The History of Stained Glass Windows
THE HISTORY OF STAINED GLASS WINDOWS
The origins of the first stained glass windows are blot out in history. No one really knows exactly when and where stained glass originated. This art began primarily as a Christian art form.
The history of stained probably began when Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23 AD-79 AD) was suggested as an accident by Phoenician sailors discovering the glass element. It is possible that it was a result of shipwrecked sailors building fires for their cooking pots on blocks of soda (natron, part of their cargo) on top of beach sand. With the heat of cooking, soda mixed with the sand. The next day, the melted sand and soda mixture would have produced hardened glass.
The craft carried on to the first century AD, when Roman craftsmen were creating glass windows, though the product was irregular and not as transparent as we commonly see today. The ascending and importance of churches accelerated the craft into the glorious forms that we are now familiar with.
It is known that wealthy Romans in the 1st century AD had glass windows that were not very transparent. At St. Paul's Monastery in England, founded in 686 AD, had a window that included colored glass unearthed by archeologists. Although there are also examples of early stained glass windows, such as those from Augsburg Cathedral, the search continues for the earliest surviving artifacts.
Stained Glass at Augsburg Cathedral
Among the earliest man-made glass artifacts are Egyptian beads from about 2700 BC.
Arabian filigree windows moved into Europe as the Moors entered Spain. The original glass, which appeared in the tenth century, was simply pieces put into marble or stone or glazed in plaster. To support and fortify the bindings, iron ribs were added. The colored glass attracted builders and the trend moved farther north into latitudes that need more substantial settings to endure the worst weather conditions.
Much more glass fragments were discovered from sites dated to 540 AD in Italy, include an image of Christ. Another small window, which included the popular Alpha and Omega symbols, was unearthed in France and German churches the site dated to 1000 A.D. The head of Christ became an increasingly popular image, a famous example was found near Wissembourg, Alsace from 1068.
Techniques of stained glass window construction were described by the monk Theophilus who wrote a how to for craftsmen about 1100 AD.
Stained Glass Windows at Notre-dame Cathedral
The history of stained glass is attached to the Catholic Church. During the 12th century, stained glass windows in churches were small and designed to allow as much light into the buildings as possible. Figure images from the Bible graced stained glass windows in the Romanesque style, such as Le Mans Cathedral's portions of an Ascension scene.
More churches and cathedrals dominated the art during the Gothic period. Stained glass church windows became more complex in both content and theme. Windows in churches and cathedrals became larger in size. The Gothic style varied from country to country. In Germany's overall style remained a dark Romanesque variation long after other countries in Europe were developing their Gothic styles.
During the Renaissance period came the Reformation, a newly emerging mercantile class. The mercantile class had money and stained glass windows also became more secular in themes. The Reformation not only brought the new middle class, but it also brought the Protestant church and reforms in the Catholic Church. The result was a movement away from elaborate artwork. Many stained glass church windows were destroyed by the early 1600s because of religious politics and wars. But in the beginning of 1800 the stained glass would start to make a comeback. By then, much of the application that had been developed was lost.
Art Nouveau Artist Alfons Mucha Stained Glass Window, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic
The Art Nouveau Movement was an artistic and intellectual reaction to industrialization and mechanization that started in the late 1800s. Louis Comfort Tiffany, a member of the famous jewelry family, developed beautiful stained glass windows and lamps with classic Art Nouveau themes, flowing lines with colorful leaves and flowers.
The Gothic age gave rise to the great cathedrals of Europe and brought a full flowering of stained glass windows. Churches became taller, walls thinned and stained glass was used to fill the increasingly larger spaces in them. Stained glass became the sun filled world outside.
The church fathers and monks were well aware of the ability of stained glass "to illumine man's minds so they may travel through it to an apprehension of God's light", as well convey the stories and messages of the Bible to an illiterate populace.
Abbot Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis from 1122 to 1151 and confidant to kings Louis VI and Louis VII helped bring about a revolution in architecture and stained glass which we refer to as the Gothic style. He rebuilt his church in what is one of the first examples of the Gothic style. He brought in artisans to make the glass and kept a journal of what was done. He believed that the presence of beautiful objects would lift ‘souls’ closer to God.
A giant stained glass window in the main altar of the Christ the King Seminary’s Shrine of the Divine Word, Quezon City, Philippines
Stained glass windows are often viewed as lighter transparent pictures. Gothic stained glass windows are a complex mosaic of bits of colored glass joined with lead into a complex pattern depicting biblical stories and saintly figures. Medieval man experienced a window more than he read it. It made the church that special, sacred dwelling place of an all powerful God.