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The history of stained glass

Stained glass has long been a fundamental element in the design of churches and cathedrals. This art form dates back to 4th century Ancient Rome but has remained a significant art form throughout history. What lead up to the ornate monumental stained glass imagery we see in churches that still stand today, and how is this artwork made? Keep reading to find out the interesting history behind stained glass, and how this art form is possible.

Light shining through red stained glass window

How is stained glass made?

In order to understand how stained glass is made, we must first understand how glass is made. Glass is made using sand and wood ash or potash[1]. The sand and potash are mixed together and then melted into a molten liquid or molten glass. When the liquid is cooled it becomes glass. This process naturally creates transparent glass. In order to make stained glass further steps are required.

In order to make colored glass, powdered metals are added to the molten glass before it hardens. Artists make illustrations called cartoons that show the shape that the glass must be cut in order to construct an image. The glass is laid on top of the cartoon and cut to size. Once all the pieces are assembled on the cartoon, they are fused together with lead strips and a soldering iron, which create the borders around the pieces of glass. Artists can then paint directly onto the glass to add additional details, line work, and shading. This can be done with black paint, or vitreous paint which “is paint that contains tiny glass particles mixed in a liquid”[2]. Earlier forms of stained glass were more like a painting, whereas today’s are a mix of colored glass collage and detail painting. Medieval stained glass for example was typically made of clear glass painted with vitreous paint and other minerals like silver to create the brilliant colors.

Blue yellow and orange stained glass pattern

Early stained glass

The earliest evidence of stained glass dates all the way back to the Ancient Roman Empire, “when craftsman began using colored glass to produce decorative wares”[3] rather than stained glass windows. One of the oldest examples of this process of making stained glassware is the Lycurgus Cup which was made in the 4th century.

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The Lycurgus Cup is namely, “an ornamental drinking glass made out of dichroic glass- a medium that changes color depending on the direction of the light”[3]. This early example of stained glass amazingly when lit from the inside produced a red color, but when lit from the outside appeared an opaque green. Historians believe that gold and silver fragments in the glass create the ability for the glass to change color. Many even believe this process was an accident as there are no other examples of this dichroic glass process from the period that have such a stark contrast.

Stained glass biblical nativity scene

Stained glass began appearing in the form of windows as early as the 7th century. The earliest known example of stained glass windows is in St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, England. The stained glass windows were discovered as fragments dating back to 686 CE[3]. The original composition of the stained glass unfortunately is unknown, but the fragments were assembled into an abstract collage and placed in the windows of the historic church.

Stained glass in the Middle Ages

Stained glass has become emblematic of churches and worship, likely due to its ethereal nature. Churches in the early Middle Ages were designed in the Romanesque architecture style which was “characterized by thick walls and rounded forms”[3]. This architectural style didn’t allow the room for monumental stained glass windows that the later gothic style would soon invite. Stained glass windows punctuated countless churches in Medieval Europe but due to architectural trends, they remained small and simple by later standards. By the 12th century, Gothic architecture became the accepted building style of churches and cathedrals.

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Gothic architecture allowed for higher ceilings, thinner walls, and therefore monumental stained-glass windows. The sheer amount of space allowed for much more ornate and lavish designs as well. Gothic stained glass windows were highly detailed and typically could be found in two styles; lancet, or rose. Lancet windows are tall narrow and arched windows, whereas rose windows are round typically formed out of smaller round or geometric windows that create a larger round design.

Rose window stained glass in a cathedral with lit candles

Stained glass didn’t only appear in churches in Europe, it also became massively popular in the Middle East. As early as the 8th century stained glass appeared in Islamic architecture. Jābir ibn Ḥayyān, a Persian chemist from the period wrote a recipe book of sorts for stained glass which further popularized the craft in the Middle East. Kitab al-Durra al-Maknuna or ‘The Book of the Hidden Pearl'[3] outlined several recipes for producing colored glass. During the 8th century, the glass industry was booming in Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq[3], and stained glass-like in the west became a staple in Mosques and places of worship.

Stained glass in a grand church with gold collums

By the time of the Renaissance beginning in the 14th-century, stained glass was a standard in places of worship. Improvements in glass production however not only saw stained glass windows in larger and more ornate renditions than ever before but also saw it entering the private sphere of the home.

Glass had become more affordable, and therefore windows were more common in middle-class and upper-class homes alike. At times, mostly in wealthy homes, glass windows were “inset with small-glass panels”[2], often illustrating family crests or family stories.

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Renaissance stained-glass windows were often made from a number of techniques. Large images could be formed using clear glass, and colored or stained glass in large sections, for example, a large piece of colored glass for an article of clothing on a figure in the image. Smaller details in the same image would be painted on the glass using vitreous paint and other stains. Silver for example was used to create a gold or yellow stain. The use of vitreous paint and staining of clear allowed for highly detailed and illustrative stained glass imagery that couldn’t have been achieved using solely fragmented colored glass.

Why was stained glass so popular in churches?

There are many reasons why stained glass was so fitting for early churches, one interestingly being related to illiteracy. Because a majority of the population was illiterate in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, visual illustrations of scripture were an easy way to communicate biblical stories without the need for reading. Stained glass made religious stories more accessible and understandable to the masses.

Another reason could be the ethereal nature of stained glass. The kaleidoscopic colors produced by sunlight shining through the stained glass were surely impactful on the guests of churches and wealthy homes when fire was the only form of lighting. In particular, the use of yellow staining on biblical figures’ crowns and halos made them appear to truly be glowing when the light shone through them. Seeing the stained glass produce brilliant color when combined with sunlight likely produced a celestial quality in places of worship.

Light shining through stained glass in dark black room

Stained glass today

Stained glass windows are still used in churches today. With colored glass production far more stable now, colored glass cut in small fragments can be used to create ornate designs. A more contemporary example of stained glass persevering in popularity is the Tiffany lamp. Tiffany lamps are highly decorative lamps made of stained glass by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, founded by Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1885[3]. Stained glass while still dominating windows across the world also saw its use in wares rejuvenated in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Today it will cost you an arm and a leg to get your hands on a tiffany lamp, but luckily there are many DIY affordable alternatives to bring the stained glass look into your home. A popular DIY option for stained glass is window stickers. You can use faux-stained glass stickers for privacy, or just to add some more color to your home.

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Article Sources:
1. Met Museum. “Stained Glass in Medieval Europe
2. Khan Academy. “Stained glass: history and technique
3. My Modern Met. “Stained Glass: The Splendid History of an Ancient Art Form That Still Dazzles Today