Introductory History of Stained Glass

Ancient Origins

Based on remains found at Pompeii and Heraculaneum, stained glass was first used by wealthy Romans in their villas and palaces in the first century A.D. At this time stained glass was considered a domestic luxury rather than an artistic medium. It began to be regarded as an art form when Constantine first permitted Christians to worship openly in 313 A.D., as they began to build churches based on Byzantine models. The earliest surviving example of pictorial stained glass is a Head of Christ from the tenth century excavated from Lorsch Abbey in Germany.

Romanesque Period, 12th Century

By the ninth and tenth centuries, as the demand for churches increased so did the production of decorative stained glass windows. Early Romanesque style stained glass was influenced by the linear patterning, abstraction and severe frontality found in Byzantine Art. Most church windows depicted individual monumental figures with few tiers in lozenge shaped groupings. The relatively small windows of the period were designed to admit as much light as possible. Thus, images made with predominantly red and blue glass were then surrounded by white glass. King Hezekiah from Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral, England dated 1220 and Charlemange Enthroned, c.1220 from Strasbourg Cathedral, Austria reflects the classic monumentality and Byzantine derived infused bands of color and an emerging tendency to look at the Imperial past for inspiration.

Gothic Period, 13th - 14th Century

With the advent of Gothic architecture, stained glass flourished as the expansion of immense window spaces in Gothic cathedrals demanded a new approach to the medium. Red and blue remain the predominant color choice and the tendency to fuse white glass in the composition allowing for more light gives way to completely filling up of space with ornate designs consisting of darker glass. A wide variety of geometrical shapes emerge as narrative becomes more important and complex juxtaposition of events are recorded in compartmental sequences. Decorative borders and foliage become more formalized and intricate while experimentation with more naturalistic and volumetric forms appears in figurative work. The flashed glass technique is introduced, offering glaziers a means to achieve a variety of color gradations in a single piece of colored glass. The emergence of the Rose Window at St. Denis Cathedral and Chartres Cathedral, both in France, greatly influences the field throughout Europe as providing a means to depict more complex ideas as embellishments in Biblical narrative become prevalent.

Toward the end of the thirteenth century a desire for more illumination surfaced with an increase in non-figurative windows and concentric patterning that incorporated more transparent glass. One of the finest examples of this shift in taste is York Minster's Five Sisters Windows, a remarkable display of grisaille glazing. Grisaille glazing was first favored by the Cistercian Order under St. Bernard, who found that figurative windows distracted monks from religious responsibilities. This labor intensive technique consisting of complex formalized leaf-like forms relying on an intricate pattern of lead and a great deal of painted detail and crosshatching became widespread throughout England and France. As the palette became increasingly lighter, horizontal layers of colored glass and grisaille, or band windows, were incorporated in the figurative windows. As widespread adoption of elaborate stone window tracery occurred, figurative groupings fall out of favor and the individual figure resurfaces, but now framed by architectural canopies. Stained glass witnessed its greatest diversity in design, style, palette and sentiment during the Gothic period. This diversity in approach combined with the skilled artistry that developed with the formation of regulated guilds and a wide array of technological advances elevated the medium to a position of preeminence that would remain unsurpassed.

Late Gothic - Renaissance, 15th - 17th Century

Artists arose from obscurity and began to be patronized by a new wealthy mercantile class. Individual artists were sought out across regional boundaries for specific skills and traits. Glass work was no longer anonymous and begins to be attributed to specific artists and workshops. Additionally, the depiction of artists and glass guilds within windows reflects stained glass' increasingly elevated status. Taste for jewel-like color, open space no longer constrained by architectural divisions and an increase in secular usage reflects new riches. Architecture is emphasized less as it takes on a new organic quality, foliage becomes more loose and warmer colors are used while greater attention is given to textile rendering. Images depicting secular activities such as masonry and glazing were juxtaposed next to sacred imagery.

During the sixteenth century a rise in the production of glass panels for private contemplation and personal devotion ensued, thus the narrative stained glass window now served as moralizing images. Beginning in the sixteenth century with the Reformation, the creation of religious imagery had severe penalties and glass makers had to seek secular commissions like moralizing roundels or heraldic panels in order to make a living.

Decline and Destruction

Political upheavals and religious unrest jeopardized the survival of stained glass beginning in the sixteenth century, making decline and destruction eminent. Calvinist iconoclasm ended production in the North, while Reformation attacks on Catholic churches destroyed a tremendous amount of glass, particularly in England. In 1547 the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered the destruction of all decorative glass in churches. In 1633, many of the glass factories in Lorraine, France were devastated by war. From 1642 through 1653 the Commonwealth of England destroyed thousands of stained glass windows.

Concurrent with the widespread destruction, Renaissance styles began to take precedence over Gothic style. Murals and frescoes were in higher demand and Italy was quickly becoming the cultural center of Europe. With the emergence of enamels in the sixteenth century, glaziers began to imitate Renaissance painters and applied thick coats of enamel to the surface, as if painting a canvas. Also, transparent glass gave way to heavily painted opaque glass. The more this was practiced, the more distant old stained glass techniques became. The artistry and skill, that had reached their zenith during the Gothic period, became a lost art. During the nineteenth century Sir Joshua Reynolds and other luminaries completely disregarded the medium and continued using enamel in this vein. For approximately two hundred years stained glass fell out of favor due to massive destruction, religious iconoclasm, preference for Renaissance styles, the rise in enamels usage, and a lack of knowledge of old techniques. Stained glass was not widely produced and did not again receive critical attention until its revival in the nineteenth century.

Shannon Fitzgerald

Works Cited

Brown, Sarah. An Illustrated History of Stained Glass. New York: Crescent Books, 1992.

______. Glass Painters. Toronto: Universtiy of Toronto Press, 1991.

Crewe, Sarah. Stained Glass in England, 1180-1540. London: H.M.S.O., 1987.

Freuh, Erne & Florence. Chicago Stained Glass. Chicago: Wild Onion Books, 1996.

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