WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL has turned to a great American artist and one of the nation’s top poets for a high-profile project intended to put the renowned, institution on the right side of history.

Several years ago, the National Cathedral embarked on a process of replacing two stained-glass windows featuring images of the Confederate flag and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The windows were removed in 2017.

On Thursday, the National Cathedral announced it had commissioned Kerry James Marshall to design new racial justice-themed replacement windows. Inscribed in stone, a new poem by Elizabeth Alexander will accompany the window installation.

 


Sept. 23, 2021: Kerry James Marshall has been commissioned by the Washington National Cathedral to design new pair of stained-glass windows to replace the original works with Confederate images. | Courtesy National Cathedral

 

The project is expected to be completed in 2023. The Cathedral said the new windows will be a permanent part of the institution’s “sacred iconography.”

“For nearly 70 years, these windows and their Confederate imagery told an incomplete story; they celebrated two generals, but they did nothing to address the reality and painful legacy of America’s original sin of slavery and racism. They represented a false narrative of what America once was and left out the painful truth of our history,” The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral, said in a statement.

“We’re excited to share a new and more complete story, to tell the truth about our past and to lift up who we aspire to be as a nation.”

Speaking at the Cathedral press conference, Marshall said it was a challenge to discuss the project when he had yet to make any decisions about his approach.

“I’m not going to be able to shed any light on what the project is going to be because the challenge that the committee set for the replacement windows is a monumental task and it’s something cannot be known ahead of time because the issues that the windows have to address are more complicated than anything that might be configured in a really simple sort of concept or idea,” Marshall said.

“This is something that’s actually going to take a lot of time because history itself, as most people know, is a very complicated narrative to try to wrestle down.”

“For nearly 70 years, these windows and their Confederate imagery told an incomplete story; they celebrated two generals, but they did nothing to address the reality and painful legacy of America’s original sin of slavery and racism. They represented a false narrative of what America once was and left out the painful truth of our history.”
— The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith


National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., Exterior view from the west lawn. The Confederate stained-glass windows were removed from the southern face of the Cathedral’s main worship space (which is also referred to as the nave). The replacements designed by Kerry James Marshall will be installed at the same location. | Courtesy Colin S. Johnson/Washington National Cathedral

 

LOCATED IN WASHINGTON, D.C., the National Cathedral identifies as both a sacred and civic institution, describing itself thus: “As the Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, we strive to serve God and our neighbors as agents of reconciliation, a trusted voice of moral leadership and a sacred space where the country gathers during moments of national significance.”

The Confederate stained-glass windows were donated to the National Cathedral by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and they were installed in 1953. For more than half a century, the windows were sited on the southern face of the Cathedral’s main worship space (which is also referred to as the nave).

The problematic nature of the windows was first raised in 2015, when then-Cathedral Dean Gary Hall called for their removal in the wake of the deadly shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. Nine Black people, including the church’s pastor, were killed by a 21-year-old gunman, a self-proclaimed white supremacist.

In 2016, the Cathedral created a task force to consider “a way forward for the Cathedral to address the issues raised by the windows.” The five-member body included Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas; Eric L. Motley, deputy director of the National Gallery of Art; and Chase Rynd, former director of the National Building Museum.

The task force issued a report on June 2, 2016, recommending that the Cathedral engage in discussions and programming about the legacy of slavery and racial justice and racial reconciliation. The report suggested the windows remain in place during the process of truth telling about America’s and the Episcopal Church’s racial history, and strongly urgeed revisiting “the issue of how the windows live in the Cathedral no later than two years from the date of this report.”

 


The Confederate stained-glass windows were removed from the National Cathedral in 2017. On the left, the window featuring Confederate General Robert E. Lee is on view for a year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Cultured in the exhibition “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and its Legacies.” | Courtesy Colin S. Johnson/Washington National Cathedral

 

In 2017, during a Unite the Right white supremacist “rally” in Charlottesville, Va., rally goers carried torches and Confederate flags. A young woman was killed and dozens of other counterprotestors were injured, when a rally participant plowed his car into a crowd. After that tragic day, the Cathedral’s Confederate windows were deconsecrated and removed.

The Windows Replacement Committee is overseeing the future of the Confederate windows and the commissioning of the new windows. The committee includes Cathedral leadership and Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, curator and professor of art history at the University of Pennsylvania. Motley and Rynd are co-chairs of the committee.

