The First Black Jesus and Black New Testament Women Displayed in a Public Setting?

Hadley Arnold and Virginia Raguin

A stained-glass window installed in 1878 in the former St. Mark’s Church, Warren, Rhode Island, USA, shows Christ engaged in conversation with several biblical women. All have dark skin. The window invites dialogue and interpretation. While the current stewards seek a permanent home for the window, they invite collaborators to decipher and interpret it together.

 

Completed in 1830, St. Mark’s Church (Fig. 1) was designed in a Greek Revival style by Russell Warren (1783–1860), architect of the Providence Arcade, assumed to be the first enclosed shopping mall in the United States, and other historically significant Rhode Island sites, including Brown University’s Manning Hall and Bristol’s DeWolf Linden Place. The parish closed in 2010 and the diocese sold the building in 2012. The former church, located in Warren’s Historic District, was purchased by Hadley and Peter Arnold. The Arnolds are sensitively rehabilitating the structure as a residence. Stained glass windows, added in the 1870s and long obscured beneath twentieth-century pebbled glass storm windows, will not remain in the structure. Four of the windows can be associated with the New York Studio of Henry E. Sharp (active c. 1850–c.1897). The chancel window is documented as from the J. & R. Lamb Studio, New Jersey, 1880.((All parish documentation is archived at the University of Rhode Island.))

Fig 1. Russell Warren, St. Mark's Church, Warren, Rhode Island, 1840, (Photo Courtesy Buildings of New England)

Fig 1. Russell Warren, St. Mark’s Church, Warren, Rhode Island, 1840, (Photo Courtesy Buildings of New England)

 

Fig 2. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 2. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

One of the Henry Sharp windows struck the owners as unusual (Fig. 2). The window honours two women, Mrs H. Gibbs and Mrs. R. B. DeWolf. Parish records document that the window was given in honour of the two women by Miss Mary P. Carr in 1877 and installed in 1878. The window depicts Christ at the home of Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) and Christ conversing with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7-30). In the tall central panel, Christ, dressed in a red cloak over a white tunic, is in conversation with sisters Mary and Martha. The two sisters are well dressed with layers of fabric. In a smaller medallion at eye level, Christ is similarity depicted, but seated on the left making gestures of speech with a more simply-clad standing woman whose hair is veiled. She has a long, narrow pitcher over her shoulder and she turns to listen, revealing her face in profile. All the figures in these scenes have dark skins (Fig. 3). 

Both the image and the story speak to inclusion. The Gospel events are depicted as relevant to all, speaking as much to those of African as well as European origin. The subject matter prioritizes women’s agency: the Samaritan woman speaks to her community, Martha engages in service, and Mary focuses on intellectual pursuits. God speaks directly to them. Hannah Gibbs and Ruth Bourne DeWolf were progressive women who left a legacy of social activism and racial inclusion that sought to address the complicity of their ancestors in human trafficking. The mounting evidence is that they were pioneers of reconciliation. 

Fig 3. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail of the head of Christ at the home of Mary and Martha, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 3. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail of the head of Christ at the home of Mary and Martha, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

