Stained-glass window with depiction of dark-skinned Jesus stirs debate on race (2023)


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Scientists have found a hidden chapter of Bible text written more than 1,500 years ago. They uncovered the scripture after applying ultraviolet light to a manuscript about ancient Christian stories and hymns housed at the Vatican library.

WARREN, R.I. — A nearly 150-year-old stained-glass church window that depicts a dark-skinned Jesus Christ interacting with women in New Testament scenes has stirred up questions about race, Rhode Island’s role in the slave trade and the place of women in 19th century New England society.

The window installed at the long-closed St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Warren in 1878 is the oldest known public example of stained glass on which Christ is depicted as a person of color that one expert has seen.

Stained-glass window with depiction of dark-skinned Jesus stirs debate on race (1)

“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.”

The 12-foot-tall, 5-foot-wide window depicts two biblical passages in which women, also painted with dark skin, appear as equals to Christ. One shows Christ in conversation with Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, from the Gospel of Luke. The other shows Christ speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well from the Gospel of John.

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The window made by the Henry E. Sharp studio in New York had largely been forgotten until a few years ago, when Hadley Arnold and her family bought the 4,000-square-foot Greek Revival church building, which opened in 1830 and closed in 2010, to convert into their home.

Stained-glass window with depiction of dark-skinned Jesus stirs debate on race (2)

When four stained-glass windows were removed in 2020 to be replaced with clear glass, Arnold took a closer look. It was a cold winter’s day with the sunlight shining at just the right angle and she was stunned by what she saw in one of them: The human figures had dark skin.

“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.

(Video) Jeremiah 16:19: Dark-skinned Jesus On Stained Glass Prompts Debate On Christ's Race

The window has now been scrutinized by scholars, historians and experts trying to determine the motivations of the artist, the church and the woman who commissioned the window in memory of her two aunts, both of whom married into families that had been involved in the slave trade.

“Is this repudiation? Is this congratulations? Is this a secret sign?” said Arnold.

Raguin and other experts confirmed that the skin tones — in black and brown paint on milky white glass that was fired in an oven to set the image — were original and deliberate. The piece shows some signs of aging but remains in very good condition, she said.

But does it depict a Black Jesus? Arnold doesn’t feel comfortable using that term, preferring to say it depicts Christ as a person of color, probably Middle Eastern, which she says would make sense, given where the Galilean Jewish preacher was from.

Others think it’s open to interpretation.

“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.

Warren’s economy had been based on the building and outfitting of ships, some used in the slave trade, according to the town history. And although there are records of enslaved people in town before the Civil War, the racial makeup of St. Mark’s was likely mostly if not all white.

The window was commissioned by a Mary P. Carr in honor of two women, apparently her late aunts, whose names appear on the glass, Arnold said. Mrs. H. Gibbs and Mrs. R. B. DeWolf were sisters, and both married into families involved in the slave trade. The DeWolf family made a fortune as one of the nation’s leading slave-trading families; Gibbs married a sea captain who worked for the DeWolfs.

Both women had been listed as donors to the American Colonization Society, founded to support the migration of freed slaves to Liberia in Africa.

The controversial effort was overwhelmingly rejected by Black people in America, leading many former supporters to become abolitionists instead. DeWolf also left money in her will to found another church in accord with egalitarian principles, according to the research.

Another clue is the timing, Arnold said. The window was commissioned at a critical juncture of U.S. history when supporters of Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and their Southern Democrat opponents agreed to settle the 1876 presidential election with what is known as the Compromise of 1877, which essentially ended Reconstruction-era efforts to grant and protect the legal rights of formerly enslaved Black people.

Stained-glass window with depiction of dark-skinned Jesus stirs debate on race (3)

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

Arnold hopes to find a museum, college or other institution that can preserve and display the window for academic study and public appreciation.

“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.”

How St. Francis created the Nativity scene, with a miraculous event in 1223

Nativity scenes have been displayed for hundreds of years

Stained-glass window with depiction of dark-skinned Jesus stirs debate on race (4)

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The earliest biblical descriptions do not mention the presence of any barnyard animals, that are part of Nativity displays today.Oscar Llerena/Flickr,CC BY-NC-ND

Around the Christmas season, it is common to see a display of the Nativity scene: a small manger with the baby Jesus and his family, shepherds, the three wise men believed to have visited Jesus after his birth and several barnyard animals.

