Warren's nationally famous window headed to Memphis museum

By Ethan Hartley
Posted 12/12/23

The story of a large stained glass window, commissioned in 1877 that depicts Jesus and Biblical figures Martha, Mary, and the Samaritan Woman as people of color, is beginning the newest chapter in its long and fascinating life.

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Warren's nationally famous window headed to Memphis museum


The story of Warren’s most famous window — a large pane of stained glass commissioned in 1877 that depicts Jesus and Biblical figures Martha, Mary, and the Samaritan Woman as people of color — is beginning the newest chapter in its long and fascinating life.

During a well-attended event on Saturday at the former St. Mark’s Church on Lyndon Street, art and history experts, invited guests, and curious onlookers alike got the chance to view the thought-provoking, mysterious artifact first-hand, and learn about its new destination as an integral piece of public artwork.

“For a year and a half we’ve had conversations and have learned from every single one of them,” said Hadley Arnold, the art historian who purchased the former church and discovered the window in June of 2022, on the process of finding the right place for it to be displayed. “[URI art professor] Bob Dilworth walked into this room and looked at that window and talked about public art, contemporary art, and sculpture. And it went right through me like an arrow, in the best way. And the next place I heard those words were from the curators at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.”

The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is Tennessee’s largest art museum, situated within a city known as of the cradles of the Civil Rights Movement.

Arnold said that the Brooks satisfied her wishes for the window to be placed in a spot worthy of its intrigue, cultural importance, and a place that would be accessible by the public at large.

“They said, yes, it’s important historically, yes, in the tradition of stained glass it is unusual, and yes, it is also a living, contemporary piece of public art that could occupy a place in the heart of our community on the banks of the Mississippi in our brand new beautiful building; let us show you the gallery it will be in,” she said. “Of the many conversations that we had with museums, that went right to my heart.”

Zoe Kahr, Executive Director of the Brooks, and its Chief Curator, Dr. Rosamund Garrett, were both on hand Saturday to inform guests that the window would become a centerpiece of the museum’s brand new, 112,000 square-foot facility that is slated to be finished on the banks of the Mississippi River in downtown Memphis in 2025, located within a short distance to the famed Clayborn Temple and the city’s Civil Rights Museum.

The window would be prominently displayed in the large, public courtyard in the center of the museum, which will be accessible at no cost.

“I think the reason we are so excited about this window is the way it could become really the central work of art for our institution,” Kahr said. “There is a window connecting the gallery to the central courtyard, and we needed the perfect work of art that would say ‘Welcome,’ and ‘You should come inside, because there’s so much more to learn here.’”

Kahr said the window would be relocated at some point in early 2026.

More discussions on the window’s significance
As a quick refresher to the window’s history, it was commissioned in 1877 by Mary P. Carr and dedicated to her aunts, Hannah Bourne Gibbs and Ruth Bourne DeWolf, two sisters born in 1786 and 1787, respectively. Both sisters married into families inherently connected with the Transatlantic Slave Trade, but left puzzling legacies after their deaths that suggested they wanted to push back against the darkest portions of that legacy. The window, commissioned by their niece, adds further intrigue to that curious legacy.

Arnold said in her remarks that many questions surrounding the window still remain, and that she hoped its placement among a respected museum would continue those conversations for many years into the future.

“Who painted this? Who may have sat as models? What was the artist’s intent? What was the donor’s intent? To whom was it speaking here in this parish, here in this town in that moment in history and beyond?” she said. “We don’t know, but we’re committed to finding out the answers by working in collaborative partnership.”

Among the many people who gathered on Saturday to gaze at the window, take photos in front of it, and talk about its hitherto unprecedented significance was a representative from the nation’s premiere group of museums.

“This window provides a really interesting opportunity and window into that moment in time with all of these complex questions around race, around identity, around the connection of New England to slavery, New England to freedom, to race. And I was really compelled by that, and even more compelled by the way it’s a lens into ourselves today,” said Paul Gardullo, Curator of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “We’re grappling with these same questions about identity, about race, about belonging, about spirit. About who can embody the divine.”

“I think that is one of the most, if not the most, essential kinds of conversations our nation can have, and needs to have,” he continued. “From little hamlets in New England to big cities like Washington and Memphis and throughout the nation.”

The aforementioned Bob Dilworth, who was interviewed by this publication back in April when the story of the window was first emerging, said that the window’s mere existence might represent an act of divine intervention.

“This building was slated for demolition before Peter and Hadley took on the project. This window could have very well disappeared into oblivion, and we never would have known anything about it,” he said. “Was it Divine Providence that Hadley and Peter decided to come to this place, restore this building, and in the process discover this amazing artifact?”

“Could this be a message through time as a warning…that what happened in 1877 can certainly happen again if we are not watchful?” he continued. “I see this as a message in a bottle.”

Victoria Johnson, a steering committee member of the Newport Middle Passage Project, said that seeing the window instilled a sense of peace, love, and kindness in her.

“I saw peace. And in this violent, violent world that we live in today, what more do we need?” she posited. “It portrays a mission that should lead to an alertness for all of us. And when this goes to Memphis it’s going to be carried even further and further. And you know what? We’ll have a better place for all of us.”

Study of window will carry on locally
Reached Tuesday morning, Arnold said that it was important to emphasize that although the window will be leaving Rhode Island, that does not mean that scholarly endeavors to study its importance, and its origins, would cease in The Ocean State.

She had a local specialist scan the window with LIDAR technology to create a high-resolution 3D model, and conversations have begun to possibly create a life-size replica of the window that would be displayed at a to-be-determined location in Warren. Local research efforts courtesy of Catherine Zipf of the Bristol Historical and Preservation Society, and digitized records of this publication courtesy of the George Hail Library are also ongoing.

“Neighbors are already talking about hiring buses to head to Memphis for the opening,” Arnold wrote. “This was crucially important to me from the outset; that even if the window physically departs Rhode Island, its traces continue to activate our minds, hearts, and actions.”

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