Washington National Cathedral dedicates new racial justice-themed windows by renowned artist

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Sep 25, 2023

The new “Now and Forever Windows” dedicated on Sept. 23 at Washington National Cathedral were designed by famed artist Kerry James Marshall and feature a racial justice theme. They replace windows honoring two Confederate generals that were removed in 2017. Photo: Washington National Cathedral

[Episcopal News Service] Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 23 unveiled and dedicated a new set of stained-glass windows with a racial justice theme, called the Now and Forever Windows, that feature people engaged in a march bearing signs calling for “Fairness” and “No Foul Play.”

The windows – which are made up of four sections, each of them 18 inches wide by 6 feet tall – replace the cathedral’s former windows honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, which were removed in 2017.

During the dedication service, available on video, the Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, the cathedral’s dean, said the Confederate windows “were offensive, and they were a barrier to the ministry of this cathedral. And they were antithetical to our call to be a house of prayer for all people.”

The new windows were designed by famed artist Kerry James Marshall. A 1997 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, he is known for his distinctive style that depicts Black people in various settings with faces that are dark black, his attempt, he said in a commemorative booklet distributed at the dedication, “to make up for the absence of Black figures in Western art for centuries.”

Marshall was the first choice of a special cathedral committee charged with finding the artist to create windows that had lofty goals – to depict the resilience and courage of African Americans, a sense of forward motion from slavery to freedom and the inherent tensions in that struggle.

Artist Kerry James Marshall applies paint on stained glass to a sign carried by one of the figures in new windows he created for Washington National Cathedral. Photo: Washington National Cathedral

In the booklet, Marshall said his design features a procession of figures who are oriented “toward a process, toward an activity that is always ongoing.” He said he picked the words “fairness” and “no foul play” for the signs the figures are carrying because of their simplicity.

“Most people, when you say, ‘foul play’ they know what that means,” he said. “Most children know what foul play means. I was trying to find something that spoke to the idea at an elementary level, but that also had a sense of force and precision.”

Marshall’s paintings, some of which grace museum walls, can sell in the millions of dollars. But his fee for creating the cathedral windows was far less – $18.65, symbolizing the year the Civil War ended and the last of the enslaved people in America were freed. He chose that number, he told the Washington Post, because it represents him being free and able to make decisions “about myself and the things I do and who I do it for.”

Marshall had never before created a work of stained glass, but when he proposed a design to the special committee and Hollerith, it was accepted without change. Then the work of translating that vision into stained glass began.

He met with Andrew Goldkuhle, a fifth-generation church artisan who took over the creation and care of the cathedral’s stained-glass windows from his father, Dieter, in 2010, and together they picked out colors of glass that would honor his design but also let in just the right amount of filtered light.

The details on the colored glass are made by applying various layers of paint, but Marshall wanted to do something different than just use a brush – he created more than 80 hand-cut blocks of craft foam that would act as stamps. In Goldkuhle’s studio outside Richmond, Virginia, Marshall coated his stamps with black paint and pressed them against the glass to create the design of faces, shoes and letters on the signs. In the end he found that the paint was slow to dry and required a second coat – this time applied by hand – to make the details visible.

According to the commemorative booklet, the four panels contain between 800 and 1,000 individual pieces of glass, some large and many not much bigger than a quarter.

Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson reads an excerpt from the Rev. Martin Luth King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail during the window dedication service on Sept. 23. Photo: via livestream video

The cathedral nave was filled for the dedication service, which included three readings, two from the Bible and one from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

The Scripture lessons were read by Rep. Sydney Kamlager-Dove, a member of Congress representing California’s 37th district and Marshall’s step-daughter; and Henry Louis Gates Jr., author, historian and professor at Harvard University. Reading the excerpt from King’s letter was U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.

In remarks during the service, Marshall said he doesn’t hold any delusions about the “transformative power of artworks” but hopes that the themes of the windows he created “continue to be a catalyst for the kind of transformation the cathedral stands for, that the nation stands for and what I hope we all as members of this culture and society will embody and stand for and bring forward ourselves.”

Another piece of art, a new poem entitled “American Song,” was read for the first time by its author, Elizabeth Alexander, a former university professor, best-selling author and president of the Mellon Foundation, the nation’s largest funder in the arts, culture and humanities. The poem currently is printed on two panels below the windows, occupying a spot where information about the old Lee and Jackson windows was displayed. Over the next nine months, Alexander’s poem will be carved in stone and permanently affixed below Marshall’s windows.

Hollerith spoke briefly during the service, and he noted the role his predecessor, the Rev. Gary Hall, had played in the effort to remove the Lee and Jackson windows, which currently are stored in the cathedral’s archives. That decision was prompted by two seminal events in recent U.S. history – the murder of nine members of Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, and the violent clashes between hate groups and anti-racism counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2020 that prompted a debate about Confederate symbols in public places, including in Episcopal institutions.

He also said the windows are not the end of the cathedral’s efforts at racial reconciliation but do offer an opportunity “for us to recommit ourselves and to recommit this cathedral to joining that march toward fairness for all Americans, especially African Americans.”

Hollerith added, “There is a lot of work yet to be done to confront systemic racism, to foster racial reconciliation and to be repairers of the breach, both in our past and in our present and in the future. We’re committed to this work at the cathedral, to being a house of prayer for all people, and for doing what we can to build the beloved community.”

Financial support for the windows replacement project and related public programming on racial justice and reconciliation was provided by the Ford Foundation and the Mellon Foundation through its Monuments Project. The Hearthland Foundation, founded by Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg, is funding the poetry-inscribed stone tablets.

A new section of the cathedral website is devoted to the windows and features a photo gallery, a documentary film about the windows’ creation and other information.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.