Mastering Geometry, Color, and Light: A Closer Look at Stained Glass Art
Stained glass has been with us for a thousand years as a design material. Its beautiful aesthetic has served as the basis for countless artworks that have left an indelible impression with their colorful, brilliant compositions.
From its humble beginnings in small Christian churches of the 4th and 5th centuries to its heyday in the Middle Ages and through to today, stained glass as an art form enjoys a long, storied tradition. Used for worship, storytelling, and pure aesthetics alike, it’s the product of highly skilled designers who must also employ engineering know-how to create the entire window.
Stained glass design is still widely popular in the present day and age. Enter any place of worship, government building, or university hall, and you’re likely to come across this form of design splendor. This is a testament to its timelessness.
Here’s the 411 on this epic design trend.
The History of Stained Glass Design
If we expand this medium to include colored glass of any kind, we can confidently pinpoint the ancient world as the starting point for this design trend. Back then, the Egyptians, as well as the Romans, succeeded in the production of colored glass objects of various sizes.
Perhaps one of the best pieces of evidence tying a form of stained glass to an ancient civilization is the so-called Lycurgus Cup, a Roman glass cup from the 4th century that’s fashioned from dichroic glass (glass that displays various colors depending on the angle from which you view it). You’ll see a red light if the cup is lit from behind, while a green light is obvious when the cup is lit from the front.
Image Credit: Johnbod
We humans were bedazzled relatively early on by the aesthetic power of light, glass, and the production of brilliant, multiple colors.
By the time Christianity was on the rise, early churches of the 4th and 5th centuries were already experimenting with stained glass design. Their windows boasted thin pieces of alabaster put into wooden frames, thereby producing a pseudo-stained glass effect. By the 7th century, monasteries and churches in Britain had already installed actual stained-glass windows. Historically, the earliest reference to this type of glass came from Benedict Bishop, an abbot who brought in French workmen in 675 AD to begin glazing the windows of St. Peter’s monastery in England, which he was in charge of building.
This medium also developed in Southwest Asia in the ancient world, with Nineveh, the Assyrian city, actually producing a formula for the creation of colored glass. The use of stained glass in the Islamic world has been prevalent, too, with palaces and mosques generally displaying stained glass that features geometric and non-pictorial designs.
The peak of stained glass design undoubtedly occurred during the Middle Ages, from approximately the 5th to the 15th centuries, when it was used as a storytelling tool to communicate biblical narratives to a mostly illiterate population.
In Europe, Gothic design proved to be instrumental to the swelling popularity of colored glass design. Gothic design promoted larger and more elaborate windows that were supported by iron frames and split up into sections via traceries of stone and vertical shafts. This prominent focus on windows to allow natural light to easily filter into cathedrals and churches also let designers experiment with more elaborate stained glass designs.
It was at this time that noteworthy window designs were created, such as the rose window. A circular form, the rose window is split up into different segments and can reach incredible complexity, such as with the Bishop’s Eye at England’s Lincoln Cathedral.
Image Credit: Richard Croft
Other prominent cathedrals included France’s Chartres, where its stained glass was said to be unmatched.
By the time of the Renaissance, the stained glass style was still going strong, but there were signs of trouble on the horizon. Italy’s Florence Cathedral became the first recipient of this medium during the Renaissance. In this period, stained glass design moved from a Gothic aesthetic to a more Classical look, especially in countries like Germany, Holland, and Belgium.
When the Reformation occurred in England—whereby the Church of England renounced the Pope as well as the Catholic Church’s authority—much of the country’s beautiful, colored glass ended up being destroyed to reflect this revolution.
The same phenomenon can be said about the French Revolution, which would occur a couple of centuries later and result in the destruction of many stained glass windows.
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An interesting thing occurred by the mid-19th century in many parts of Europe; however, after this upheaval had ravaged Europe, stained glass design launched a revival. In France, Germany, and Britain, to name just a few countries, Gothic design was popular again as it had been during medieval times, which also meant that stained glass was back in demand. Many of the churches and cathedrals destroyed in the earlier centuries’ chaos were restored, along with their precious stained glass windows.
New techniques were also being used. To support this surge in demand, it was common for designers and engineers to reproduce designs from well-known oil paintings of the time in their stained glass windows.
There was also crossover appeal into other design trends that were gaining steam in mid-19th century Europe at the time, such as Art Nouveau. Particularly in places like France and Eastern Europe, Art Nouveau stained glass design acquired quite a following. It was characterized by the unique use of sinuous, curving lines as well as swirling patterns.
