Rare Stained-Glass Window Depicting Black Jesus Heads to Memphis Museum

The only known stained-glass window portraying a Black Jesus has found an institutional home at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, where it will go on permanent display in 2026 at the institution’s new location. The 1877 work, whose imagery may have stemmed from its White patrons’ desires to reckon with their ancestors’ roles in slavery, carries a complicated history.

In 2022, Hadley Arnold, who purchased the shuttered 1830 St. Mark’s Church in Warren, Rhode Island, and began renovating the building into a family home, invited scholar Virginia Raguin to take a look at an unusual window installed at the site. Raguin, an art history professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and a specialist in stained glass, told Hyperallergic in an April 2023 interview that she was thrilled by what she saw. “This is the real thing,” she said.

Raguin and Arnold began investigating and concluded that Jesus’s dark skin color was an intentional artistic choice. The pair also delved into the work’s patronage. The window was commissioned from the New York City workshop of Henry E. Sharpe by well-to-do widow Mary P. Carr, who then donated the artwork to St. Mark’s in the names of Ruth B. DeWolf and Hannah Gibbs, two other wealthy White women from the small Rhode Island community. DeWolf married into a family that had made its fortune from the trade of enslaved people, and both she and Gibbs made donations to the American Colonization Society (ACS), a 19th-century movement that established the African nation of Liberia as a colony for formerly enslaved people from the United States as an alternative to emancipation. 

The window measures 12 feet tall and five feet wide. (photo by Michel Raguin) Credit: Mike Raguin

In a 2022 article titled “Imperfect Allies,” Raguin and Arnold assert that “however imperfectly, Hannah Gibbs and Ruth Bourne DeWolf sought to address the complicity of their ancestors in human trafficking,” noting that the window’s imagery was designed to “both commemorate and perpetuate” the women’s work in Reconstruction-era racial politics. Raguin also thinks the prominent positioning of the work’s other figures — Mary, Martha, and the Samaritan Woman — speak to a desire to express gender equality.

Arnold has been searching for an institutional home for the window since its discovery, and she stated that she selected the Memphis Brooks Museum for its location in America’s largest majority-Black city, its focus on curating the work of Black artists, and its partnerships with other cultural institutions, among other factors.

“The window is not only an important part of history, but a powerful piece of art,” the museum’s Chief Curator Rosamund Garrett told Hyperallergic. She explained that it’s rare to find a stained-glass work from the latter part of the 19th century that “so vividly speaks to issues still relevant today.”

The work is currently being restored, but will eventually be exhibited in a glass-walled gallery next to the institution’s central courtyard. At night, the window will be illuminated and visible from the museum’s public outdoor space.

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