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History of Stained Glass

How is stained glass made art history?

Stained glass has been used for thousands of years, beginning with the Ancient Romans and Egyptians, who produced small objects made from coloured glass. Stained glass windows in Britain can be traced back to the 7th century, with some early examples found in churches and monasteries.

A Short History of Stained Glass

Coloured glass has been made since ancient times; both the Egyptians and the Romans produced small coloured glass items, such as cups and vases. However, it is hard to pinpoint the origins of the first stained glass windows. It is suggested that the technique arose from jewellery making and mosaics.

We do know that stained glass windows, as we know them today, seemed to emerge through the substantial building of Churches. Evidence of stained glass windows has been documented in British monasteries as early as the 7th century, with the earliest known reference being 675 AD when Benedict Biscop commissioned French workmen to create the stained glass for the windows of the monastery of St Peter. In the 10th century, biblical scenes were seen in stained glass windows in churches in Germany and France, as well as decorative stained glass in England

During the Middle Ages is when stained glass really peaked in popularity. This was due to its illustrative portrayal of the Bible to a population that was mostly illiterate. This period, known as the Romanesque and early Gothic period, saw the building of great cathedrals and churches, which were taller and lighter than ever before. The great window arches required large expanses of stained glass to fill them. In this era, stained glass artists used many pieces of coloured glass joined together by lead to create intricate designs and patterns, which had enormous complexity.

The stained glass windows were complex and illustrated the stories of the Bible and the lives of saints. However, the artists were not interested in how realistic the designs were; they emphasised more on illustration and ideas. This was reflected in their finished windows, which consisted of vividly coloured glass and sometimes unsophisticated paintwork. Nonetheless, the windows created a beautiful atmosphere of light and colour in the churches and cathedrals in which they resided.

The Evolution of Stained Glass through the Centuries

During the Middle Ages, stained glass reached its peak in popularity, offering an illustrative portrayal of the Bible to a predominantly illiterate population. This era, known as the Romanesque and early Gothic period, witnessed the construction of towering cathedrals and churches, featuring expansive window arches that demanded large areas of stained glass. Stained glass artists meticulously joined coloured glass pieces with lead to create intricate designs, emphasizing illustration and ideas over realism.

However, in the 15th Century, a Shift in Style

In the 15th century, stained glass underwent a transformation from the Gothic to the Classical style. This new approach portrayed stained glass more as a translucent picture, incorporating paler colours and larger figures. Lasting about 300 years, this style was considered more sophisticated, with glass painting evolving to view lead lines as obstructions rather than decorative elements. The finished result resembled a panel painting, and most stained glass was crafted from heavily painted white panels. Unfortunately, this era saw stained glass lose its previous glory, and the atmospheric symbolism was diminished.

Despite this decline, stained glass gained prominence in public buildings and houses. Painted details on transparent backgrounds became commonplace. In the 18th century, medieval stained glass removal was widespread, with painted glass replacing the original windows.

Revival in the Mid-1800s and the Birth of a Distinctive Style

In the mid-1800s, the revival of the Catholic Church in England sparked renewed interest in Gothic architecture. Many new churches and cathedrals were built, leading to the rediscovery of medieval stained glass techniques. The demand for stained glass in the old Gothic style, as commonly associated with stained glass today, surged.

English immigrants, including William Jay Bolton and Joseph & Richard Lamb, established some of the first stained glass studios in America. Initially producing Gothic-style ecclesiastical stained glass, the scene shifted with painters John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany. They developed opalescent glass, a type that created various effects without the need for glass painting. Tiffany is credited with inventing the copper foil method, deviating from the traditional use of lead, and applying it to create lamps, windows, and other decorative items. The Tiffany style gained widespread popularity through the turn of the 20th century, inspiring many imitators.

Changing Tastes in Stained Glass: Post-WWI Renaissance and Beyond

After World War I, there was a notable shift in tastes regarding stained glass. A revival in architectural accuracy emerged, leading to a demand for Gothic-style stained glass windows in Neo-Gothic Churches. The popularity of Opalescent glass continued to decline after the deaths of La Farge in 1910 and Tiffany in 1933. New artists then emerged, focusing on creating stained glass for American churches. Despite this, the overall popularity of stained glass, excluding church applications, remained in decline until after World War II.

It was during this post-war period that the abstract and expressionist art movement influenced artists to explore new avenues of expression, including the medium of glass.

The Post-WWII Resurgence and the Evolution of Styles

Since then, stained glass has experienced a resurgence in popularity and has given rise to new and imaginative styles. This new golden age in glass art has been influenced by advancements in technology and a growing interest in learning stained glass as a hobby. Nowadays, stained glass is commonly found in doorways and windows around homes, as well as in the form of Tiffany-style lamps. Decorative glass panels are frequently purchased to hang in homes, and hot-formed glass pieces are used as decorative additions.

A Flourishing Era of Creativity and Innovation

Contemporary artists are combining existing styles, developing, and creating unique glass pieces every day. The enduring appeal of stained glass lies not only in its rich historical roots but also in the ongoing exploration and evolution of this captivating medium.

To sum up

In conclusion, the history of stained glass spans centuries, witnessing dynamic shifts in style, technique, and popularity. Originating from ancient civilizations, stained glass found its pinnacle during the Middle Ages, where it served as a vivid narrative tool in churches and cathedrals. The Renaissance brought about changes in artistic preferences, leading to a decline in popularity until a post-World War II resurgence sparked by the influence of abstract and expressionist art movements.

The subsequent golden age of stained glass, marked by technological advancements and a growing hobbyist interest, has seen the emergence of diverse and imaginative styles. From the intricate Gothic designs to the contemporary fusion of artistic influences, stained glass remains a timeless form of expression, adorning our homes and public spaces with its vibrant colours and captivating stories.

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Director at Chesterfield Window Centre | Website

In 2005, I founded Chesterfield Window Centre with a vision to redefine the window and door industry through a commitment to quality, innovation, and customer satisfaction. The journey began with a deep understanding of the market, identifying gaps, and envisioning a business that not only meets but exceeds customer expectations.

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