After the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn., in May 2020, the Cathedral began collaborating with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Over the next year, the window that depicts Confederate General Lee will be on view at NMAAHC, featured in the exhibition “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and its Legacies” (Sept. 24, 2021-Aug. 21, 2022). When the show concludes, the Lee/Jackson windows will undergo conservation at the Cathedral and be stored away from public view.

“This is something that’s actually going to take a lot of time because history itself, as most people know, is a very complicated narrative to try to wrestle down.” — Kerry James Marshall

AT THE PRESS CONFERENCE, Hollerith said, “Monuments in sacred spaces carry special weight and meaning and when it became obvious that these windows were a serious barrier to this cathedral being a house of prayer for all people, we knew that we had to find a better way. Today, we see that better way in these two visionary artists and we are thankful for their willingness to partner with us in this work.”

Marshall and Alexander had been top of mind for the committee from the very beginning. “They were our dream,” Hollerith said.

He went on to describe the mandate from the windows committee: “To create for all time an artistic embodiment of both darkness and light, the pain of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow and the quiet and exemplary dignity of the African American struggle for justice and equality.”

When Marshall spoke, the artist said he had spent the last two days at the National Cathedral, his first time ever visiting the space and being in the building.

“It was really important for me to come here and really get a sense of what the place is,” Marshall said, “What’s already here. What the mission they’ve tried to accomplish is. And then how I might be able to fit whatever it is that the Cathedral needs in order to fulfill its ambition for these windows. To fit that into a space in which they perform the kind of work that the Cathedral needs for these windows to do.”

“It was really important for me to come here and really get a sense of what the place is. What’s already here. What the mission they’ve tried to accomplish is. And then how I might be able to fit whatever it is that the Cathedral needs in order to fulfill its ambition for these windows.”
— Kerry James Marshall


At the National Cathedral press conference, Kerry James Marshall spoke about being commissioned to design the new windows, his experiences with faith, the medium of stained-glass, and image making. | Courtesy Colin S. Johnson/Washington National Cathedral

 

MARSHALL ANSWERED A FEW QUESTIONS from reporters at the press briefing. It was difficult to hear the questions, but his responses indicated the nature of the inquiries. The artist spoke about his experiences with faith, the medium of stained-glass, and image making:

    On His Faith Background
    I don’t have any specific faith background of my own, but I think I have a fairly unique experience with church and faith that I think actually puts me in a position to consider a broader spectrum of ideas and concepts than maybe a lot of people who have committed themselves, or dedicated themselves, to a single faith.

    I was born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1955, two years after the windows were installed in the Cathedral. I started out in Catholic school at Holy Family, in Birmingham, in kindergarten. But we were also a family that went to Baptist church, at the same time.

    We moved to California in 1963. In California, I spent time, and my brother did, in some of the Baptist churches in the neighborhood, but we also spent a period of Bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was finally baptized into the Church of Christ when I was 20-years-old, as the only member of my family that had been baptized into anything. My mother later became Seventh Day Adventist.

    I’ve been around a lot of people doing a lot of different things, with a lot of different perspectives and I’ve found myself able to move fluently and comfortably in all of those environments. One thing that I left out, I did some work with the Nation of Islam in Los Angeles, also. So I’ve been around a lot of different faith communities and I understand something about the various ways in which their ideas and attitudes have been manifest in what they know and what they do.

    I think this gives me a fairly singular perspective. …I’m always sort of keyed to complexity. I’m looking for ways in which you can embody in a concept the multiplicity of all of those different faith perspectives. That’s, I think, the perspective I think I can bring and how it might affect my approach to doing the windows.

“I don’t have any specific faith background of my own, but I think I have a fairly unique experience with church and faith that I think actually puts me in a position to consider a broader spectrum of ideas and concepts than maybe a lot of people who have committed themselves, or dedicated themselves, to a single faith.” — Kerry James Marshall

    On Working With a New Medium
    I’ve not worked in stained glass. There are a number of ways of thinking about what an artist is, and what an artist does. I’m a polyglot artist. The idea of being an artist, means that you work with images, you work with ideas, and the medium in which you work, the choice of medium, is not a limitation. …It’s an opportunity to actually enhance some other dimension of the way the imagery operates.

    So the difference between working with an opaque pigment as paint on a canvas and colored glass that allows light to come through. Well, once you understand the dynamics of the medium, you do what the medium does best and you construct your images and ideas around what you think the optimal qualities of the medium are. And so that’s how I think about things.

    I don’t see not ever having worked with stained glass, specifically, as a limitation. It’s just another opportunity to help amplify the qualities that stained glass allows you to exploit and to do the best that you can with that material and the subject that I’m going to imagine.

