Even if you’re not a person of faith, there is nothing like attending a church and looking at stained glass windows. While they do vary in artistry, at their best they can be truly breathtaking. I was curious to look into the history of this art form.
It’s believed that the technique of staining glass was invented in Ancient Egypt. Metallic oxides are added to the glass during manufacturing, so different additives create different colours. The earliest objects made with coloured glass can be found in the Roman Empire, as early as the fourth century. However it was the seventh century before the earliest known use of stained glass in a window occurred, at St Paul’s monastery in Jarrow, England.
From the beginning it seemed that stained glass windows were considered as something appropriate for sacred buildings, churches and cathedrals. It also seems to be a European idea, though it had been exported to the Middle East by the eighth century and was used to decorated mosques and palaces.
It really came into its own around the twelfth century, when the prevailing Romanesque architecture, which was not big on windows, gave way to the Gothic style. The ability to build larger and taller building with the architectural techniques that would allow these grander designs meant that the buildings could indulge in large windows. This allowed the crafstmen of the period to design more elaborate stained glass, either tall lancet style or round rose windows. They could be absolutely massive, as more modern techniques both in building and in glass design increased the possibilities. Gothic cathedrals were all about height and light, and the idea was that God’s light would enter the hearts of the devoted by the depictions of saints and biblical scenes. The general layperson never laid eyes on a Bible, so it was depictions of this sort that illustrated the Biblical stories they were told.
Some of the most fabulous stained glass windows in existence are centuries old. In Augsburg Cathedral in Germany, of Romanesque design, the stained glass dates from the eleventh century. Biblical figures are depicted in ornate robes and surrounded by marbled borders. There is something very stately and serene about them.
Chartres cathedral, in France, from the thirteenth century, is of Gothic design, with flying buttresses supporting the creation of huge stained glass windows. The rose window depicts the birth of Christ. This, and the entirety of the cathedral, is one of the great artistic treasures of the world.
York Minster, in England, built in the fifteenth century, boasts a stained glass east window that is the largest expanse of stained glass anywhere prior to the modern era. It depicts apocalypse. It’s one of my favourites, and is a truly exquisite work of art.
Brown Memorial Church in America, is a much later building, dating to 1915. The designer Louis Tiffany was the creator of the stained glass here. His studio produced different effects by blending colours while the glass was still molten, and the result is stunning.
St Vitus Cathedral in the Czech republic has another modern window, dated to 1929. St Wenceslas, surrounded by other saints, spreads the message of Christianity. I like this one because it’s depiction of characters and balance of colours is somehow peaceful, and happy. I look at this and I smile.
Franciscan church in Poland has nineteenth century windows full of flowers and geometric shapes. They are inspired by St Francis’ love of nature. These windows are very striking, and brilliantly coloured. I could look at them for hours.
St John’s Church in India has windows dated from the eighteenth century, including a beautiful depiction of the crucifixion. I love the symmetry of this and the contrasting colour.
I think stained glass windows combine art, craftsmanship, and natural sunlight to create works of unsurpassed beauty. There are hundreds of stunning examples you can find online, even if you can’t travel. It’s a testament to human inspiration to see all of the ways people have taken the simple concept of sunlight through coloured glass and made of it something truly heavenly.