The Washington National Cathedral was filled with people and purpose as leaders of the Episcopal Church unveiled two stained glass windows, created by world-renowned artist Kerry James Marshall, on Saturday.
Artist Kerry James Marshall and poet Elizabeth Alexander attend a dedication of the artist’s racial-justice-themed stained glass windows and the poet’s piece “American Song” being carved into the limestone at the Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 23. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Informer)
The reimagined windows, titled “Now and Forever,” marked a new chapter in the Cathedral’s historical legacy of art and architecture that replaced previous stone tablets that paid tribute to Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.
“The church in general, across all faiths and this National Cathedral in particular, exists as a symbolic representation of humankind’s aspirations toward perfection, and a desire to keep the promise of redemption when we offend and fall short of the impossible,” said Marshall during the dedication.
The dedication also celebrated Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “America’s Song,” which will be hand-carved into limestone tablets over the next nine months.
“I am forever honored to have been invited to offer these words to live alongside Kerry James Marshall’s magnificent stained glass windows, making space for feeling and reflection on our multivocal history as we try to move forward into a more just and beautiful future,’ said Alexander, during the event.
The new windows and poem are reminders of the Cathedral’s mission of inclusivity.
“This is a House of Prayer for all of God’s children and a House of Prayer for all of God’s People,” the Rev. Canon Rosemarie Logan Duncan, who works to put together all of the services at the national cathedral, told the Informer.
The very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of the Washington National Cathedral, said the new windows and poem “marks a significant moment in the Cathedral’s history.”“Windows that celebrated division are being replaced by windows extolling the pursuit of justice,” Hollerith said.
The Racial Justice Windows
The newly designed windows replace windows that contained two depictions of the Confederate battle flag; those windows were removed in 2017.
The windows, according to a press release, “capture both darkness and light, both the pain of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow, as well as the quiet and exemplary dignity of the African American struggle for justice and equality and the indelible and progressive impact it has had on American society.”
The Cathedral’s commissioning is Marshall’s first time working with stained glass as a medium. The artist weighed in on the significance of the work.
Artist Kerry James Marshall (left) poses with his sisters. (Hamil R. Harris/The Washington Informer)
“Today’s event has been organized to highlight one instance where a change of symbolism is meant to repair a breach of America’s creation promise of liberty and justice for all, and to reinforce those ideals and aspirations embodied in the Cathedral’s structure and its mission to remind us that we can be better, and do better, than we did yesterday, today,” he said.
The windows will be one of only three permanent public exhibitions of Marshall’s art in the United States.
“The people who showed up were so respectful and it brings tears to my eyes because I see my wife over there crying,” Marshall told the Informer. He was also joined by his sisters, brother, and other family members including his aunt from Birmingham, Alabama.
The newly installed racial justice windows will remain a permanent part of the Cathedral’s world-renowned sacred iconography.
“The addition of these windows and the powerful words that accompany them allows us to tell a truer story of America, a story that confronts our past and invites all of us into a more inclusive and hopeful future,” Hollerith said.
‘American Song’ in a Sacred Space
During the program, people read Alexander’s poem “American Song,” which was composed to invite meditation in the unique sacred space of the National Cathedral.
The words of the poem will be etched into the limestone using a custom design by renowned lettering expert Nick Benson of the historic John Stevens Shop in Newport, Rhode Island, and carved by the Cathedral’s stone carvers, Sean Callahan and Andy Uhl.
The Cathedral Commits to Racial Justice and Reconciliation
The original stained glass windows and carved inscriptions honoring Lee and Jackson were donated to the Cathedral by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and installed in 1953 on the southern face of the nave. Following the 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, then-Dean Gary Hall called for the Lee-Jackson windows’ removal, referring to the Confederate Battle Flag as “the primary symbol of a culture of white supremacy.”
The Cathedral Chapter formed a task force to consider the future of the Lee-Jackson windows and it was recommended that they remain in place for at least two years to help catalyze “honest discussions about race and the legacy of slavery that the windows represent, and the alternative narratives that those windows reflect.”
In 2016, the Cathedral Chapter accepted the Task Force’s report. However the group also voted unanimously to immediately remove the Confederate battle flag imagery from the Lee-Jackson windows.
In September 2017, following the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the windows were deconsecrated and removed.
Furthering its mission to serve as a leading voice for racial justice and reconciliation, the Cathedral committed to preserving the windows and looking for opportunities to use them as educational tools.
During the summer of 2020, amidst the racial justice movement following the murder of George Floyd, the Cathedral agreed to loan the windows to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to be used in their exhibition “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and its Legacies,” from September 2021 to August 2022.
The windows are now conserved and stored at the Cathedral.
‘This is Just the Beginning’
The service concluded with all present singing the “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Black National Anthem.
Following the service, the Rev. Canon Michele V. Hagans said, “This is just the beginning that should represent how we are to move forward and fill this breach.”
“As we come into this space,” Hagans continued, “it should be a symbol that should inspire us and give us hope.”
Source: Washington Informer