Stained glass is the coloured glass used for making decorative windows and other objects through which light passes.
Strictly speaking, all coloured glass is “stained,” or coloured by the addition of various metallic oxides while it is in a molten state.
However, throughout its thousand-year history, the term has been applied almost exclusively to the windows of churches and other significant religious buildings.
The term stained glass derives from the silver stain that was often applied to the side of the window that would face the outside of the building. When the glass was fired, the silver stain turned a yellow color that could range from lemon to gold. Stained glass was usually used to make windows, so that the light would shine through the painting. It is a form of painting that began over 1,000 years ago and is still essentially made the same way today.
Stained glass windows are never static. In the course of the day they are animated by changing light, their patterns wandering across the floor, inviting your thoughts to wander with them. They were essential to the fabric of ancient churches, illuminating the building and the people within, both literally and spiritually. Images and scenes leaded together into windows shed light on the central drama of Christian salvation. They allowed the light of God into the church.
The creation of stained glass in Southwest Asia began in ancient times. One of the region’s earliest surviving formulations for the production of colored glass comes from the Assyrian city of Nineveh, dating to the 7th century BC.
Evidence of stained glass are found in 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.
In early Christian churches of the 4th and 5th centuries, there are many remaining windows which are filled with ornate patterns of thinly-sliced alabaster set into wooden frames, giving a stained-glass like effect.
In the UK, fragments of coloured window glass dating to the 7th century have been excavated at sites of monasteries in Monkwearmouth and Jarrow in Northumbria. The Anglo-Saxons may have been making stained glass windows, using coloured glass and lead, but essentially, stained glass as we know it was a medieval art form which was widely used in gothic architecture.
In the Middle East, the glass industry of Syria continued during the Islamic period with major centres of manufacture at Raqqa, Aleppo and Damascus and the most important products being highly transparent colourless glass and gilded glass, rather than coloured glass.
Stained-glass windows served as a ‘poor man’s Bible’ in the Middle Ages, allowing believers who could not read Latin to learn the story of the Gospels. This portrait of Christ, now in a museum in Strasbourg, France,
is believed to have come from a Benedictine abbey in the north of Alsace, where its somber expression and harsh frontal gaze would have had a terrific force.
In the 12th century, however, the Romanesque style was replaced by Gothic architecture. Unlike Romanesque buildings, churches and cathedrals built in this style illustrate an interest in height and light. This focus is evident in all aspects of Gothic design, including sky-high spires, delicate, thin walls, and, of course, large stained glass windows.
Until the sixteenth century, stained glass was a primarily a Catholic art form and much of the precious art form was destroyed during the 1600’s by order of King Henry VIII after his break with the Church.
The 19th century saw a renewed interest in medieval churches, and more churches were built in the Gothic style – including elaborate stained glass windows depicting scenes from the Bible and other religious images. Buildings across Europe were also restored, and a trend emerged for stained glass designs copied directly from famous oil paintings.
The Art Nouveau movement made great use of glass, with René Lalique, Émile Gallé, and Daum of Nancy producing colored vases and similar pieces, often in cameo glass, and also using luster techniques. Louis Comfort Tiffany in America specialized in stained glass, both secular and religious, and his famous lamps.
In the 19th century, American artisans transformed the ancient art of stained glass into a modern art form. This approach is particularly evident in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, the pioneer of the Prairie School movement, a style of architecture and interior design that emphasizes craftsmanship and a connection to nature.
Designed by master of modernisme Antoni Gaudí in the late 19th century, La Sagrada Família is one of Barcelona’s most famous destinations. On top of its whimsical towers and mesmerizing mosaics, the ever-growing church is known for its fantastic stained glass windows. Capturing the “expressivity and grandeur” of Gaudí’s vision, the multicolor windows range in shape and color scheme, making the basilica’s avant-garde interior even more eye-catching.
The world’s largest stained glass window is actually in the mausoleum at Resurrection Cemetery in Justice. It contains 2,448 panels and is a whopping 22,381 square feet about (2,000 square meters).