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The history of stained glass

Stained glass is an ancient art form, which has definitely become less popular in modern buildings, but remains coveted in antiques. Let’s dive into the history, how it’s done, and some of the most incredible stained glass examples around the world. 

“Stained glass” refers to glass that has been colored by metallic oxides during the manufacturing process. Different additives produce different hues, allowing artisans to strategically produce glass of specific colors. For example, adding copper oxides to molten glass will culminate in green and blue tones. Once the glass has cooled, it can be pieced together to produce works of decorative art. These fragments can be held in place by various materials, including lead, stone, and copper foil.The coloured glass is crafted into stained glass windows in which small pieces of glass are arranged to form patterns or pictures, held together (traditionally) by strips of lead and supported by a rigid frame. Painted details and yellow stain are often used to enhance the design. The term stained glass is also applied to windows in enamelled glass in which the colours have been painted onto the glass and then fused to the glass in a kiln; very often this technique is only applied to parts of a window.  Throughout its thousand-year history, the term has been applied almost exclusively to the windows of churches and other significant religious buildings. Although traditionally made in flat panels and used as windows, the creations of modern stained glass artists also include three-dimensional structures and sculpture. Modern vernacular usage has often extended the term “stained glass” to include domestic lead light and objets d’art created from foil glasswork exemplified in the famous lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Evidence of stained glass dates back to the Ancient Roman Empire, when craftsman began using colored glass to produce decorative wares. While few fully in-tact stained glass pieces from this period exist, the Lycurgus Cup indicates that this practice emerged as early as the 4th century. Stained glass, as an art and a craft, requires the artistic skill to conceive an appropriate and workable design, and the engineering skills to assemble the piece. A window must fit snugly into the space for which it is made, must resist wind and rain, and also, especially in the larger windows, must support its own weight. Many large windows have withstood the test of time and remained substantially intact since the Late Middle Ages. In Western Europe, together with illuminated manuscripts, they constitute the major form of medieval pictorial art to have survived. In this context, the purpose of a stained glass window is not to allow those within a building to see the world outside or even primarily to admit light but rather to control it. For this reason stained glass windows have been described as “illuminated wall decorations”.


The History of Stained Glass

During the late medieval period, glass factories were set up where there was a ready supply of silica, the essential material for glass manufacture. Silica requires a very high temperature to melt, something not all glass factories were able to achieve. Such materials as potash, soda, and lead can be added to lower the melting temperature. Other substances, such as lime, are added to rebuild the weakened network and make the glass more stable. Glass is coloured by adding metallic oxide powders or finely divided metals while it is in a molten state. Copper oxides produce green or bluish green, cobalt makes deep blue, and gold produces wine red and violet glass. Much of modern red glass is produced using copper, which is less expensive than gold and gives a brighter, more vermilion shade of red. Glass coloured while in the clay pot in the furnace is known as pot metal glass, as opposed to flashed glass. 

Many histories of stained glass begin with Pliny’s tale of the accidental discovery of glass by Phoenician sailors. The legend recounts shipwrecked sailors who set their cooking pots on blocks of natron (soda) from their cargo then built a fire under it on the beach. In the morning, the fire’s heat had melted the sand and soda mixture. The resultant mass had cooled and hardened into glass. Today, though, it is thought that Pliny — though energetic in collecting material — was not very scientifically reliable. It is more likely that Egyptian or Mesopotamian potters accidentally discovered glass when firing their vessels. The earliest known manmade glass is in the form of Egyptian beads from between 2750 and 2625 BC. Artisans made these beads by winding a thin string of molten glass around a removable clay core. This glass is opaque and very precious. In the first century AD, the Romans glazed glass into windows. They cast glass slabs and employed blowing techniques to spin discs and made cylinder glass. The glass was irregular and not very transparent.  One of the oldest known examples of multiple pieces of colored glass used in a window were unearthed at St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, England, founded in 686 AD.

How it’s Made

1. Cylinder glass or Muff

Using a blow-pipe, a “gather” (glob) of molten glass is taken from the pot heating in the furnace. The gather is formed to the correct shape and a bubble of air blown into it. Using metal tools, molds of wood that have been soaking in water, and gravity, the gather is manipulated to form a long, cylindrical shape. As it cools, it is reheated so that the manipulation can continue. During the process, the bottom of the cylinder is removed. Once brought to the desired size it is left to cool. One side of the cylinder is opened. It is put into another oven to quickly heat and flatten it, and then placed in an annealer to cool at a controlled rate, making the material more stable. “Hand-blown” cylinder (also called muff glass) and crown glass were the types used in ancient stained-glass windows. Stained glass windows were normally in churches and chapels as well as many more well respected buildings.

