Stained Glass

I. Introduction

Stained Glass, windows composed of small panels of dyed and painted glass, held in strips of cast lead and mounted in a metal framework. The art achieved its zenith in Gothic building, most notably in France from about 1130 to 1330.

II. Materials and Techniques

Two types of glass were used in Gothic stained glass—pot glass and flashed glass. Pot glass was of uniform color, which was achieved by adding oxides of iron (red), copper (green), or cobalt (blue) to the raw materials of glass, a transparent mixture of potash (later soda) and limestone. Flashed glass was made to prevent opaqueness by fusing a layer of deep color to a thicker layer of clear glass while both were still hot. In painting and mosaics, light is reflected off the surface, whereas light is transmitted through translucent stained glass; for this reason, the art of making stained glass is known as painting with light.

The artist began by sketching the window's design. This was enlarged to the actual size of the window on the cartoon, which was drawn with lead or tin point on a wooden board or table that was coated with chalk or white paint; late Gothic and Renaissance cartoons were made on parchment, cloth, paper, or cardboard. The lines representing the lead supports were drawn in black. Next, colored glass sheets were laid on a table and cut with an iron tool heated to incandescence. Lines of clothing, facial features, and small designs were drawn on the individual pieces with a black or dark brown enamel-like paint made of powdered glass, metallic salts such as iron and copper oxides, other minerals, and liquid. These lines were usually drawn on the inner side of the glass and were fused to the stained glass by firing it at a low temperature. The malleable double lead strips, shaped like an H in cross section in order to grasp the edges of the glass on both sides, were then cut and shaped. Units of lead and glass were fixed to the window's larger iron frame, or armature—an integral part of the design in early windows.

III. History

The technique of coloring glass was first known in Egypt and Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC. A thousand years later, clear colored glass objects were molded. By the 1st century AD, Roman glassmakers had mastered blown glass, which allowed vessels and thin transparent sheets to be made (see  Roman Art and Architecture). Homes of the rich and even their bookcases were glazed (furnished with glass). Mosaics, too, were made of glass cubes called tesserae. Translucent and pierced screens of alabaster and glass were made in the Early Christian period (3rd century to 7th century), and colored glass windows in wood frames are mentioned in 6th- and 7th-century sources. From the 8th century to the 12th century, walls in Islamic homes were at times built with stucco-framed glass windows.

A. Early European Stained Glass

European pictorial stained glass dates from Carolingian times (9th century), according to historical records. The earliest surviving fragments, depicting heads of Christ, were found at Lorsch Abbey in the Rhineland and in Wissembourg, Alsace (now France); experts date them variously from the 9th century to the 11th century.

B. Romanesque Stained Glass

The Romanesque period (12th century), with its increase in massive newly built cathedrals, brought about the first flourishing of the art. The earliest extant Romanesque windows are five larger-than-life-sized standing Old Testament figures in the clerestory of Augsburg Cathedral, dated either 1050-1060 or 1100-1150. The center for stained glass, however, became the Île de France region around Paris. The windows for the royal Abbey Church of Saint-Denis, commissioned by the famed Abbot Suger and made between 1144 and 1151 (now heavily restored), were soon followed by others at Chartres, Bourges, and Le Mans. Four resplendent windows, made between 1160 and 1170, in Chartres Cathedral miraculously survived the fire of 1194. Three of them, all lancet windows, remain in the west facade; the fourth window, the noble Notre Dame de la belle verrière, was placed in the 13th-century structure's ambulatory.

French Romanesque stained glass influenced that of Germany and England. The most popular subjects were single standing figures set in niches, or two figures—one above the other—in the clerestory or upper story, and the Tree of Jesse, depicting the ancestors of Christ, in tall lancet windows. These themes continued to be used in the 13th century at Strasbourg, Le Mans, Troyes, Soissons, and the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Scenes from the Passion were also popular; at Poitiers Cathedral the crucifixion is the subject of its main window. The predominant colors used at this time were blue (especially for the background), red, yellow, and green. Violet, brown, and white with a green or blue cast were secondary, and pinkish shades served as flesh tones. Twelfth-century windows, in their refinement and delicacy, resembled the art of the goldsmith and enamel worker.