One might ask, what are the origins of this tradition?

Biblical descriptions offer details of birth

The earliest biblical descriptions, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, written between A.D. 80 and 100, offer details of Jesus’ birth, including that he was born in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod.

The Gospel of Lukesaysthat when the shepherds went to Bethlehem, they “found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.”Matthewtells the story of the three wise men, or Magi, who “fell down” in worship and offered gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

But as myresearch on the relationship between the New Testament and the development of popular Christian traditionsshows, the earliest biblical descriptions do notmention the presence of any animals. Animals first start to appear in religious texts around the seventh century.

A series of early Christian stories that informed popular religious devotion, including what’s known as the Infancy Gospel of Matthew, attempted to fill in the gap between Christ’s infancy and the beginning of his public ministry. This text was thefirst to mentionthe presence of animals at Jesus’ birth. It described how the “most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him.”

This description, subsequently cited in several medieval Christian texts, created the Christmas story popular today.

St. Francis of Assisi credited with first nativity scene

Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy

St. Francis of Assisi preparing the Christmas crib at Greccio.Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Assisi, Italy

But the Nativity scene now recreated in town squares and churches worldwide was originally conceived by St. Francis of Assisi.

Much of what scholars know about Francis comes from “Life of St. Francis,” written by the 13th-century theologian and philosopher St. Bonaventure.

Francis wasborn into a merchant familyin the Umbrian town of Assisi, in modern-day Italy, around 1181. But Francis rejected his family wealth early in his life and cast off his garments in the public square.

In 1209, hefounded the mendicant order of the Franciscans, a religious group that dedicated themselves to works of charity. Today, Franciscans minister by serving the material and spiritual needs of the poor and socially marginalized.

According to Bonaventure, Francis in 1223 sought permission from Pope Honorious III to do something “for the kindling of devotion” to the birth of Christ. As part of his preparations, Francis “made ready a manger, and bade hay, together with an ox and an ass,” in the small Italian town of Greccio.

One witness, among the crowd that gathered for this event, reported that Francis included a carved doll which cried tears of joy and “seemed to be awakened from sleep when the blessed Father Francis embraced Him in both arms.”

This miracle of the crying doll moved all who were present, Bonaventure writes. But Francis made another miracle happen, too: The hay that the child lay in healed sick animals and protected people from disease.

Nativity imagery proliferates in art


The Nativity story continued to expand within Christian devotional culture well after Francis’ death. In 1291, Pope Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, ordered that a permanent Nativity scene be erected at Santa Maria Maggiore, the largest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Rome.

Nativity imagery dominated Renaissance art.

This first living Nativity scene – which was famously depicted by Italian Renaissance painter Giotto di Bondone in the Arena Chapel of Padua, Italy – ushered in a new tradition of staging the birth of Christ.

In the tondo, a circular painting of the Adoration of the Magi by 15th-century painters Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, not only are there sheep, a donkey, a cow and an ox, there is even a colorful peacock that peers over the top of the manger to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

Nativity scenes take a political turn

Stained-glass window with depiction of dark-skinned Jesus stirs debate on race (7)

After the birth of Jesus, King Herod, feeling as though his power was threatened by Jesus, ordered the execution of all boys under two years old. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were forced to flee to Egypt.

In an acknowledgment that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees themselves, in recent years,some churcheshave used their Nativity scenes as a form of political activism to comment on the need for immigrant justice. Specifically, these “protest nativities” have criticized President Donald Trump’s 2018 executive order on family separation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

For example, in 2018, a church in Dedham, Massachusetts, placed baby Jesus, representing immigrant children, in a cage. This year, atClaremont United Methodist Churchin California, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus have all been placed in separate barbed-wire cages in their outdoor Nativity scene.

These displays, which call attention to the plight of immigrants and asylum seekers, bring the Christian tradition into the 21st century.