An example of American glazing of the second half of the nineteenth-century, the glass also testifies to important historical developments. One of the most prestigious designers of his day, and favored by the noted architect Richard Upjohn, Sharp used bold colours to intersect with architectural space. Sharp’s windows can also be seen locally in the near-by First Universalist Church in Providence RI, dating to 1871. A window showing Faith and Hope from Saint Ann’s Episcopal Church, Brooklyn, by Sharp, dating 1867–69, is displayed in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Studio favored strategic interplay between decorative and figural elements, attracting the eye but keeping the abstraction necessary to relate to the flat plane of the wall. Pot metal glass, vitreous paint applied to the surface and fired, and enamel colours were all part of the standard production of the studio. The Gibbs/DeWolf window, however, shows paint loss typical of much of the production of the time. This seems concentrated in the black tones used for outlines and for some infill such as the stone of the well in the scene of the Samaritan woman. The heads of Mary and Martha now give the appearance of considerable white hair, rather than the original black (Fig. 4). This phenomenon was widespread, as the later nineteenth-century saw the introduction of borax to paint, described in Alison Gilchrist’s 2012 article in Vidimus 64.((Alison Gilchrist, ‘“The tears wept by our windows”: severe paint loss from stained glass windows of the mid-nineteenth century’, Unpublished MA thesis, University of York, 2010. Full text is available on the CVMA website.)) Gilchrist refers to the ‘well-known and widespread problem of severe paint loss from stained glass windows made by many firms in the mid- to late nineteenth century. It has become known as the ‘borax problem’ (borax being a commercial product that was used to lower the melting temperature of glass).’ However, Gilchrist’s research also demonstrated how incorrectly formulated glass paint and poor firing technique contributed significantly to paint loss problems in this period of stained-glass revival.

Fig 4. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail Christ at the home of Mary and Martha, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 4. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail Christ at the home of Mary and Martha, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 5. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail Christ and the Samaritan Woman, exterior, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 5. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail Christ and the Samaritan Woman, exterior, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 6. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail Christ and the Samaritan Woman, interior, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin digitally enhanced by author)

Fig 6. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail Christ and the Samaritan Woman, interior, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin digitally enhanced by author)

Observations on the integrity of the window were only possible after mid-June 2022 when the thick glass exterior coverings had been removed. Virginia Raguin was able to inspect the window from a scaffold reviewing both exterior and interior surfaces (Fig. 5). Tactile and visual examination gives every evidence that the dark pigment used for the skin is the original colour, not a deterioration over time. Repairs to the window are minimal, one being the lower level of the Samaritan woman’s robe, radically disjunctive on both exterior and interior surfaces. An experiment to Photoshop an image with partial infill of some of the lost paint was made (Fig. 6). More reaction to such efforts is needed to determine if such digital reconstructions compromise the integrity of the piece or helped the first-time viewer to more quickly appreciate the original state of the design. 

Content and Context 

Prior to Dr Raguin’s physical examination of the window, Hadley Arnold began looking into its contextual history. Who were the women behind the window? What was their relationship to blackness, if indeed the window was intended to represent blackness? 

Ruth Bourne was a white woman born in Bristol, RI in 1787, daughter of Ruth and Aaron Bourne, Esq. In 1839, at age 52, she married John DeWolf, Esq., a member of the white Bristol family that had built its great fortune in part through buying and selling black humans. She was a wealthy member of the Episcopal parish of Saint Michael’s in Bristol, a town whose early economy was deeply enmeshed in the slave trade. When Ruth died a childless widow in 1874, she left a significant portion of her estate to the Episcopal diocese. She is buried in a Bourne family plot, with her parents, not her husband. Who was Mrs. H. Gibbs? So far, we know little about Hannah Gibbs, except that her name appears next to Mrs. R. B. DeWolf’s regularly in the donor rolls of the American Colonization Society. The purpose of the American Colonization Society, from the ACS publication, ‘African Repository’, seems to be largely missionary. To paraphrase the preface to one of its 1858 journals, in which Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. DeWolf are listed as donors, the society’s purpose was ‘to see Christ in Africa and Africa in Christ.’ ACS members funded transport of freed slaves to Liberia, to live ‘free and Christianized lives’ in Africa. 

Was Ruth DeWolf’s involvement in ACS as a rebel daughter-in-law, wrestling with conscience and family legacy? Was the ACS commitment undertaken in good faith as a form of reparation? Was it white supremacy, cloaked in moralism? It could be seen by some as brave, renegade, an act of conscience and solidarity, particularly in the context of DeWolf family history. By others, it could be understood as a further act of erasure, exporting humans as those humans worked to make their forced home viable, just, free, and enduring. We know less about Miss Mary P. Carr. There were Carrs in Bristol, and Carrs right around the corner from Saint Mark’s, on Water Street in Warren. Ruth and Hannah funded a William Carr and a George Carr as life members of ACS. 