By now, this design trend had also crossed the ocean into America, where J&R Lamb Studios (still in operation today) became the first major decorative arts firm to specialize in creating stained glass in the U.S. Louis Comfort Tiffany, the founder and namesake of the famous Tiffany & Co. luxury retailer and jeweler, obtained numerous patents for stained glass around the same time.
By the 20th century, this design trend had to endure another downturn…only to see yet another resurgence, along with newer trends like Mid-Century Modern, by the midpoint of the century. Although it has to be said that this resurgence was more commercial (as opposed to innovative) than anything in nature, as much of Europe wanted to restore the stained glass windows that were ruined in World War II.
Additionally, in the 20th century, notable artists like Piet Mondrian, the co-founder of De Stijl design, experimented with stained glass for numerous abstract artworks.
Today, stained glass style is still a mainstay in many churches and other places of worship, along with notable government buildings and prestigious universities, proof of its longevity and symbol of epic design.
The Characteristics of Stained Glass Design
Beautiful and ornate would be a good place to start to wrap one’s head around this trend’s characteristics, but that only scratches the surface. This trend is epitomized by a style that’s so lofty that it soars straight into the heavens, which makes sense if you think about it since its origins are religious in nature.
When admiring stained glass windows, look for these traits:
- A cornucopia of multiple colors – It’s rare to have only a few colors in a stained glass window. Typically, you’ll see an explosion of colors in the same frame.
- Religious scenes and themes – Since this trend was born out of the need to communicate biblical passages to a mostly illiterate population, figures and scenes out of the Bible are commonplace.
- Geometric patterns galore – It’s not only the windows themselves that sport geometric shapes, whether large rectangles or ovals. Thanks to the way they’re framed, you’ll always see a host of squares, rectangles, or other quadrilateral shapes within each window.
- Heavy on the symbolism – Whether the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper or various intricate crests and emblems, stained glass is usually full of references to some sort of object that’s rife with historical significance.
- Clutter – With any other design trend, clutter is typically a bad thing, but with stained glass design, it works. The compositions within each window are frequently busy and feature complicated illustrations and patterning.
- Contrast – To successfully display all the clutter inside a stained glass window, the elements have to stand out powerfully. This is achieved by the use of contrast, whether by color, size, or brightness.
- Gradients – The subtle blending of one color into another, repetitively, is used in many windows to produce a visually pleasing appearance.
- Symmetry – Sometimes, the designs within the stained glass strive to achieve symmetry, with even weight on both halves of the composition.
- Asymmetry – Other times, the designs in the stained glass compositions are intentionally imbalanced, which offers viewers a more interesting, complicated composition.
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How Stained Glass Was Made
The craftsmen and specialists creating the colored glass for this trend, for the most part, used two main ways of glass production. They were:
The hand-blown process for creating the windows of this design trend is very intensive. There are two distinct approaches that fall into this category: crown and muff or cylinder.
The former involves blowing an air bubble onto a glob of molten glass, then quickly spinning it around, either on a potter’s wheel or just by hand. This speed results in the molten bubbles being forced to open and become flat. From there, it’s straightforward to cut the glass into sheets. This method is still in use in the present day.
The latter involves the craftsman using a blowpipe to obtain a glob of molten glass from a heated pot. Said glob is then fashioned into the desired shape, at which point an air bubble is blown into it. Special metal tools are subsequently used to manipulate this mass into a longer, more cylindrical form. The mass is never allowed to cool too much so that this process can continue until the craftsman gets the desired shape.
One end of the cylinder is opened up, and the entire piece is then put into an oven to heat up and finally flatten. The last step involves cooling the glass at a controlled rate for increased stability, which is referred to as annealing. This was the method of choice for medieval stained glass windows.
The process for rolled stained glass is less complex. It involves pouring molten glass on a graphite or metal table to quickly roll (by machine or hand) into a sheet with a big metal cylinder. Think of rolling out a pie crust, and you have the general idea. Craftsmen have the option of double-rolling the glass (passing it through two cylinders). Once the rolling is completed, the glass is allowed to cool at a controlled rate.
This process was first used in the 19th-century revival of stained glass design and is very popular today.
The Colors of Stained Glass
The cornucopia of colors is what makes stained glass so appealing to the eye.
