The National Cathedral’s Sacrifice for Freedom Window

I’m taking advantage of July Fourth—the national holiday that unites Americans in celebrating the self-evident truths pronounced in the Declaration of Independence—to resume posts to this blog. I’m returning to Mandorlas in Our Midst with an article about one of my favorite stained glass windows at the Washington National Cathedral (photo 1). The Sacrifice for Freedom window, installed in the cathedral’s War Memorial Chapel in 1952, richly illustrates with vibrant colors, creative iconography, and essential details four stories of personal sacrifice made in the name of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The people in these stories are well worth honoring on Independence Day and remembering throughout the year. 

Photo 1, Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC

The Sacrifice for Freedom Window (photo 2) unites in three lancets stories of legendary saints and courageous Americans. An image of the crucified Christ dominates the upper half of the central lancet.  A verse from Matthew’s gospel, inscribed across the bottom of the three lancets, makes the connection between the spiritual and mundane: “He that loses his life for my sake shall find it.” The presence of the crucifixion scene also brings to mind an oft-cited verse in John’s gospel: “Greater love has no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Photo 2, Sacrifice for Freedom Window

Beneath the cross, four figures including a female nurse represent the branches of America’s armed forces (photo 3). An image of an American military cemetery at the bottom of the lancet implies that men and women in each branch gave their lives so others might live in freedom.  A skull appears at the foot of a small cross, left of the cemetery, creating a visual association between the hallowed burial ground and Golgotha, the “place of the skull,” where Jesus died. 

Photo 3, Military Branch Panel in the Sacrifice for Freedom Window

To the left of Christ, a woman with two little children in tow looks to Jesus with a prayerful gaze, as if to implore God to protect her little ones. According to Jewels of Light, the National Cathedral’s guide to its stained glass windows, the woman represents “all mothers who sacrifice their children to war.” To the right, a young soldier “shows a mixture of youthful idealism and stern realism.” He gestures, perhaps in perplexity, toward a fallen foe upon whose arm he stands. The smaller images just to the right and left of the arms on the cross depict the martyrdoms of Saints Alban and Ignatius. According to legend, both were soldiers. Ignatius (photo 4), a bishop of Antioch after he left the army, lost his life in the Roman colosseum around 107 C.E. In the window, a lion lunges at Ignatius who wears a bishop’s cope, as the hand of God reaches down from above to guide Ignatius’ soul to heaven.

Photo 4, St. Ignatius in the Sacrifice for Freedom

Alban’s legend (photo 5) starts a century later in Roman-occupied Britain during a persecution of Christians. The Oxford Book of Saints, citing the Venerable Bede, explains that Alban, a pagan soldier, sheltered a priest who converted and baptized him. When soldiers in pursuit of the priest came looking, Alban donned the cleric’s clothes. The impersonation allowed the priest to escape but cost Alban his life. Roman authorities quickly condemned him to death. The window shows Alban kneeling and holding a cross as the executioner lifts a sword above his head. Here’s a note of interest for visitors to the nation’s capital: the Washington National Cathedral sets on Mount St. Alban, the highest point in the District of Columbia.

Photo 5, St. Alban in the Sacrifice for Freedom Window

Let’s turn next to the left lancet and two scenes at its bottom. One commemorates a Revolutionary War hero. The other recalls an inspiring episode from WW II.   

Nathan Hale (photo 6) In September 1776, Lieutenant Nathan Hale, a member of the Connecticut militia, volunteered to go behind enemy lines to gather intelligence as the British prepared to invade Manhattan. According to one account, a British officer recognized Hale as he sat in a tavern. British troops soon apprehended Hale near Flushing Meadows, in Queens. Considered a spy and traitor, Nathan Hale was hung on September 22, 1776. The stained glass depicts his capture and, to the right in a smaller image, his execution.  Before he died at the age of 21, Hale uttered words that testified to his courage and patriotism. John Montresor, a British officer who witnessed the event, said that as Hale faced the hanging tree he calmly and boldly declared, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Photo 6, Nathan Hale in the Sacrifice for Freedom Window

Four Chaplains (photo 7):  The lower panel commemorates the sacrifice of the Four Chaplains. The chaplains—a Jewish rabbi, Roman Catholic priest, and ministers of the Methodist and Reformed faiths—helped soldiers and civilian crew members board lifeboats after a German U-boat torpedoed the Dorchester, an ocean liner converted to a troop transport ship. The sinking ship appears on the panel’s left side.  As the Dorchester sank off the coast of Newfoundland in February 1943, the four chaplains gave up their own life jackets when supplies ran out. The window shows the chaplains with arms linked, as one survivor remembered seeing them from a lifeboat. Others recalled that the chaplains said prayers and led hymns as the ship went down. Of the 904 soldiers on board the Dorchester, only 230 survived. Many succumbed to hypothermia in the 34 degree North Atlantic brine. In 1960, Congress authorized a special medal—the Four Chaplains Medal—to present posthumously to the chaplains’ next of kin. The chaplains were ineligible for the Congressional Medal of Honor because it was thought at the time that they had not engaged in combat with the enemy.