2. Crown glass

This hand-blown glass is created by blowing a bubble of air into a gather of molten glass and then spinning it, either by hand or on a table that revolves rapidly like a potter’s wheel. The centrifugal force causes the molten bubble to open up and flatten. It can then be cut into small sheets. Glass formed this way can be either coloured and used for stained-glass windows, or uncoloured as seen in small paned windows in 16th- and 17th-century houses. Concentric, curving waves are characteristic of the process. The centre of each piece of glass, known as the “bull’s-eye”, is subject to less acceleration during spinning, so it remains thicker than the rest of the sheet. It also has the pontil mark, a distinctive lump of glass left by the “pontil” rod, which holds the glass as it is spun out. This lumpy, refractive quality means the bulls-eyes are less transparent, but they have still been used for windows, both domestic and ecclesiastical. Crown glass is still made today, but not on a large scale. 

3. Rolled glass

This technique can be done by hand or by machine. Glass can be “double rolled”, which means it is passed through two cylinders at once (similar to the clothes wringers on older washing machines) to yield glass of a specified thickness (typically about 1/8″ or 3mm). The glass is then annealed. Rolled glass was first commercially produced around the mid-1830s and is widely used today. It is often called cathedral glass, but this has nothing to do with medieval cathedrals, where the glass used was hand-blown.

4. Flashed glass

Architectural glass must be at least 1/8 of an inch (3 mm) thick to survive the push and pull of typical wind loads. However, in the creation of red glass, the colouring ingredients must be of a certain concentration, or the colour will not develop. This results in a colour so intense that at the thickness of 1/8 inch (3 mm), the red glass transmits little light and appears black. The method employed is to laminate a thin layer of red glass to a thicker body of glass that is clear or lightly tinted, forming “flashed glass”.

A lightly coloured molten gather is dipped into a pot of molten red glass, which is then blown into a sheet of laminated glass using either the cylinder (muff) or the crown technique described above. Once this method was found for making red glass, other colours were made this way as well. A great advantage is that the double-layered glass can be engraved or abraded to reveal the clear or tinted glass below. The method allows rich detailing and patterns to be achieved without needing to add more lead-lines, giving artists greater freedom in their designs. A number of artists have embraced the possibilities flashed glass gives them. For instance, 16th-century heraldic windows relied heavily on a variety of flashed colours for their intricate crests and creatures. In the medieval period the glass was abraded; later, hydrofluoric acid was used to remove the flash in a chemical reaction (a very dangerous technique), and in the 19th century sandblasting started to be used for this purpose. 

10 of the Most Iconic Stained Glass Examples

1.Tiffany Lamp

A Tiffany lamp is a type of lamp with a camed glass shade designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany or colleagues, and made (in originals) in his design studio. The glass in the lampshades is put together with the copper foil technique instead of leaded, the classic technique for stained glass windows. Tiffany lamps are considered part of the Art Nouveau movement. A considerable number of designs were produced, from 1893 onwards. Due to Tiffany’s dominant influence on the style, the term ‘Tiffany lamp’ or ‘Tiffany style lamp’ has been often used to refer to stained leaded glass lamps, even those not made by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s company. The first Tiffany lamp was exhibited in 1893 and is assumed to have been made in that year. Each lamp was handmade by skilled craftsmen, not mass- or machine-produced. Its designer was not, as had been thought for over 100 years, Louis Comfort Tiffany, but a previously unrecognized artist named Clara Driscoll who was identified in 2007 by Rutgers professor Martin Eidelberg as being the master designer behind the most creative and valuable leaded glass lamps produced by Tiffany Studios. 

