A Brief History of Stained Glass

August 9th, 2018

Stained glass has a rich and colourful 1000 year history. Whilst many people may think of it as a bright and illustrious material that fills the hallowed halls of Churches with pretty pictures marking the life of Christ, this doesn’t take into consideration the incredible amount of artistic and scientific craftsmanship that has to go into creating such pieces.

Stained glass is made in a variety of ways, though these predominantly fall into two categories:

-A glass that is died in production by the inclusion of metallic salts in the manufacturing process.
-A glass that is painted after manufacturing, which is then fused to the surface in a kiln.

Early examples of stained glass are found way back in ancient times, the earliest of which is a fragment of blue glass infused with iron oxide found in Mesopotamia, which dates back to around 1400BC. There are also many examples of stained glass found from during the times of the Roman and Egyptian empires, some of which are stored in The British Museum. One such piece is known as the Lycurgus Cup, a 4th-century Roman creation made of dichroic glass (a glass that shows a different colour when a light is passed through it).

An expensive process, stained glass wasn’t something normal people could afford to put in their homes and it became a spectacle and the mark of affluence. As far back as 350BC, churches began using stained glass as a way to visually depict stories from the Bible, with their contortion of light demonstrating the incorporeal elements of morality and spirituality. This reached the height of its popularity as an art form in the Middle Ages as it became a simple and effective way for the Church to spread to teachings of Christ to a mostly illiterate clergy. Impressive examples of which can be found in Canterbury Cathedral, where the ornate and large windows of Gothic era architecture allowed for larger installations.

The growth of stained glass carried on throughout the Classical era. However, when the English Reformation took place due to Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his wife, and the Church of England broke away from the rule of the Pope, many of these incredible windows were destroyed. Coupled with the King’s dissolution of the monasteries due to their connection with the Roman Catholic Church, and Oliver Cromwell’s injunctions, which saw the destruction of all images that were ‘idolatrously abused’, centuries of fine glassworker’s hard graft were mercilessly smashed. As such, many traditional working methods were lost to the annals of history.

This remained the case until the early 1800s when a resurgence of interest in the medieval church ushered in a revival of Gothic architecture. Following suit, the demand for stained glass windows, and its traditional methods of manufacturing returned bringing in a new dawn of stained glass which spread throughout Europe.

Finally, stained glass became a major art form and moved out of the churches and into the forefront of artistic endeavour. In the 20th and 21st centuries it became the plaything of artists and, through techniques such as gemmail (where the glass is overlapped allowing for greater subtlety in the colour), was experimented with by famous Abstract artists such as Piet Mondrian. Since then its popularity has grown, with even 3D sculptures made from the stuff. So tell us what you think. Has stained glass shaken off its old, traditional ties? Can it be cool and modern?

Image: Robb

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