With its vertical emphasis from the soaring pointed arches that led your eyes toward the heavens, the National Cathedral in Washington DC’s design was intended to inspire awe and overwhelming grandeur. The architects drew inspiration from the historic architectural style of Gothic medieval European cathedrals with their radiant stained-glass windows that immerse you in a dazzling array of kaleidoscope-colored light. Elaborate carvings adorn almost every surface, and the richness of detail serves a purpose – Gothic architecture intentionally underscores the notion that realms exist beyond our understanding. The Cathedral holds a staggering 215 stained glass windows in a dizzying array of ambition and wonder. Constructed as a cross, you arrive at the juncture where the nave intersects with the two transept arms, providing a space where a multitude of hues come together and blend on the Cathedral’s massive stone pillars.
I am here to see two windows in particular, titled Now and Forever; they are installed side-by-side, designed by Kerry James Marshall, and fabricated by Andrew Goldkuhle. These windows arrived after a long journey that saw the Cathedral six years ago remove the previous controversial stained-glass windows honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, which included the Confederate battle flag. The windows extolled both men as Christian Saints and were donated to the church in 1953 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy as part of a plan to legitimize the “Lost Cause.” The Cathedral’s leadership began considering the removal in 2015 when white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine parishioners in a historically Black church in Charleston, S.C. Two years later, the leadership decided to remove the windows following the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA, where a young counterdemonstrator was killed. They felt the windows presented a distorted narrative about our shared history, and it would be a sin to turn a blind eye to this sacred space. That year alone, thirty-six Confederate monuments came down across the country.
Taking a look at their own history, the Cathedral’s Windows Committee had a stated goal for the new work: “We seek to tell a story of resilience, endurance, and courage that gives meaning and expression to the long and arduous plight of the African American, from Slavery to freedom, from alienation to the hope of reconciliation, through psychical and spiritual regeneration.” In 2021 they commissioned Marshall was tasked with creating a work that encapsulated “the interplay of darkness and light, the echoes of past pain, and the potential of a brighter tomorrow.” His new panes were intended to convey a more inclusive narrative of the U.S.
Marshall masters narrative and symbolism, inviting viewers into a rich, complex tapestry of Black culture, history, and everyday life. His practice offers a counter-narrative to historical underrepresentation, as it pushes for a more nuanced understanding of identity. Equal parts homage and critique, his work celebrates the beauty, joy, and resilience of Black individuals while simultaneously addressing historical injustices and systemic issues.
Now and Forever is a different type of memorial, as Marshall depicts a scene of Black protestors holding placards that read “Fairness,” “No,” “Not,” and “No Foul Play.” Hidden behind the signs, the protesters’ identities form a crowd reminiscent of numerous gatherings across the country, persisting in the ongoing struggle for equality and justice. It is a deliberate choice, a memorial aiming to represent the collection rather than focusing on a specific movement leader. Their cause is not explicitly mentioned; this could be any day, any time, from the collective movements of the civil rights era to the more recent Black Lives Matter protests.
Marshall inspired the ” Fairness ” theme from Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor. On April 12, 1983, Washington won the general election with more than 99 percent of the vast Black vote and 82% of the Latino vote. Washington built his campaign around reform in the arenas of employment, racism, equality in delivering social amenities, and fairness. His principal doctrine was: “No one, but no one, in this city, will be safe from my fairness.”
As you approach the bay that holds these windows, you first notice the tremendous light. The lancet windows are tall and narrow, framed by the pointed Gothic arches at their tops. The lower halves of each window are defined by bubbling reds, oranges, and yellows, the energy of a movement. As the window climbs towards the top, the pans turn towards tranquil shades of white and baby blue, allowing the pieces to evolve daily with the shifting patterns of the sun and clouds.
Unable to fathom charging his standard fee to replace the Confederate-themed windows to the Washington National Cathedral, he instead proposed a commission representing the year 1865, symbolizing the emancipation of the nation’s last enslaved African Americans at the end of the Civil War. Marshall’s commission for this project was $18.65.