Stained Glass—From Medieval to Modern
AS THE rays of the morning sun began streaming across the horizon, a man just arising was greeted by radiant jewellike colors pouring through a stained-glass window. The warm glow created a peaceful mood conducive to thought and meditation.
Had the man come to church to pray and then fallen asleep? No, he was in the privacy of his own bedroom and was one of an increasing number of homeowners who embellish their residences with stained-glass windows, perhaps crafted by the homeowner himself.
“Bible of the Poor”
Although records of pictorial windows made of colored glass date back as far as the 9th century, it was in the 12th century, with the appearance of the Gothic cathedrals, that this art form flourished. These huge stone structures, among the largest single buildings erected since the pyramids, were designed to hold comfortably at one time an entire town’s population, some of them up to 10,000 worshipers.
Characteristic of Gothic architecture was its skeletal construction and extreme height, with interiors ranging from 90 [27 m] to 150 feet [46 m] high. Massive panels of jewellike glass illuminated those cavernous edifices, though not too brightly, thus creating a mystic, awe-inspiring atmosphere for the worshipers.
Interestingly, the windows served another purpose. Since much of the populace was unable to read, the pictorial window was a means of familiarizing the people with Bible characters and events, as well as doctrines of the church. The windows came to be known as Biblia pauperum, or “Bible of the Poor.”
At Chartres, a town 48 miles [77 km] southwest of Paris, is a cathedral containing the largest collection of original windows dating from about 1150 to 1240, over 170 of them still intact. One of the most notable, the “Tree of Jesse,” depicts Jesus’ ancestry starting from David’s father, Jesse. Scenes from Jesus’ ministry and his parables of the good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus, and the prodigal son are also illustrated in glass. Other displays tell a story with a series of smaller windows called medallions. Since Mary is venerated by the Roman Catholic Church, she is the subject of many windows and is often represented by a term borrowed from the ancient pagans: “Queen of Heaven.”*
The Art Declines
Originally this craft involved the use of a brown enamel called grisaille to fill in details such as facial features, fingers, and folds in garments. Gradually, more than just the necessary details began to be painted in, and as colored enamels were developed, colorless glass became a canvas for glass painters. The resulting paintings on glass, however, lacked the brilliance and beauty of the medieval masterpieces.
During the 14th century, the Black Death plague raged through Europe, taking its toll on all the arts. Much of the knowledge of the craft of making colored glass disappeared. Austere Cistercian monks banned these vivid picture windows, furthering the decline of the art. These factors caused work in stained glass to become a lost art by the end of the 17th century.
In the 19th century, with the restoration of the Gothic cathedrals, renewed interest developed in stained glass. Thus began a movement known as the Gothic Revival, during which new buildings, religious and secular, were constructed in that style. They often included stained-glass windows in their design.
Comparison of Techniques
To appreciate what is involved in this thousand-year-old art, let us compare the technique of the early craftsman with that of his modern-day counterpart.
The basic procedure, which consisted of cutting the glass, wrapping the edges with lead, and soldering them together, has essentially remained the same. First, a pattern, or cartoon, was drawn, taking into account the limitations in cutting the glass to shape and the placement of the lines of leading. The leading was positioned to enhance rather than detract from the overall effect once the window was complete.
Louis C. Tiffany (U.S.A., 1848-1933), a stained-glass artist in the Art Nouveau style, is credited with introducing the use of copper foil to wrap the pieces of glass, which resulted in a finer solder line than lead and a stronger finished product. Foil has greater flexibility and was generally used in making original Tiffany lampshades.
With only very small panes of glass available, early works took on a kaleidoscopic look. Later, when larger sheets were used, this unique effect was lost. As to the actual cutting, the glassworker would trace the shape on the glass with a fine line of liquid. Then he would go over the line with a hot iron, hoping the glass would crack according to plan. A grozing iron was then used to nibble at the edges until the piece accurately fitted the pattern. Considering these primitive tools, one cannot help but marvel at the accomplishment of creating a window measuring 25 feet [7.6 m] by 9 feet, [2.7 m] as is the “Tree of Jesse” mentioned earlier. Today, cutting wheels and electric grinders make possible the cutting of very intricate shapes.
The glass of the 12th century contained impurities, such as bits of metal, and was irregular in thickness and in surface texture. Combined with changes caused by time and weather, the refractive effects on the light through these imperfections have made windows of this period unrivaled in brilliance.
The selection of colors and textures of glass available today is much greater than that of the medieval artist, who worked predominantly in reds and blues. If realism is the desired effect, a modern craftsman can select a rippled-water glass for a pond, a streaky blue and white for a sky, or a brown glass with grain for a tree trunk.
Not Just for Churches Anymore
In recent years stained glass has experienced a renaissance and is no longer limited to religious themes in church windows. Architects are incorporating stained-glass windows and skylights in new buildings. An Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in New Jersey, U.S.A., also includes stained-glass work done by Witnesses. Restaurants often feature this art form as an integral part of the decor, creating a pleasant dining atmosphere. Many patterns are available, depicting landscapes, birds, flowers, and other nonreligious subjects.
Studios are springing up in many cities and towns, in which windows, room dividers, lamps, mirrors, jewelry boxes, and many other decorative but functional items are made. With just a few lessons, often given at one of these studios, or even a how-to book, one can enjoy this creative craft at home.
So the next time you admire a window or an object of stained glass, you may appreciate this to be an art that has enjoyed a long history and is now more popular than ever.—Contributed.
[Picture on page 23]
The “Tree of Jesse,” Chartres cathedral, France
Notre-Dame de Chartres, Chartres, France
[Pictures on page 24]
Detail from Autumn Landscape, window by Tiffany (above); stained glass windows, Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jersey City, New Jersey, U.S.A. (left)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Robert W. de Forest, 1925. (25.173)