The context points to female agency. A woman, Miss Mary P. Carr, commissioned the window to honor two other women, Hannah Gibbs and Ruth Bourne DeWolf. The composition of the figural elements has not been found in other work by the Sharp studio and the hand of the artist has also not been identified. If an individual was hired as an artist by the studio for this specific commission, working with a female client, might it be possible that the artist was also female? Completely atypical for American windows of the time, the window shows a strong presence of well executed landscape. Landscapes were a popular subject for women painters in oil and watercolor. Image sources have been identified. Designers of religious art of this era frequently sought models in print, and two great illustrated Bible were often cited, in particular Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld’s Die Bibel in Bildern (Leipzig, 1861) and Gustave Doré’s La Grande Bible de Tours, (1866). The designer of the Gibbs/DeWolf window used both, von Carolsfeld’s Christ with Mary and Martha, and Doré’s Christ with the Samaritan Woman. Both sources were substantially altered, each change emphasizing equality and inclusion. In Luke’s Gospel (10:38-42), Christ admonishes Martha for being preoccupied with material preparation for receiving guests, and praises Mary, sitting immobile at his feet so that she can listen. In the window, however, service and contemplation are equally praised. Christ sits to the right; Martha standing and Mary sitting are on an equilateral axis with Christ. Like the medieval monastic tenet of ora et labora (prayer and labor), both are seen as vital elements of society. The designer alters the composition to achieve more verticality and shows Mary looking directly at Christ, with the self-confidence of someone fully engaged. In the scene at the well, Christ is on the level of the Samaritan woman, making the figures seem more parallel and in direct conversation. 

On 11 November 1878, the window was included in Reverend W. M. Ackley’s ‘Historical Discourse delivered in Saint Mark’s Church,’ marking the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the parish. Indeed, although not mentioned in the address, the year 1878 marked fifteen years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed ‘all persons held as slaves’ in the Southern States. The window’s commissioning in 1877 may possibly be related to Congress’s Compromise of 1877 that effectively ended the efforts of the Reconstruction after the Civil War.((Keith Ian Polakoff, The Politics of Inertia: The Election of 1876 and the End of Reconstruction, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1973.)) States were henceforth empowered to ignore the civil and political rights of Black people, leading to the ‘Jim Crow’ era of racial segregation in Southern States. 

Reverend Ackley does acknowledge value in Miss Carr’s recent gift of the window: ‘On August 19th [1877], permission was given to Miss Mary P. Carr to place a stained window in the church in memory of Mrs. Hannah Gibbs and Mrs. Ruth B. DeWolf. This window, which was completed and put in place a few months ago, contributes very greatly to the ornamentation of the church interior, and, as well, in the peculiar fitness of the scripture scenes portrayed, as in the exquisite beauty of the workmanship, is a most suitable expression of those Christian characters in whose memory it has been erected.’

What is the peculiar fitness? What, exactly, is being suitably expressed? Sisterhood? Collaboration? Women’s work? Women’s agency? And in memory of which Christian characters exactly has it been erected: Ruth and Hannah’s character? Mary and Martha’s? Christ and the Samaritan woman’s? Who are each of those biblical women, and why did Miss Carr, and the Reverend Ackley, see ‘suitable expression’ of Ruth’s and Hannah’s character in them? 

