Stained glass: a colorful history

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 3, 2004

Visit some of the great cathedrals of Europe and your eyes will instantly be drawn to their beautiful stained glass windows. In Paris, Sainte-Chapelle’s many tall, narrow windows seem to hold up the very walls of the 13th century Gothic church, filling its interior with light filtered through glowing shades of gold, blue, green and red…it’s an experience few visitors will ever forget.

Here in our own hometown, there are lovely examples of stained glass windows, including, but certainly not limited to, the exquisite 19th century German-made windows found in Saint Elizabeth Catholic Church. Stained glass is both an art and a craft that has touched people’s lives and captured their imagination in a special way for centuries…

The mystery of glass

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Exactly when stained glass first came into being, no one really knows. The technique probably came into jewelry making, cloisonn\u00E9 and mosaics. Stained glass windows, as we know them today, arose when substantial church building began. By the 1100s, depictions of Christ and biblical scenes were found in French and German churches and decorative designs were found in England.

Glass possesses a mystery: It’s a form of matter with gas, liquid and solid state properties. Most of all, glass is like a super-cooled liquid.

You take an ordinary material – sand – transform it by fire, and create a jewel-like substance that captures light and glows from within.

Before recorded history, man learned how to make glass and color it through the addition of metallic acids and oxides. It’s these minerals within the glass that capture specific portions from the spectrum of white light, allowing the human eye to see various colors. Gold produces a lovely cranberry shade; cobalt makes shades of blue; silver creates yellows and golds while copper creates greens and brick reds.

A centuries-old tradition

Modern stained-glass window construction has changed little from the techniques described by the monk Theophilus about 1100 A.D: &uot;If you want to assemble simple windows, then first mark out the dimensions of their length and breadth on a wooden board, then draw scroll work or anything else that pleases you, and select colors that are to be put in. Cut the glass and fit the pieces together with the grozing iron. Enclose them with lead canes…and solder on both sides. Surround it with a wooden frame strengthened with mails and set it up in the place where you wish.&uot;

A full flowering

During the Gothic Age, the great cathedrals of Europe were built and the full flowering of stained glass windows began. As structural engineering techniques improved, churches became taller and lighter, walls thinned and stained glass was used to fill an increasing amount of space, as in Paris’s Saint-Chapelle.

Abbot Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis rebuilt his church in what is considered one of the first examples of the Gothic style. He brought in skilled craftsmen to make the glass and kept a journal of what was done.

The abbot truly believed the presence of beautiful objects would lift people’s souls closer to God.

A sacred experience

In a time when many people were illiterate, stained glass windows not only brought beauty, but also taught lessons to the faithful. They were a complex mosaic of bits of colored glass joined with lead into an intricate pattern illustrating biblical stories and the lives of saints. It’s been said that medieval man &uot;experienced&uot; a window more than he read it. It made the church a special, sacred dwelling place of an all-powerful Creator.

Those who created stained glass windows often felt their work itself was a gift to their own Creator. Medieval craftsmen were more interested in illustrating an idea than in creating natural or realistic images. Rich, jewel colors played off milky, dull neutrals and paintwork was often crude and unsophisticated.

A loss of beauty

By the 1400s, the way stained glass was viewed changed. It became more of a picture and less an atmosphere. Paler colors admitted more light and figures grew larger, often filling an entire window. Paintwork became more sophisticated, more like easel painting. As silver stain was rediscovered, artists could realistically depict yellow hair and golden garments.

Lead lines that were once considered necessary and decorative became structural evils to be camouflaged by design. The Renaissance brought the art of stained glass into a 300-year period where windows were white glass heavily painted. Sadly, they lost their former glory; much of the original symbolism and innate beauty of stained glass was forgotten.

Stained glass became a fashionable addition to residences, public buildings and churches. Heraldic glass showing detailed coats of arms and shields on simple, transparent backgrounds were common.

Much of what stained glass was became forgotten. Some of the loveliest medieval stained glass windows, considered at the time hopelessly old-fashioned, were removed during the 18th century and destroyed.

A welcome revival

By the mid-19th century in England, a revival of interest in Gothic architecture had blossomed. Several enthusiastic amateur art historians and scientists banded together to rediscover medieval glass techniques. Pieces of glass were tested and their color secrets unlocked.

Glass studios in England made their own versions of medieval windows for Gothic Revival buildings.

The Bolton Brothers, English immigrants, established one of the first stained glass studios in America. These Gothic style windows enhanced American churches. Simple ornamental and painted figural windows were the norm until the development of a distinctive American style.

American glass flourishes

A pair of American painters, John LaFarge and Louis Comfort Tiffany, began experimenting with glass in the later half of the 19th century. Working independently, the two were trying to develop glass that possessed a wide range of visual effects without painting.

LaFarge and Tiffany were soon competitors. LaFarge developed and copyrighted opalescent glass in 1879. Tiffany popularized it and it was his name, rather than LaFarge’s, that became synonymous with opalescent glass and the American glass movement.

LaFarge and Tiffany used intricate cuts and richly colored glasses within in their detailed, flowing Art Nouveau designs. Plating, or layering glass layers, achieved depth and texture. Both men made windows for private homes as well as churches.

The process of using thin strips of copper as a substitute for lead allowed for intricate sections within windows. Tiffany adapted the technique to construct lampshades, capitalizing on the new innovation of electricity. Tiffany’s customers included some of America’s most well-heeled turn-of-the-century families, including the Vanderbilts and the Astors. The Tiffany style spawned many imitators and opalescent windows and shades remained popular through the turn of the century.

A change in tastes

After LaFarge died in 1910, interest in opalescent glass waned. Tiffany remained its last staunch defendant until his death in 1933 and the subsequent bankruptcy of his studios. A revival in archaeological accuracy in architecture called for new Gothic glass windows for NeoGothic churches. Except for church windows, stained glass remained in decline until the post WW II era. A new group of artists, influenced by the abstract and expressionist movement in painting, began to explore artistic expression through the medium of glass.

Some contemporary church windows may in some ways be closer to those early Gothic windows. Not easy-to-identify scenes, newer windows again create a pure atmosphere of light and color – a transformation of the ordinary into the mystical.

A new age of stained glass

These days, stained glass, or what might be more appropriately termed &uot;art glass&uot;, is all around us. An explosion of interest in the last three decades has given rise to many new and imaginative forms of this glowing art form. The rise of individual artists, like Greenville’s own Dale Gates, new technologies, and the growing interest in this centuries-old art form as a hobby have united to create a new &uot;Golden Age of Glass.&uot;

It is not unusual to find new homes and office buildings embellished with beveled glass entries, stained glass bathroom windows and Tiffany style lampshades. Decorative panels, like the ones Gates creates, are purchased simply to hand in a sunny window and enjoy. Marvelous hot-formed glass pieces adorn tables, walls, shelves and fill windows.

Today, we can all enjoy the beauty of this mysterious creation called stained glass.