2. Saint Chapelle Paris

A gem of Gothic style, the Saint Chapelle in Paris was built in seven years, an impressive feat. The Sainte Chapelle was intended to house precious Christian relics, including Christ’s crown of thorns, acquired by Saint Louis. Having these sacred relics in his possession made the already powerful monarch head of western Christianity. Stunning stained glass is a main feature of the building: arranged across 15 windows, each 15 metres high, the stained glass panes depict 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments recounting the history of the world until the arrival of the relics in Paris. Along with the Conciergerie, the Sainte-Chapelle is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace on the Île de la Cité. Although damaged during the French Revolution and restored in the 19th century, it has one of the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collections anywhere in the world. The Sainte-Chapelle is no longer a church. It was secularised after the French Revolution, and is now operated by the French Centre of National Monuments, along with the nearby Conciergerie, the other remaining vestige of the original palace. The stained glass was removed and placed into safe storage during World War II. In 1945 a layer of external varnish had been applied to protect the glass from the dust and scratches of wartime bombing. This had gradually darkened, making the already fading images even harder to see.  In 2008, a more comprehensive seven-year programme of restoration began, costing some €10 million to clean and preserve all the stained glass, clean the facade stonework and conserve and repair some of the sculptures. Half of the funding was provided by private donors, the other half coming from the Villum Foundation.  Included in the restoration was an innovative thermoformed glass layer applied outside the stained-glass windows for added protection. The restoration of the flamboyant rose window on the west facade was completed in 2015 in time for the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Louis.

3. Nazir Ol-Molk Mosque 

This incredible example of stained glass is a traditional mosque in Shiraz, Iran. It was built during Qajar dynasty rule of Iran. The mosque includes extensive coloured glass in its facade, and displays other traditional elements such as the Panj Kāse (“five concaved”) design. It is still in use under protection by the Endowment Foundation of Nasir al Molk. Construction began in 1876 by the order of Mirza Hassan Ali Nasir-ol-Mulk, one of the lords and aristocrats of Shiraz, the son of Ali Akbar Qavam al-Mulk, the kalantar of Shiraz and was completed in 1888. The designers were Mohammad Hasan-e-Memār, an Persian architect. Although stained glass is mostly popular in churches nowadays, the earliest discovered was in Syria from the 7th century. We do have evidence of techniques and recipes for obtaining stained glass by the Arabic chemist Jabir ibn Hayyan in his book Kitab al-Durra al-maknuna (The Book of the Hidden Pearl) published in the eighth century CE. Orsi windows are windows made of a mixture of wood and colorful glass in the Safavid and the Qajar dynasties. Orsi differs from stained glass used in many churches and Ottoman mosques, which serve as illuminated images rather than a source of light. Light is a major feature in many mosques considering it being a major symbol of God in Islam. The effect in this mosque is vibrant multicoloured light that pours into the inside, in beautiful patterns, but with no representational depictions. It pairs beautifully with the detailed paint work on the rest of the building. 

4. Chicago Cultural Centre

The Chicago Cultural Center, opened in 1897, is a Chicago Landmark building operated by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events that houses the city’s official reception venue where the Mayor of Chicago has welcomed Presidents and royalty, diplomats and community leaders.  Originally the central library building, it was converted in 1977 to an arts and culture center at the instigation of Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Lois Weisberg.  As the nation’s first free municipal cultural center, the Chicago Cultural Center is one of the city’s most popular attractions and is considered one of the most comprehensive arts showcases in the United States. Each year, the Chicago Cultural Center features more than 1,000 programs and exhibitions covering a wide range of the performing, visual and literary arts. It also serves as headquarters for the Chicago Children’s Choir. MB Real Estate provides events management for the center. The building was designed by Boston architectural firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge for the city’s central library, and Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) meeting hall and memorial in 1892. The land was donated by the GAR and the building was completed in 1897 at a cost of nearly $2 million (equivalent to $65.14 million in 2021). It is organized as a 4-story north wing, and a 5-story south wing, 104 feet tall, with 3-foot-thick masonry walls faced with Bedford Blue Limestone on a granite base, and designed in a generally neoclassical style with Italian Renaissance elements. It is capped with two stained-glass domes, set symmetrically atop the two wings. The exterior of the building is relatively simple, while very stately, but the interior is characterized by a massive dome filled with stained glass that creates a breath taking effect. 

5. Cathedral of Brasilia 

Designed by the acclaimed brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the Cathedral of Brasília is an almost crown-like hyperboloid structure that appears pinned to the ground. The building’s appearance, with its striking shape and gorgeous stained glass ceiling, is just as intriguing as its history. The cornerstone for the Cathedral of Brasília was laid in September 1958. The main frame of the cathedral was completed two years later, but then, as with many construction projects in Brasília at that time, everything ground to a halt. The Cathedral of Brasília is undeniably an impressive sight. Its exterior is dominated by 16 curved concrete columns (Niemeyer loved curves), each weighing 90 tons. These curve inwards, meeting briefly before branching back outwards and upwards to give the structure its hyperboloid, or hourglass, shape. It bears some resemblance to a white crown, or crown of thorns, in this case rising up to a height of about 131 feet. Near the entrance to the cathedral stand four bronze sculptures representing the Four Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each is about 9.8 feet tall. Inside the cathedral’s spacious interior hang three angel sculptures by Alfredo Ceschiatti and Dante Croce. These range from 7.3 feet to 14 feet tall and hang above the nave of the cathedral. Above them is the cathedral’s colorful stained-glass ceiling, composed of a series of 98-feet-high triangles.

6. Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

Since the end of 2006, Sound & Vision has been located in a spectacular building at the Media Park in Hilversum. The building itself, with its unique glass facade, impressive canyon and striking atrium is already worth a visit. The architecture reflects the mission and the organization of Sound & Vision.Sound & Vision arose in 1997 from a merger of three audiovisual archives and a museum, with the task of ‘managing and preserving the Dutch audiovisual heritage and making it accessible to a wide audience’. In order to fulfill this mission, it was necessary to move from nine locations in six municipalities to one central location. Graphic designer Jaap Drupsteen, together with glass company Saint Gobain and TNO, realized the covering of the four glass facades. On the outside of the square building you can see what’s inside of it. Drupsteen selected 768 images from the Sound & Vision collection and then abstracted them to prevent the outer walls from becoming too anecdotal. Each of the 2244 glass panels has a unique relief and color pattern. These glass panels form a kind of ‘second skin’ around the building. To enable cleaning of the panels, they can be rotated. On the office side there are completely transparent glass panels between the colored panels. In this way, the employees have enough daylight in their offices.

7. La Sagrada Familia

When you study the structure of architect Antoni Gaudí’s Temple in Barcelona, Spain and compare it to how Gothic cathedrals work, you can clearly understand the master’s intention of surpassing this style. And he truly did so, eliminating exterior elements, such as buttresses and flying buttresses, which he believed were like crutches. He also pushes the limits of the form with the stained-glass windows created for the Basilica, which are so important in creating a transcendent atmosphere and place for reflection and introspection. In short, a temple. Very often, the most colourful part of a Gothic cathedral is the highest reaches of the stained-glass windows, where there is more unobstructed sunlight outside. In the lower sections, however, where there may be shadows of trees or other buildings, the colour filter is less intense. This distribution often aims to offset one effect with the other, seeking a sort of balance, so that there is less filter where there is less light and vice versa. At the Sagrada Família, however, it is just the opposite: Gaudí sought out maximum contrast. The most transparent stained-glass windows are those highest up, so that the light can stream in and illuminate the mosaics and golden vaults that characterise the nave. However, the illustrations and texts are in the lower windows, where visitors can see and read them better. The option he chose for the Sagrada Família, however, was leaded glass, backed by more than six-hundred years of experience. The lead lines that divide the window into small pieces allow them to move, expand and contract, as well as making it possible to choose just the right colour for each piece. These lead lines, laid down between the small pieces of glass, become H shaped when pressure is applied so they hold the glass on either side tightly. In the end, both the technique and representation in the Sagrada Familia stained glass windows is unique and completely innovative for its time.

8. Palau de la Música Catalana

The Palau de la Música Catalana was built between 1905 and 1908 by the modernist architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner as a home for the Orfeó Català, financed by popular subscription. The building is located in Sant Pere district, one of the most beautiful areas of Barcelona. The Palau de la Música Catalana is an architectural jewel of Catalan Art Nouveau, the only concert venue in this style to be listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO (4th December 1997), which today represents an essential landmark in the cultural and social life of Catalonia. Moreover it represents a symbolic emotional heritage for a whole people who identify with its history. The modernist building is designed around a central metal structure covered in glass, which exploits natural light to make the make Domènech i Montaner’s masterpiece into  a magical music box which brings together all the decorative arts: sculpture, mosaic, stained glass and ironwork. The wealthy citizens of Barcelona, who were becoming ever more sympathetic to the Renaixença at the time the palace was built, asked its architect for building materials and techniques that symbolized the Catalan character. In response, he commissioned and gave great creative freedom to a variety of local artisans and craftsmen to produce the fabulous ornamentation, sculpture, and decorative structural elements for which the palace is famous. The exposed red brick and iron, the mosaics, the stained glass, and the glazed tiles were chosen and situated to give a feeling of openness and transparency. Even Miguel Blay’s massive sculptural group symbolizing Catalan music on the corner of the building does not impede the view into or out from the interior. 