Of the four other windows in the church, all made between 1868 and 1880, three represent subjects that are decidedly white, masculine, and solitary. The church’s first stained glass window (Sharp Studio, 1868) represents Christ as Salvator Mundi (Fig. 7) white, standing alone, rigid, staring fixedly and holding an orb. In 1874, Widow Abbott gave a window in memory of Navy Lt. Commander Abbott; all that is left today is geometric patterning and an anchor. In a third window (Fig. 8) given in memory of Bishop George Randall in 1875, a solitary white male Christian knight, alone in space with helmet and shield nearby, was said by Reverend Ackley to signify ‘dauntless courage.’ A later chancel window, by J. & R. Lamb of 1880, shows the Holy Family flanked by angels and the three Magi (Fig. 9). A white infant Christ is the central focus, surrounded by adoration. All faces are white, save the light brown face of one of the Magi, presumably Balthazar, referred to in correspondence between the parish and J. & R. Lamb studio as ‘The Moor.’

Fig 7. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Salvator Mundi, 1868, detail, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 7. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Salvator Mundi, 1868, detail, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 8. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Christian Knight (Bishop George Randall window), 1875, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 8. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Christian Knight (Bishop George Randall window), 1875, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 9. J. & R. Lamb Studio, Adoration of the Magi with Angels, 1880, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 9. J. & R. Lamb Studio, Adoration of the Magi with Angels, 1880, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

The biblical figures in the Gibbs/DeWolf window are not white or solitary or masculine. Christ is not alone, abstract and/or in majesty; he is seated, in intimate dialogue. The women are rendered as physical beings, people with bodies, cloaked in quotidian garb—Martha bearing loaves, Mary crouched and rapt, the Samaritan woman carrying her water vessel. The imagery speaks to the power of encounter, the action of listening, and stories that foreground women in dialogue at moments of insight: Martha choosing service; Mary choosing contemplation; the Samaritan woman seeing not just utility but eternality in ‘living’ water. One wonders if any of the northern individuals involved in making the window were familiar with a currently well-known traditional spiritual ‘Jesus Met the Woman at the Well?’((Recorded by many singers, including Mahalia Jackson (1928-1971) throughout her career and by Peter, Paul and Mary in 1965.))

Fig 10. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail of landscape behind Christ at the home of Mary and Martha, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Fig 10. Henry E. Sharp Studio, Gibbs and DeWolf window, 1878, detail of landscape behind Christ at the home of Mary and Martha, former St. Mark’s Church (Photo Michel M. Raguin)

Nor are the figures in the Gibbs/DeWolf window set in nondescript architectural vacuums, as their heroic male counterparts are. The figures are strikingly depicted outdoors. In the compact lower medallion, the stone well between Christ and the Samaritan woman is in the foreground; mountain ranges flank them, and a desert recedes across the valley floor (Fig. 6). Three columns – pillars of dust? smoke? salt? foreshadowing of Golgotha? – rise on the arid horizon. In the larger panel, a body of water stretches to the distance behind Martha, Mary and Christ (Fig. 10). Is it the Jordan? Bethany, where Mary, Martha, and their brother Lazarus lived, is on the West Bank; its Arabic name, Al-ʿAyzariyyah, is derived from Lazarus’ name. At the edge of the water, a cliff rises. On its crest is a city; by geographic logic likely Jerusalem; by prophetic or mystical thought, perhaps a New Jerusalem, a promised land still unattained. 

The Arnolds are eager to have this window reach a broader public and look to donate it to an appropriate institution. The window measures 152.5 cm x 366 cm (60 ins. x 144 ins.) and a suitable independent frame illuminated by LED panels is being developed. Working closely with Dr Raguin, the Arnolds are creating a network of collaborators for researching, documenting, displaying, sharing, and interpreting the window, as widely as possible. They welcome and invite discussions that shape public programs.

The Authors 

The Arnolds (hpastudio@gmail.com) are educators and designers. They have led groundbreaking research, education, and outreach on water security and climate adaptation for 25 years and have taught in architecture and landscape programs at UCLA, USC, Berkeley, and other institutions. 

Virginia Raguin, Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, College of the Holy Cross (vraguin@holycross.edu) has published widely on stained glass from medieval times to the present and has an online book on stained glass programs in the United States from the 1840’s through the 1940’s.

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