Photo 7, Four Chaplains in the Sacrifice for Freedom Window

Finally, let’s look at the two small scenes at the bottom of the right lancet. They memorialize Jesse Lazear, an Army doctor who pointed the way to a cure for Yellow Fever, and a consequential naval battle that marked a turning point in the Pacific during WWII.

Jesse Lazear (photo 8): In Cuba during the Spanish-American War and throughout the southern states, Yellow Fever infections killed or sickened thousands in the 1800’s. Jesse Lazear studied infectious diseases at Columbia University in New York and at the Institute Pasteur in Paris before he joined the Army Medical Corps at the turn of the century. In February 1900, he reported to Camp Columbia in Cuba to work with Walter Reed and others investigating the cause of Yellow Fever. In an act of self-sacrifice, Dr. Lazear helped prove the theory that mosquitoes carry the Yellow Fever germ. He allowed an infected mosquito to bite him and contracted Yellow Fever. He died on September 26, 1900, less than three weeks after he wrote his wife to say, “I rather think I am on the track of the real germ.” He was 34 years old.

The stained glass panel depicts Lazear standing near a laboratory table as he injects his arm with a syringe. A large mosquito appears above the lab table and the caduceus, symbolizing the Army Medical Corps, hovers above the image of the self-sacrificing physician at work.      

Photo 8, Dr. Jesse Lazear in the Sacrifice for Freedom Window

Midway (photo 9): The panel commemorating the Battle of Midway honors specifically the sacrifice made by 29 members of Torpedo Squadron 8. Thirty pilots and rear-seat gunners took off from the aircraft carrier Hornet on the morning of June 4, 1942. Only one of them survived. Their target was one of four Japanese aircraft carriers that accompanied a large invasion force approaching the Midway Atoll, two small islands located 1,073 miles west of Pearl Harbor. The Americans’ plan of attack called for a group of fighter planes to escort the slower Dauntless torpedo planes as they descended nearly to water level to drop their torpedoes. But the fighter escort got lost and missed the rendezvous with Squadron 8. John Waldron, squadron commander, ordered his pilots to press the attack anyway, knowing full well that their lumbering torpedo planes were easy targets for the agile Japanese Zero fighters protecting the Japanese carriers.

Photo 9, The Battle of Midway in the Sacrifice for Freedom Window

The window depicts a Navy flyer, eyes wide open, gazing at a scene of destruction with an American plane crashing in flames while a Japanese aircraft carrier, its flight deck damaged by bombs and smoke billowing from fires below deck, sinks. The Navy flyer is Ensign George Gay, the sole survivor of Squadron 8, whose plane crash landed in the Pacific. The carrier Soryu evaded the torpedo Ensign Gay aimed at it. After escaping his swamped plane, Ensign Gay watched from the water as American dive bombers set the Soryu aflame with several direct bomb strikes. With the Japanese fighter pilots and gunners preoccupied with Squadron 8’s unsuccessful sea level attack, the American dive bombers went undetected as they bore down on the doomed carrier. An image of a hornet appears along the window’s left margin signifies the USS Hornet, the seventh U.S. Navy vessel to bear the name and Squadron 8’s airbase. A small image of a narwhal appears in the bottom right corner of the panel. It represents the USS Narwhal and 14 other submarines that guarded the American carrier fleet as it attempted to avoid detection by Japanese scouts in waters northeast of the Midway islands. Ensign Gay was rescued by a Navy seaplane after surviving 30 hours in the water.                          

Copyright 2022 by Michael Klug; Mandorlas in Our Midst,; email:

2 thoughts on “The National Cathedral’s Sacrifice for Freedom Window

  1. Anne Richardson says:

    Mike, your discussion of the Sacrifice for Freedom Window means a lot to me for two reasons: I used to give tours for military personnel emphasizing the the War Memorial Chapel, and my birthday is July 4.I’m looking forward to your next Chartres Zoom.Many thanks for all your forms of enlightenment.  — Anne

    • Thank you Anne for letting me know what the window means to you, and I’ll wish you a happy birthday albeit belatedly. I hope your birthday was a good one!

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