9. Notre Dame de Paris 

Notre-Dame de Paris, referred to simply as Notre-Dame, is a medieval Catholic cathedral on the Île de la Cité, in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. The cathedral, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. The stained glass windows of Notre-Dame, particularly the three rose windows, are among the most famous features of the cathedral. The west rose window, over the portals, was the first and smallest of the roses in Notre-Dame. It is 9.6 metres in diameter, and was made in about 1225, with the pieces of glass set in a thick circular stone frame. None of the original glass remains in this window; it was recreated in the 19th century.  The two transept windows are larger and contain a greater proportion of glass than the rose on the west façade, because the new system of buttresses made the nave walls thinner and stronger. The north rose was created in about 1250, and the south rose in about 1260. The south rose in the transept is particularly notable for its size and artistry.

The south rose has 94 medallions, arranged in four circles, depicting scenes from the life of Christ and those who witnessed his time on earth. Additional scenes in the corners around the rose window include Jesus’ Descent into Hell, Adam and Eve, the Resurrection of Christ. Saint Peter and Saint Paul are at the bottom of the window, and Mary Magdalene and John the Apostle at the top. The south rose had a difficult history. In 1543 it was damaged by the settling of the masonry walls, and not restored until 1725–1727. It was seriously damaged in the French Revolution of 1830. Rioters burned the residence of the archbishop, next to the cathedral, and many of the panes were destroyed. The window was entirely rebuilt by Viollet-le-Duc in 1861. He rotated the window by fifteen degrees to give it a clear vertical and horizontal axis, and replaced the destroyed pieces of glass with new glass in the same style. The window today contains both medieval and 19th century glass. 

10. St. Joseph’s Church, Le Havre, France

The Neo-Gothic church was built in the 1950s in the French port city as a tribute to the 5,000 citizens who died during World War II, when the town was nearly completely destroyed. Architect Auguste Perret was instrumental in the plan to rebuild the city and designed the church, which features a 350-foot spire lined with stained glass. The church was designed by the chief architect for the reconstruction of Le Havre, Perret, who was the teacher and mentor to the Swiss architect Le Corbusier. A centrally-planned building, Saint Joseph’s Church was envisioned as a beacon for the city. The church’s single, central tower dominates the city skyline, easily visible from the city’s port. Perret’s vision created a building resembling a lantern, now fondly referred to as the “lantern tower” or the “lighthouse at the heart of the city.” Made of concrete, St Joseph’s is a product of modern architectural innovation in Post-War France. The tower is 107 meters tall and acts as a beacon visible from out at sea, especially at night when illuminated. Perret brought in his previous colleague Marguerite Huré (1896-1967) for the stained glass in the new church. Their most notable collaborations were the Église Notre-Dame du Raincy and Saint Joseph’s church in Le Havre. Huré contributed to the rebirth of sacred art in France in the early twentieth century through her introduction of abstraction into religious stained glass. She developed a style sans images or words, using color to convey her desired theme—much in the way music conveys feeling via sound. Huré and Perret shared a desire to reject decorative art in preference of constructive art that was collectively understated yet awe-inspiring and told a story or promoted further improvement/advancement. The compact nave’s architectural lines lead the eye to the altar and then up to a three-tiered, square base with triangular supporting structures. The triangular supports point the eye to the octagonal column that makes up the majority of the tower. A singular, chunky, spiral staircase rises from the base of the octagonal shaft to the bell room. Separated into 18 layers, each side of layers 2 to 17 exhibits an identical, geometric pattern made of wood and elongated stained glass. Revived in the nineteenth century, Huré used the “antique” glass making technique that involves mouth-blowing the colored glass to achieve the desired shape.  The repeated pattern reflects Huré’s dedication to the symbolic power of color and her rejection of iconographic representation.


Rarely equalled and never surpassed, the great stained-glass windows of the 12th and early 13th centuries actually predate significant technical advances in the glassmaker’s craft by more than half a century. And much as these advances undoubtedly contributed to the delicacy and refinement of the stained glass of the later Middle Ages, not only were they unable to arrest the decline of the art, but they may rather have hastened it to the extent that they tempted the stained-glass artist to vie with the fresco and easel painter in the naturalistic rendition of their subjects. In contemporary times, stained glass as an art form and architectural feature is rare, but it is still seen very often because of its predominance in antiquity.