Stained-glass window with depiction of dark-skinned Jesus stirs debate on race (8)

Vanessa Corcoran does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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Stained-glass window with depiction of dark-skinned Jesus stirs debate on race? ›

WARREN, R.I. — A nearly 150-year-old stained-glass church window that depicts a dark-skinned Jesus Christ interacting with women in New Testament scenes has stirred up questions about race, Rhode Island's role in the slave trade and the place of women in 19th century New England society.

What do the stained glass windows symbolize? ›

Black stood for death, blue stood for heavenly love and the Virgin Mary, and brown stood for spiritual death. Grey stood for mourning, and green stood for charity. Purple signified royalty and God the Father, while red stood for love, hate and martyred saints.

Why are the stained glass windows sometimes called the poor man's Bible? ›

Did you know that stained glass windows were, for many years, referred to as “the poor man's Bible?” That's because people, especially during the Middle Ages, were mostly illiterate and relied on their local priest to tell them stories of faith since he could read and had a Bible.

Is stained glass mentioned in Bible? ›

Does the Bible mention them? A: No, not really. Though the Bible does mention glass in some of its oldest books (Job 28:17), and we are told that there is glass in heaven (Revelation 4:6), there is no biblical mandate requiring stained glass windows in churches, if that's what you mean.

What was Jesus real name? ›

Jesus' name in Hebrew was “Yeshua” which translates to English as Joshua.

What does stained glass represent in the Bible? ›

Stained glass has often been used to tell the story of the Bible. Such windows draw us to the one who is the Light of the world. The Gospel of John teaches that in Him was life; and the life was the light of men. What better way to be drawn to this light than through light shining through stained glass.

What was the purpose of using stained glass windows during the Gothic period? ›

At the heart of Gothic architecture are giant and elaborate stained glass windows, colorfully and artfully depicting Biblical scenes for all to see. Glass craftsmen took spiritual and religious ideology and utilized windows to tell stories to the people who would see them.

What does glass darkly mean in the Bible? ›

To see “through a glass” — a mirror — “darkly” is to have an obscure or imperfect vision of reality. The expression comes from the writings of the Apostle Paul; he explains that we do not now see clearly, but at the end of time, we will do so.

What Scripture says about seeing through a glass darkly? ›

1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

What is the real reason old churches have stained glass? ›

There are a few reasons for this. In doing so, they are honoring and preserving religious history. Another reason is that the textures and colors of the glass offer a unique type of privacy that conceals the contents of a room without blocking light. This helps people feel more comfortable.

Is stained glass a religious symbol? ›

The light that passes through stained glass windows is often seen as a symbol of the divine light of God. This light can represent many different things, such as hope, truth, love, and life. It's also a symbol of Christ himself, as he is often referred to as the "Light of the World."

What religion is stained glass? ›

Stained glass gained recognition as a Christian art form sometime in the fourth century as Christians began to build churches. The spread of Christianity throughout Europe is directly related to the expansion of stained glass across the globe and made stained glass the dominant art form of the new millennium.

Are stained glass windows a Catholic thing? ›

Indeed, stained glass windows are utilized in Catholic churches to help bridge the gap between the earthly and the divine. Offering viewers an ethereal experience of color and light, this glass remains beloved even centuries after first installed!

What was Jesus last name? ›

Jesus is sometimes referred to as Jesus Christ, and some people assume that Christ is Jesus' last name. But Christ is actually a title, not a last name. So if Christ isn't a last name, what was Jesus' last name? The answer is Jesus didn't have a formal last name or surname like we do today.

What was Jesus name before he was Jesus? ›

Jesus' name in Hebrew was “Yeshua” which translates to English as Joshua.

What was God's real name? ›

Jehovah (/dʒɪˈhoʊvə/) is a Latinization of the Hebrew יְהֹוָה‎ Yəhōwā, one vocalization of the Tetragrammaton יהוה‎ (YHWH), the proper name of the God of Israel in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.

Why do Christians use stained glass windows to worship? ›

To sum it up, stained glass windows are omnipresent in churches because they're used to depict Biblical individuals, groups of people, stories, and/or moralizing images. Churchgoers can “use” them to contemplate their faith and apply what they see to their everyday lives.

What is the stained glass analogy? ›

"People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within." Loading your audio article.