C. Gothic Stained Glass

The style of the 13th century, the glorious age of French stained glass, shows affinities with contemporaneous manuscript illumination (see  Illuminated Manuscripts). With the perfection of vaulting and the flying buttress, heavy load-bearing walls were eliminated to allow more and much larger windows in the church, which inspired a greater variety and perfection in stained glass. Rose windows—huge, circular multiform medallions that look like radiating wheels—were placed high in the west end and in the transepts and usually depict the Virgin and Child. The subjects of other windows are stories from the Bible and the life of Christ, the Last Judgment, prophets and evangelists, legends and lives of the saints, coats of arms, history, the signs of the zodiac, and the labors of the months. The guilds, which frequently donated windows, were represented either by their patron saints or by illustrations of their crafts. The masterpiece of the 13th century is Chartres, the interior of which is a jewel of glittering color that changes with the light piercing its 176 windows, nearly all of which have endured intact. Sainte Chapelle, the court chapel of Louis IX that seems in the interior to be made entirely of glass, and the cathedrals of Bourges, Auxerre, Sens, Soissons, Laon, Troyes, Reims, and Notre Dame de Paris are other outstanding examples of the Gothic period. A wider range of purples, dark green, and yellow hues were added to the French and English repertoire of colors.

Grisaille windows were also popular. These monochromatic panes of white glass with black or brown painted outlines were favored by the Cistercian churches, but were also used in cathedrals for variety, to admit more light, to diminish the intensity of blue or to accentuate contrasting colors, and, much later, simply to save money. The most beautiful examples in England, where grisaille flourished, are at Lincoln and Salisbury cathedrals, and especially at York Minster, where the Five Sisterstall, narrow, pointed lancet windows of intricate foliate and geometric patterns—appear to be a flickering mosaic of gray, red, and green.

D. Late Gothic and Renaissance Stained Glass

Silver or yellow stain, a new color, was introduced into French stained glass in the early 14th century. It was made by applying a chloride of silver or silver nitrate and fixing it by heating at a low temperature. Popular from that time on, the color was used for crowns and halos and to add touches of gold. Intermediate tones were added—tawny brown and olive green—and much more white glass was used. Architectonic canopies over figures in windows became more exaggerated. More portraits of donors appeared, at times depicted observing or even participating in biblical scenes. The elegant, courtly style of the late 14th century continued into the 15th century. The Renaissance of northern Europe, emphasizing meticulous attention to realistic detail, influenced artisans to paint pictures on glass rather than with glass. Domestic architecture employed stained glass, and new secular themes were introduced. Heraldry was more popular as a subject than ever before.

E. Decline of the Art

While technical innovations in stained-glass manufacture were made in the 16th century, stained glass declined as an art form, in part due to the influence of the Reformation. The effect of different colors could be achieved on a single large piece of glass by an enameling technique, thus dispensing with the need to use individual small panels of color, which had created the beauty of earlier stained glass. The deliberate imitation of frescoes and oil paintings in the 16th century drastically altered the translucent essence of the medieval art. Some glaziers still worked in 17th-century Europe, but by the 18th century, England alone continued the tradition. With the 19th-century Gothic Revival, English and French restorers attempted to rediscover older techniques.

F. 19th-Century Revivals

The circle of William Morris and the subsequent art nouveau movement brought new life to stained glass. Morris, the English poet, printer, idealist, and founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, passionately believed that the antidote to the evils of the Industrial Revolution was the return to the handcrafts of the Middle Ages (5th century to 15th century). In the company formed with his friends in 1861 to produce domestic objects, his outstanding designers of stained glass were the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Their romantic style, characterized by swirling, sensuous lines, was superficially similar to that of art nouveau artists (though the aims of the latter were different). In the United States, Louis Comfort Tiffany produced a new style in stained glass; over the years it alternately enjoyed favor and suffered contempt until the 1960s, when it began its ascendancy as high (and expensive) art.

G. Contemporary Stained Glass

Twentieth-century architectural technology has once more opened walls of buildings to artists and glaziers all over the world. New opportunities have given rise to new inventions in the medium, such as dalle de verre, pieces of glass with chipped and faceted surfaces that are set into an epoxy resin or concrete. As in all ages since the Renaissance, many of the outstanding artists of the day have designed windows, notably the French artists Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. In Germany artists such as Ludwig Schaffrath have produced secular and religious stained glass of singular beauty and contemporary relevance.

See also  Glass; Gothic Art and Architecture; Islamic Art and Architecture; Mosaics; Romanesque Art and Architecture.


"Stained Glass," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.


© 1993-2000 Microsoft Corporation.

All rights reserved.