Notes on the Development of Stained Glass

Stained glass has a long history. It started out in the homes of wealthy Roman people, its popularity soared with Gothic churches, it fell into disrepute during the Reformation, and now it has resurfaced in our homes and businesses, in addition to our churches. Now it is a rewarding and affordable hobby for people everywhere.

Before recorded history, people discovered that they could add metallic salts and oxides to glass and that would make colors; gold made a cranberry color, cobalt made blue, silver made yellow and golds, and copper made greens. It seems that wealthy Romans in their villas and palaces in Pompeii and Herculaneum were using stained glass in the first century AD. It was when Christians were beginning to build churches, based on Byzantine ones, in 313 AD that stained glass began to be considered as an art form. The earliest surviving piece of a stained glass picture was a “Head of Christ” from the 10th century. The popularity and growth of stained glass were very much tied in with the popularity and growth of churches.

In the Romanesque period, stained glass was influenced by the Byzantine style developed by Arabs. The windows on these churches were relatively small and used mainly red and blue images surrounded by white glass in order to allow as much light as possible. About 1100 AD, Theophilus, a monk, described how to make stained glass windows and his methods have hardly changed since.

It was in the Gothic period, starting in the 13th century, that stained glass windows in churches really began to blossom. Suger, the abbot of the Abbey of St Denis, was the first to build his church in the Gothic design. Gothic churches allowed for larger windows and these were made out of stained glass; Abbot Suger believed that beautiful objects would lift men’s souls closer to God. In the 15th century, stained glass began to be viewed more as a picture (with paler colors and larger figures) and less of an experience of (God’s greatness)

During the Renaissance, there was a new emphasis on three-dimensional perspective. People considered medieval stained glass barbaric. Stained glass windows became made of white glass which was heavily painted, and lead lines were camouflaged. Artists were patronized by the wealthy, and stained glass began to be seen in more private homes and public buildings.

During the Reformation of the 16th century, there was widespread destruction of stained glass windows, because religious imagery was not tolerated. For about 200 years, stained glass was not popular.

In England, in the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in Gothic church design, and stained glass windows with it. Gothic Revival churches of the Anglican and Episcopalian churches in America required stained glass windows, and this led to their development in America.

John LaFarge was an American painter who, in 1879, developed and copyrighted
opalescent glass; and another American painter, Louis Comfort Tiffany made it popular. Opalescent glass was semi opaque with a milky opalescent effect and was usually a mixture of colors with streaks and swirls. Tiffany worked with the Art Nouveau style and created magnificent pieces. Tiffany used the new technology of thin strips of copper as a substitute for lead and adapted this in order to construct lampshades. The opalescent glass stayed popular into the beginning of the 20th century, but today few glassmakers make it because of the toxic chemicals required.

After W.W. 1, people were more interested in windows for neo-Gothic churches, and stained glass fell in popularity until painting became more abstract and expressionist after W.W. 2 which influenced many artists to explore stained glass.

During the last 30 years there has been an explosion of interest of interest in stained glass. It’s gone far beyond its religious beginnings. You often see beautiful stained glass windows in homes, even less expensive ones, and businesses; in addition to church windows. Most craft shows have stained glass nightlights, lamps, and/or other stained glass art objects. Although the materials needed to make stained glass are expensive, it is a very rewarding hobby. There’s one thing about stained glass that hasn’t changed. Creating beautiful stained glass still brings us closer to God.