    As an artist, …I have an obligation and a responsibility to know everything that needs to be known about what it means to make images in whatever way those images need to be made. That’s the approach I’ve taken. And I’ve made it my mission to be familiar enough with all those materials and all those methods so that whenever the opportunity came to deploy them, I would be well-versed enough to make use of them and make use of them effectively.

“The idea of being an artist, means that you work with images, you work with ideas, and the medium in which you work, the choice of medium, is not a limitation. …It’s an opportunity to actually enhance some other dimension of the way the imagery operates.” — Kerry James Marshall


Kerry James Marshall (with Eric L. Motley in the background, at left), responding to questions from the media, said he is working with stained glass for the first time. Marshall said a new medium is not limiting, but rather offers an opportunity: “You construct your images and ideas around what you think the optimal qualities of the medium are.” | Courtesy Colin S. Johnson/Washington National Cathedral

 
    On the Power of Images
    I take everything I do pretty seriously. I think the creation of images is really an immense responsibility because the hope is that you create images that can live way beyond the moment in which they were made, and that are open enough, and generous enough, meaningful enough, for people to want to invest them with the kind of life and longevity that would make generations of people believe that they have value to them, even though they weren’t responsible for their creation or that they were things that existed before they were born.

    I mean, you have to figure out a way to make images that have that kind of power, too. And that’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to do. But if you take the responsibility of trying to do that seriously. then I think you have a better shot of at least approaching it. even if you don’t quite hit it on the mark yourself.

“I take everything I do pretty seriously. I think the creation of images is really an immense responsibility because the hope is that you create images that can live way beyond the moment in which they were made.”
— Kerry James Marshall

Marshall said it was Motley who called him on the phone and invited him to participate in the windows project. His overture was impossible to refuse, the artist said.

“What you’ll find when you hear Eric speak is that not only is he an irresistible force,” Marshall said, “he’s next to impossible to say no to because his enthusiasm for the project was so inspirational to me, that I don’t feel like I had any choice but to say, ‘Yes.'”

Motley spoke next and his enthusiasm for the project and Marshall was clear.

“The dean challenged Chase and I, as co-chairs of this committee, to help imagine with our fellow committee members—with over 200 windows in this space—what these two windows could tell about the ironies of American history, about the affirmation of faith, about reconciliation, and about reimagining the world in which we live,” Motley said.

“We knew that there was a story to be told and to our good fortune, we all decided to engage one of the most important storytellers. Kerry James Marshall is a great artist, but he is a most exceptional storyteller. And to invite him into this space, to join us on this incredible journey, this odyssey of grace and gratitude and this odyssey affirms our faith in America and humanity and in all people is extremely an honor.” CT

 

The National Cathedral’s replacement windows are funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Monuments Project. Benefactors also include the Hearthland Foundation, founded Kate Capeshaw and Steven Spielberg (sponsoring the stone tablets inscribed with poetry by Elizabeth Alexander), and the Ford Foundation, which is supporting public programming around racial justice and racial reconciliation issues. Alexander is the president of the Mellon Foundation.

 

FIND MORE about the Confederate windows and the process to replace them

 


Sept. 23, 2021: The National Cathedral held a press conference to announce Kerry James Marshall and Elizabeth Alexander had agreed to work on the stained-glass windows project. Marshall; The Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral; and Windows Replacement Committee co-chairs Eric L. Motley and Chase Rynd were featured at the press event. | Video by National Cathedral

 

BOOKSHELF
“Kerry James Marshall: Mastry,” accompanied Kerry James Marshall’s 35-year traveling retrospective. Other recent volumes include “Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff,” “Kerry James Marshall,” released by Phaidon, and “Kerry James Marshall: History of Painting,” which explores the artist’s 2018 exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in London. Elizabeth Alexander is the author of several books and poetry collections. She has featured artworks by Alma Thomas, Betye Saar, and Bob Thompson on the cover of her books. Her collection “Body of Life: Poems” features “Could This Be Love?,” a 1992 painting by Marshall on the cover. “The Light of the World: A Memoir” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography. The book is a love story about Alexander’s life with artist Ficre Ghebreyesus (1962-2012), her late husband who died suddenly at age 50. “Ficre Ghebreyesus: City with a River Running Through” accompanied an exhibition at the Museum of the African Diaspora in San Francisco and features a foreword by Alexander. Her latest book, “The Trayvon Generation: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow,” is forthcoming in March.

 

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