country, and Gibbs wed a sea captain who worked for the DeWolfs.

The American Colonization Society was established to encourage the emigration of former slaves to Liberia in Africa, and both women were recognized as donors to the group.

Black Americans in America overwhelmingly rejected the divisive initiative, and many of its former supporters became into abolitionists as a result. According to the study, DeWolf also left money in her will to start a different church that adhered to egalitarian ideas.

The timing, according to Arnold, is another hint. When supporters of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and their Southern Democrat rivals agreed to settle the 1876 presidential election with the Compromise of 1877, which essentially put an end to Reconstruction-era efforts to grant and protect the legal rights of formerly enslaved Black people, the window was commissioned at a crucial point in American history.

"We don't know, but it would appear that she is honoring people of conscience however imperfect their actions or their effectiveness may have been," Arnold said. "I don't think it would be there otherwise."

The window also is remarkable because it shows Christ interacting with woman as equals, Raguin said: "Both stories were selected to profile equality."

The window is still currently supported vertically by a wooden frame where pews formerly were. College courses have visited there, and on a recent spring afternoon, a varied group of eighth graders from Worcester's The Nativity School, a Jesuit boys' school, paid a visit.

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

"When I first brought this up to them in religion class, it was the first time the kids had ever heard of something like this and they were genuinely curious as to what that was all about, why it mattered, why it existed," religion teacher Bryan Montenegro said.

"I thought that it would be very valuable to come and see it, and be so close to it, and really feel the diversity and inclusion that was so different for that time."

Arnold intends to locate a museum, college, or other organization that will be able to store and show the window for research and public enjoyment.

"I think this belongs in the public trust," she said. "I don't believe that it was ever intended to be a privately owned object."

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