Over its history, this trend has relied on a number of different colors, each with a unique composition:
- White glass – Produced by mixing tin dioxide and arsenic and antimony oxides; used notably by Tiffany & Co. for streaky glasses.
- Red glass – Various shades are made from low concentrations of metallic gold, pure metallic copper, and selenium
- Blue glass – Various shades are created from low concentrations of cobalt in soda-lime glass (the most common type of glass), sulfur, nickel, and copper oxide
- Transparent glass – Though called “transparent,” it’s actually a very pale shade of green, but additives like manganese dioxide make it less green and more clear.
- Green glass – Various shades of green are made from iron oxide, chromium, tin oxide, and arsenic
- Purple glass – Different shades of purple are created from manganese and nickel
- Yellow glass – Various shades of yellow are produced by heating silver compounds like silver nitrate and from iron salts, carbon and sulfur; titanium; sulfur and cadmium; and uranium
How Stained Glass Windows Were Made
There were three steps to making a stained glass window. Any beautiful work of colored glass you see in a church, government building, or otherwise noteworthy structure generally follows this sequence.
The designer will get the sizing of the window opening the colored glass will fit into. The theme of the window, whether religious or symbolic, is decided upon at the request of the building’s owner. From there, a small-scale model of the window is created to show the patron who commissioned the window.
The type of window would fall into one of these two categories:
- Narrative – The window tells a story
- Figurative – The window features notable personalities
Then, an illustration was made for each opening or section of the window (the area in between the tracery). Said illustration would be drawn right on top of a whitewashed table, which in turn would be utilized as the pattern for cutting, then painting, and, finally, putting the entire window together.
The glass would then be chosen based on its color; next, it would be cut to fit the section in the window. Designers ensured the fit would be perfect by using a small tool that grazed down the edges of the glass.
Painting the stained glass would be one of the more elaborate processes in design history. Not only are the scenes in stained glass windows elaborate, but so are the paints and the method for applying the paint.
Generally, craftsmen relied on a special glass paint that contained finely sheared copper or lead filings; gum arabic; ground-up pieces of glass; and a liquid like vinegar, wine, and (believe it or not!) urine, in most cases.
Since medieval times, designers used various paints for their stained glass design:
- Silver stain (created a yellow effect, used for optimizing borders and haloes)
- Cousin’s rose (used to optimize flesh tones)
- Glass stain (a type of enamel, they were colored by ground-up particles of glass)
Putting the Windows in Place
Once the design and painting are taken care of, the last step is putting everything together. Artisans would assemble the glass pieces by fixing them into lead cames. Then, all the joints get soldered together. The glass is stopped from rattling and otherwise being unstable by the presence of putty, mastic, or soft cement in between the cames and glass.
In modern-day stained glass windows, copper foil is typically used in place of the lead cames.
Once a stained glass window got inserted into its window space or frame, iron rods were usually placed over it at strategic points to help support the weight. The window was then fastened to said rods via copper wires.
Famous Examples of Stained Glass Design
To really appreciate the artworks that are stained glass, we have to take a look at the best the world has to offer. Here are our favorites:
This 12th-century cathedral is a Roman Catholic church and a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Image Credit: Micheletb
The epitome of French Gothic design, it boasts 167 windows and three rose windows that depict the Last Judgment, the Virgin Mary, and Christ.
The Sainte-Chapelle is a Gothic-style royal chapel that served as the home of the kings of France until the 14th century.
Image Credit: Oldmanisold
Its gigantic stained glass windows are recognized as being among the finest examples of this art form.
The Blue Mosque
Istanbul’s Blue Mosque was built in the 15th century and is famous for its interior blue tiles and the exterior blue light that illuminates its minarets and domes at night.
Image Credit: G.dallorto
All told, it features 200 stained glass windows.
Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral is world-famous and iconic, having been built in the 12th century, consecrated to the Virgin Mary, and showcasing French Gothic architecture.
Image Credit: Zachi Evenor
Its highlights are its three rose windows, which are intricate works of composition and aesthetics.
An Enduring Design Trend
Stained glass as an art medium has existed for more than one thousand years, surviving and thriving across all the changes and upheavals of human history. To say that this is a timeless trend would be an understatement.
Stained glass design is ambitious—both in its aesthetics and lofty themes. Used to adorn places of worship and all sorts of important buildings, stained glass is the design trend of choice when it comes to exalting something extraordinary that you want immortalized for all eternity.
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