Why the Gothic churches used large stained glass windows with biblical scenes? ›

They were particularly important in the High Gothic cathedrals, most famously in Chartres Cathedral. Their function was to fill the interior with a mystical colored light, representing the Holy Spirit, and also to illustrate the stories of the Bible for the large majority of the congregation who could not read.

Why were stained glass windows important for most Christians in medieval Europe? ›

Stained glass windows were used in churches to enhance their beauty and to inform the viewer through narrative or symbolism. The subject matter was generally religious in churches, though "portraits" and heraldry were often included, and many narrative scenes give valuable insights into the medieval world.

What are some interesting facts about stained glass? ›

'Stained glass' is so-called because of the silver stain usually applied to the side of the glass which faces the outside. When the glass is fired, the stain turns a yellowy-gold colour. During the English Reformation, many stained glass windows were smashed and destroyed as part of the 1547 Injunctions against images.

What three roles did stained glass windows play in Gothic cathedrals? ›

Stained glass windows played a huge role in Gothic cathedrals by illuminating the interior with colourful light, educating illiterate worshippers with narrative and creating an overall positive atmosphere in cathedrals. Flying buttresses are external arches that are high up on the cathedral.

Where in the Bible does it say their minds are darkened? ›

18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.

Where in the Bible does it say their eyes were darkened? ›

Romans 11:10 King James Version (KJV)

Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, And bow down their back alway.

Where in the Bible does it say everything in the dark will come to light? ›

Luke 12:2-3 New Century Version (NCV)

Everything that is hidden will be shown, and everything that is secret will be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in an inner room will be shouted from the housetops.

What happened in through the glass darkly? ›

A year after Charlie's daughter disappears, another girl from Elrod, Georgia goes missing. Convinced there is a connection, Charlie draws suspicion and contempt from local law enforcement and townspeople as she stops at nothing to expose its darkest and most devastating secret.

What Scripture says about looking through a window? ›

Matthew 6:22-24 In-Context

22 "Your eyes are windows into your body. If you open your eyes wide in wonder and belief, your body fills up with light. 23 If you live squinty-eyed in greed and distrust, your body is a dank cellar. If you pull the blinds on your windows, what a dark life you will have!

How does through a glass darkly end? ›

The story ends with a discussion of how God is love, a question further explored in Winter Light, which asks if understanding God is as simple as that. One Winter Light character mocks the idea of God as love, quoting the end of Through a Glass Darkly exactly.

Do stained glass windows in cathedrals tell Bible stories? ›

Because illiteracy was widespread, stained-glass windows could be a means of telling the biblical story, depicting episodes from the Bible and portraying the biblical authors.

Do Baptist churches have stained glass? ›

Baptist churches are usually very simply decorated. They may have stained glass windows and wall hangings, but no depictions of Christ, and the decorations they do have will usually be very modest.

Did Muslims use stained glass? ›

In Jerusalem's Islamic architecture, stained glass is mainly used as an ornamental feature in the interior design of mosques and madrasas (theological institutions) like the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque. Light penetrating through colored glass projects the lavish patterns on the interior surfaces.

What culture is stained glass? ›

In Europe, the art of stained glass reached its height between 1150 and 1500, when magnificent windows were created for great cathedrals. Most of what is known about medieval stained-glass making comes from a twelfth-century German monk who called himself Theophilus.

Who created stained glass in churches? ›

The Anglo-Saxons may have been making stained glass windows, using coloured glass and lead, but essentially, stained glass as we know it was a medieval art form which was widely used in gothic architecture.

Which church has the most stained glass? ›

The stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral are held to be one of the best-preserved and most complete set of medieval stained glass, notably celebrated for their colours, especially their cobalt blue.

What is the glass ceiling effect in religion? ›

This concept revolves around the apparent difficulty for women who seek to gain a role within church leadership. The use of the term "stained-glass ceiling" is metaphorical, indicating a certain level of power or authority within structures that women tend not to rise above within church hierarchies.

Why do churches face east? ›

History. The first Christians faced east when praying, likely an outgrowth of the ancient Jewish custom of praying in the direction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Due to this established custom, Tertullian says some non-Christians thought they worshipped the sun.

