The History of Stained Glass Windows

By Zach Riggott

The art of stained glass windows has changed greatly over time, from the Greco-Roman civilizations to the most recent American style. It can be traced back to the Greco-Roman civilization. Based on the remains of Pompeii and Heraculaneum, stained glass was a domestic luxury for wealthy Romans, rather than an art form. When the Greco-Roman civilization collapsed, the tradition of stained glass survived and eventually spread throughout Europe. Much of what we know today about the early production of stained glass windows comes from the book “Schedula diversarum atrium,” written by the monk Theophilus. This book dates back to the end of the eleventh century. It gives a detailed description of the process for making of a stained glass window. Although new technologies have been developed over the years to improve the art of stained glass windows, the same basic method that Theophilus describes is still used today.

The early period of stained glass production was from about 1000– 1500 A.D. This was during the Gothic Age, and thus, stained glass windows that were created during this time are in the Gothic style. The construction of new churches is what launched the production stained glass windows during this time. The Gothic age produced many of the great cathedrals of Europe, and stained glass windows, as we know them, started to be created to fill these new cathedrals. Medieval craftsman during the Gothic age were more interested in illustrating an idea than creating natural or realistic images. Many of the images were abstract. Also, there was often severe frontality of the image being depicted. Craftsman of the Gothic period could only make small panes of glass, about the size of a hand, so the windows resembled a mosaic. Many of the windows were not painted at all during this time. If the window was painted, the only color available was grey, which was applied by the painter, and was then fixed by a process of enameling. The painters usually used this grey color to draw finer outlines, ornaments, and smaller folds of drapery onto the window. Paintwork was often crude and unsophisticated during the Gothic period. Producing a specific color was not an easy task for glass craftsman. During this time, the heat of the furnace was what determined the color of the glass, and since the temperature of the furnace was hard to regulate, it was difficult to produce any specific color. The principle colors that were used during the Gothic period are red, green, blue, and yellow.

Near the end of the Gothic period, there were two discoveries that took the art of stained glass windows to a new level, namely silver stain and the abrasion of flashed glass. Silver stain gave stained glass painters a new color to use. Before, stained glass painters only had the option paint a grey color onto the window. Now with the discovery of silver stain, stained glass painters could paint yellow colors onto the glass, varying from pale lemon to deep orange. The second discovery was the abrasion of flashed glass, which was a two-part process. In the first part, the flash glass was produced. Flashed glass consists of a thin film or “flash” of color glass over the surface of white glass. In the second part of the process, a craftsman would then grind away the colored film in certain places, leaving the white color glass underneath exposed. This process would achieve two colors on the same piece of glass. With these new discoveries, stained glass craftsman were now able to do several things that before they could not do. With the abrasion of flash glass combined with the two enamel colors, stained glass craftsman could now produce up to four colors on one sheet of glass. Also, stained glass craftsman could now obtain a green colored glass by painting a blue pane of glass with the yellow enamel. Equipped with these new inventions stained glass craftsman of this time were constantly coming up with new combinations, and thus, more intricate windows. Skill level was also increasing during this time, and stained glass craftsman were able to produce larger panes of glass, which also enhanced their artistic ability.

The Renaissance was the period that followed the Gothic age. During this time, several new colors of enamel paints became available to stained glass painters. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, red, blue, green, violet, and other colors enamels were created. More focus was put on the painting of windows, which produced a more richly colored impression than before. The Renaissance changed the way that the art of stained glass was viewed. During the Renaissance, people viewed any art that was created during the Middle Ages as barbaric, and so the style of stained glass windows during this time changed dramatically. Windows became more of a picture and less atmosphere. Emphasis was placed more on three-dimensional perspectives during this period. Lead lines, which were once accepted as necessary, became structural evils to be camouflaged by design. Also, with all of the new color glass enamels available to them, the paintwork work during this time became much more sophisticated. Soon, almost all of the emphasis was placed on the painting of the glass, rather than the art of using different stained glass. In short, Renaissance brought the art of stained glass into a 300-year period where instead of using colored pieces of glass to create an image (true stained glass), stained glass windows were white glass that was heavily painted.

In the mid 1800’s, there was a revival of Gothic architecture in England. The glass techniques of medieval times were also rediscovered during this time, and studios began producing medieval style windows for Gothic revival buildings. During this time, many of the famous Munich studios such as Mayer and Frei emerged, among others. Many of these studios eventually opened studios in America to fill the large demand for high quality cathedral stained glass. These Gothic revival style stained glass windows were produced during this time were the norm until the distinctive American style.

The latest style of stained glass window to come about is the American style. John LaFarge and Louis Comfort Tiffany are two of the most important influences the American style. They were both American artists who began experimenting with glass, trying to develop glass that had a wide range of visual effects. LaFarge and Tiffany worked independently and eventually became competitors. LaFarge developed and copyrighted opalescent glass in 1879, but Tiffany was the one that actually popularized its use in stained glass windows. Tiffany’s name eventually became synonymous with the American glass movement. Both LaFarge and Tiffany used intricate cuts and richly colored glass to create an image. They also developed the technology of plating, or “layering” glass, which adds both depth and texture to the window. Tiffany also made use of the new copper strips technology that was being used instead of lead. Instead of using lead to hold the window together, copper could now be used instead, which was much thinner, and could create much more intricate sections of the window. Tiffany created stained glass windows with both Biblical and landscape scenes. Tiffany sold to both churches and wealthy private buyers. 

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