The Washington National Cathedral unveiled a portrait of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was murdered in 1998 in an anti-gay hate crime in Laramie, Wyoming.
LGBTQ+ members of the Cathedral commissioned artist Kelly Latimore, a painter and iconographer based in St. Louis, Missouri, as a dedication of Shepard’s life, and for Cathedral services associated with the LGBTQ+ community. The portrait was unveiled on Dec. 1.
In 2018, Shepard’s ashes were placed in the National Cathedral’s crypt, and the Cathedral has been connected to the Shepard family since. The Cathedral holds events every year on Dec. 1, Shepard’s birthday. This year, the Cathedral dedicated a portrait of Shepard on the day he would have turned 46.
The events began with a 7 a.m. online prayer service led by Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. From 2-5 p.m. that afternoon, the public was invited to view the new portrait and later that evening, a service called “Remember, Reflect, Resolve” was held in the crypt to officially dedicate the portrait.
The portrait is the first painting of Matthew Shepard created with the involvement of his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard.
“I'm very honored to have worked on this for not only the Shepards but for the Cathedral,” Latimore said.
The portrait depicts Matthew Shepard in a blue flannel shirt surrounded by an aura of light made from fragments of letters that were sent to the Shepard family in the wake of his death.
“It’s a huge honor not only creating the portrait, but going through, reading all of these letters and seeing how meaningful they were not only to the Shepards, but as a symbol of how many people saw themselves in Matt and his experience,” Latimore said. “We ended up creating this mosaic of those letters instead of a traditional halo, which became this aura protecting Matt, and it became integral part of the portrait.”
The idea for a portrait of Matthew Shepard originally came from Scott Sanders, the verger at the National Cathedral. A fan of Latimore’s work, Sanders contacted Latimore with his idea, and the artist immediately agreed. The portrait was paid for by LGBTQ+ staff members at the Cathedral.
“We wanted to do this, but we didn’t want cost to get in the way, so we found a way to pay for it,” said Kevin Eckstrom, the chief communications officer for the National Cathedral.
The Shepard family gave their consent and support, and work on the painting began in March of 2022.
“The church contacted us, and we talked about what we wanted and didn’t want to see in Matt’s portrayal, and the letters came about,” said Judy Shepard. “We have about a hundred. We have a letter from Coretta Scott King, representatives and people from all walks of life.”
In the wake of their son’s death, Dennis and Judy Shepard created the Matthew Shepard Foundation. The Shepards’ initial goal was to educate the parents of children questioning their sexuality, and now the organization’s purpose has expanded to include protecting the rights and safety of all LGBTQ+ people in the United States.
The Shepard family and the Cathedral hope the new portrait will help viewers learn Matthew Shepard’s story.
“For us, it was a major event in our lives,” Sanders said about Shepard’s death. “But for younger people, some of them know and some of them don’t, so we have been thinking, ‘what are ways we can help people learn his story?’ We thought this would be a way to help people learn more about him and what happened. It really humanizes him.”
Latimore, the National Cathedral and the Shepards hope the portrait reminds viewers of the sacredness of life and the importance of being an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. Latimore’s painting is displayed in the Cathedral’s crypt, where Matthew Shepard’s ashes rest. Both are available to be viewed by anyone who wishes to reflect on Shepard’s life.
“My only concern was to keep him safe,” said Judy Shepard. “He’s safe.”
Correction: A previous version of this story contained in incorrect spelling of Kelly Latimore's name