What was the first church with stained glass windows? ›

Medieval History

The oldest complete stained glass windows were those of Augsburg Cathedral in Germany, constructed in the late 11th century. The Medieval church funded most of the stained glass windows of the time. Abbot Suger of Saint Denis was a famous patron of stained glass art and lived just outside of Paris.

What are stained glass windows in churches called? ›

What is the stained glass in churches called? Stained glass in churches is often called Cathedral glass. It is colored glass, often in the windows of religious buildings. Artists arrange small pieces of glass to create patterns or images. They're traditionally held together by lead and supported by a rigid frame.

What was Jesus name before he died? ›

Name and title

Thus, in his lifetime Jesus was called Jesus son of Joseph (Luke 4:22; John 1:45, 6:42), Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 10:38), or Jesus the Nazarene (Mark 1:24; Luke 24:19). After his death he came to be called Jesus Christ.

What nationality was the Virgin Mary? ›

Mary was a first-century Jewish woman of Nazareth, the wife of Joseph and the mother of Jesus.

What male and female in the Bible have the same name? ›

The two most notable are Joseph, son of Jacob in the Old Testament, and Joseph, husband of Mary in the New Testament.

What is Jesus's actual birthday? ›

The common Christian traditional dating of the birthdate of Jesus was 25 December, a date first asserted officially by Pope Julius I in 350 AD, although this claim is dubious or otherwise unfounded.

What language did Jesus speak? ›

Aramaic is best known as the language Jesus spoke. It is a Semitic language originating in the middle Euphrates. In 800-600 BC it spread from there to Syria and Mesopotamia. The oldest preserved inscriptions are from this period and written in Old Aramaic.

What religion was Jesus? ›

He was born of a Jewish mother, in Galilee, a Jewish part of the world. All of his friends, associates, colleagues, disciples, all of them were Jews. He regularly worshipped in Jewish communal worship, what we call synagogues. He preached from Jewish text, from the Bible.

What was God's name before it was God? ›

In Exodus 3:14, appearing before Moses as a burning bush, God reveals his name referring to himself in Hebrew tongue as “Yahweh” (YHWH) which translates to “I am who I am.” The Church decided that this name needed to be replaced with the words “God” and “Lord” and so “Yahweh” was stricken from all the passages and the ...

What is the oldest name of God in the Bible? ›

In Christianity, the Old Testament reveals YHWH ( יהוה‎; often vocalized with vowels as "Yahweh" or "Jehovah") as the personal name of God.

Is Jehovah the father of Jesus? ›

In Jehovah's Witness theology, only God the Father (Jehovah) is the one true almighty God, even over his Son Jesus Christ. They teach that the Logos is God's Only-begotten Son, and that the Holy Spirit is God's active force (projected energy).

What is the meaning of stained glass art? ›

In visual art, the term 'stained glass' commonly denotes glass to which translucent colour has been added during manufacture: a process which reached its apogee in Gothic architecture, in the pictorial narrative windows of the great Christian cathedrals such as Chartres, Reims and Notre Dame de Paris.

Does stained glass tell a story? ›

In Gothic churches, the windows were filled with extensive narrative scenes in stained glass – like huge and colourful picture storybooks – in which worshippers could 'read' the stories of Christ and the saints and learn what was required for their religious salvation.

What is the meaning of church windows? ›

Church windows are windows within cathedrals, basilicas and other church edifices. They have been a central element in church architecture since Early Christianity.

What is religious stained glass called? ›

Stained glass in churches is often called Cathedral glass. It is colored glass, often in the windows of religious buildings. Artists arrange small pieces of glass to create patterns or images. They're traditionally held together by lead and supported by a rigid frame.

What is the black part of stained glass? ›

Glass paint (vitreous paint)

A mixture of finely ground glass, iron or copper oxide, and a flux, applied to the glass and fired which to produces a brownish- black vitreous paint.

What is a famous quote about stained glass? ›

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”

Why do churches have three doors? ›

Theologically the Holy Doors represent the gates of Jerusalem, through which Christ entered on Palm Sunday. They also represent the entrance to the Heavenly Jerusalem.


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