A Brief History of Stained Glass
There is a mystery to glass: it is a form of matter with liquid-, gas- and solid-state properties. Technically, glass is a liquid. It captures light and glows from within. Its jewel-like qualities are enhanced by its humble beginnings: sand transformed by fire. Man learned to make glass and colour it by adding metallic salts, minerals and oxides. These additives within the glass capture specific portions from the spectrum of white light allowing the human eye to see various colours. For example, gold produces a stunning cranberry, cobalt makes blues; silver creates yellows and golds; while copper makes greens and brick red.
The origins of stained glass are lost in history although its inspiration probably came from jewellery making, cloisonné (enamelled metal) and mosaics. Stained glass windows as we know them, started to appear as substantial church building began. By the 10th century, depictions of Christ and biblical scenes were found in French and German churches while those in England favoured more decorative designs.
Circa 1100 AD, the monk Theophilus wrote the first ‘How To’ on stained glass, describing the techniques of window construction; these methods have changed little since then. "If you want to assemble simple windows, 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 colours that are to be put in. Cut the glass and fit the pieces together with the grozing iron. Enclose them with lead cames... and solder on both sides. Surround it with a wooden frame strengthened with mails and set it up in the place where you wish."
The Gothic age produced the great cathedrals of Europe and brought a full flowering of stained glass windows. Churches became taller and lighter, walls thinned and stained glass was used to fill their increasingly larger window openings. It was believed that the presence of beautiful objects would lift men’s souls closer to God. These Gothic windows were complex mosaics of coloured glass in intricate patterns. Rich, jewel-like colours played off milky, dull neutrals, illustrating biblical stories and saint’s lives. Their limited paint work was crude and unsophisticated: a dark brown enamel, called grisaille, was applied to the glass surface to delineate features giving faces and other images a three-dimensional appearance when the light shone through them. Viewed from the outside, they appeared as a network of black lines and pieces of coloured glass. But from the inside, with full light shining through, medieval man experienced a window of spectacular, glorious light and colour, making a church the sacred dwelling place of an all-powerful God.
In the 15th century, the apex of high Gothic, stained glass windows became more of a picture and less an atmosphere. Paler colors admitted more light and figures were larger, often filling the entire window. Paintwork became more sophisticated and the rediscovery of silver stain allowed the artist to realistically depict yellow hair and golden garments. Stained glass artists became glass painters as the form became closer and closer to portrait painting. Lead lines that were once seen as a necessary and decorative element became structural evils to be camouflaged by the design.
The Renaissance brought the art of stained glass into a 300-year period where windows were heavily painted white glass. They lost their previous glory and the innate beauty of stained glass was forgotten. At the same time, stained glass became a fashionable addition to residences, public buildings and smaller churches. Heraldic shields and coats of arms on simple, transparent backgrounds were common. But much of what stained glass had been was forgotten and the 18th century saw the removal of many medieval windows. They were destroyed as hopelessly old-fashioned and replaced by more fashionable painted glass windows.
In the mid 1800s, England had a revival of interest in Gothic architecture. Art historians and scientists rediscovered the medieval glass techniques. Pieces of glass were tested and their colour secrets unlocked. Glass studios in England began to produce their own versions of medieval windows for Gothic Revival buildings.
The Bolton Brothers from England established one of the first stained glass studios in America. Their Gothic-style windows enhanced churches while simpler ornamental windows were used elsewhere until the development of a distinctive American style began a new popularity for stained glass. John LaFarge and Louis Comfort Tiffany were two American painters experimenting with glass. Contemporaries, but working independently, they were trying to develop glass that possessed a wide range of visual effects without painting them.
LaFarge developed and copyrighted opalescent glass in 1879. Tiffany popularized it in his unique designs and his name became – and still is – synonymous with opalescent glass and the American glass movement. LaFarge and Tiffany both used intricate cuts and richly coloured glasses within in detailed, flowing designs. By plating, or layering the glass, they achieved a new level of depth and texture in their larger works. In addition to church windows, both men began creating windows for private residences.
Tiffany developed the process of using thin strips of copper as a substitute for lead came, allowing for intricate sections and smaller glass pieces within their windows. Since this ‘copper foil’ process was better able to stand higher temperature ranges than the traditional lead joins, he further adapted the technique to construct lampshades, capitalizing on the new innovation of electric lighting. His customers were wealthy, turn of the century families including the Vanderbilts and Astors. What is now still recognised as the Tiffany-style prompted many imitators, and opalescent windows and lampshades remained popular through the turn of the century. In the UK, visionaries such as William Morris and Charles Rennie Macintosh were popularizing glass with their own unique styles, spawning the Arts and Crafts Movement as well as the subsequent Art Nouveau and Art Deco styles while Tiffany’s work gave birth to the Mission and California styles of Frank Lloyd Wright in the US.
Tastes changed again after WWI. A revival of archaeological accuracy in architecture called for a revision of gothic windows for the NeoGothic churches. Except for church windows, the popularity of stained glass remained in decline until the post WWII era when the abstract and expressionist movement influenced a new group of artists to explore the medium of glass.
In some ways, contemporary church windows may be closer to those of the early Gothic period than at other points in the history of stained glass. Using scenes and images that are not easy to identify, they again create a pure atmosphere of light and colour, inspiring a contemplative attitude through the transformation of the ordinary into the mystical.
Stained glass, or perhaps more appropriately Art Glass, is all around us today. An explosion of interest in the last 30 years has give rise to many new and imaginative forms of this art. The rise of the individual artist, new technologies and its growing interest as a hobby craft have all lead to what is a new golden age in glass. New homes are frequently embellished with bevelled glass entryways, stained glass bathroom windows and Tiffany style lampshades. Decorative panels are purchased just to hang in a sunny window. Hot-formed glass pieces adorn tables, walls, shelves and windows. New artists are combining, creating and developing unique new forms and styles every day.