The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington National Cathedral to replace Confederate-themed stained glass with new windows by celebrated artist Kerry James Marshall

Head Mason Joe Alonso, right, and Andy Uhl build the scaffolding used to remove stained-glass windows at Washington National Cathedral depicting Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee in 2017. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Washington National Cathedral has commissioned acclaimed American artist Kerry James Marshall to create stained glass windows with a racial justice theme to replace the windows featuring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson that were removed in 2017.

Marshall is celebrated for his large-scale paintings and sculptures depicting African American people and culture. The winner of a MacArthur “genius” grant, he has been described as “one of the great history painters of our time.” The commission marks his first time working in stained glass.

The cathedral has also commissioned poet Elizabeth Alexander to write a new work that will be inscribed in stone next to the windows, which are located on the southern wall of the cathedral’s main worship space. The commissions were announced at an event Thursday morning.

The project and its renowned artists emphasize the cathedral’s commitment to be thoughtful, inclusive and welcoming to all, said the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith, dean of Washington National Cathedral. He added that Marshall and Alexander were the replacement committee’s first choices.

“Cathedrals are never finished, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to add beauty and meaning to this place when it’s already full of so much beauty and meaning,” Hollerith said. “We are excited to have these two artists with us and grateful for their willingness to undertake this project.”

The announcement marks the latest step in the cathedral’s grappling with the Lee and Jackson windows, which were donated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and installed in 1953. In 2015, then-Dean Gary Hall raised the issue of the removal of the 4-by-6-foot windows following the mass shooting by a white supremacist at a church in Charleston, S.C.

Washington National Cathedral to remove stained glass windows honoring Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson

A task force was formed, and six months later it recommended the windows remain for two years to serve as “a catalyst for difficult and uncomfortable conversations about race.”

In 2017, after the deadly violence at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, church leaders voted to remove them, saying they are “not only inconsistent with our current mission to serve as a house of prayer for all people, but also a barrier to our important work on racial justice and racial reconciliation.” After they were removed, the space was boarded up with painted plywood.

The goal for the new windows is lofty: the church is asking Marshall to create a design that will “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.”

Marshall acknowledged the challenge.

“What you want to try to do is create work that embodies those concepts, that doesn’t just illustrate them,” he said in a Zoom interview from the cathedral, along with Alexander and Hollerith, on Wednesday. “My job is to synthesize all those concepts in a way that presents itself so that people are able to wonder, about the relationship between these windows, the cathedral, its vision and American history. That is what I will try to do.”

Alexander, who grew up in Washington, said she welcomed the opportunity to work with the cathedral — a place she has long admired as grand, holy and community-based — and with her friend, Marshall.

“We are friends for 30 years, so to have our words and images together is very special. That (opportunity) doesn’t come along very often,” she said. “I don’t know what it will yield, but I know it was not something to say no to.”

Hollerith first spoke to Marshall about designing the new windows on Christmas Eve of last year. The cathedral hopes he will finish his creations by 2023; the windows will then be fabricated and installed.

But Marshall said he has not agreed to a schedule, noting that although they have been talking about the project for many months, his work began Wednesday, when he first visited the space.

“From now, I begin to conceptualize what I would want to do with those windows,” he said. “I mean, it really did require me to be able to see the space, to see what else is there.”

A tour de force by a painter at the top of his game

Marshall added that the art and iconography in the church is already “way beyond what you would normally expect to encounter” and it is already connected to racial justice, including sculptures of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“There’s already a fairly rich narrative on display,” he said. “If I add something, it can’t be just another stained glass window. It has to be something that really adds to the conversation.”

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has donated $1 million for the windows, an amount that includes Marshall’s symbolic artist fee of $18.65. Alexander is president of the Mellon Foundation. The Hearthland Foundation has given $150,000 for the poetry part of the project (Alexander is not being paid) and the Ford Foundation has donated $250,000 for public programs.

“This is actually a spiritual transaction, not a commercial transaction. And you can’t really be paid for a spiritual transaction,” Marshall said. “To erase the need for them to worry about how much it was going to cost them and whether they can afford it, I arrived at the symbolic price of $18.65. It is equivalent of doing a project for one dollar, but $18.65 is much more meaningful because, of course, 1865 is the end of the Civil War.”

The cathedral also announced Thursday that the Robert E. Lee window removed in 2017 has been loaned to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and is featured in “Make Good the Promises: Reconstruction and its Legacies,” a year-long exhibition opening Friday, on the museum’s fifth anniversary. When the exhibit closes, the Lee window will rejoin the Jackson window to undergo conservation measures at the cathedral. A long-term plan for them has not been announced.

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