The origins of the first stained glass windows are lost in history. The technique probably came from jewelry making, cloisonné and mosaics. Stained glass windows as we know them, seemed to arise when substantial church building began. By the 10th century, depictions of Christ and biblical scenes were found in French and German churches and decorative designs found in England.
There is a mystery to glass: It is a form of matter with gas, liquid and solid state properties. Glass is most like a super-cooled liquid. It captures light and glows from within. It is a jewel like substance made from the most ordinary materials: sand transformed by fire. Before recorded history, man learned to make glass and color it by adding metallic salts and oxides. These minerals within the glass capture specific portions from the spectrum of white light allowing the human eye to see various colors. Gold produces stunning cranberry, cobalt makes blues; silver creates yellows and golds while copper makes greens and brick red.
Techniques of stained glass window construction were described by the monk Theophilus who wrote a how to for craftsmen about 1100 AD. It describes methods little changed over 900 years: "if you want to assemble simple windows, first mark out the dimensions of their length and breadth on a wooden board, then draw scroll work or anything else that pleases you, and select colors that are to be put in. Cut the glass and fit the pieces together with the grozing iron. Enclose them with lead cames..... and solder on both sides. Surround it with a wooden frame strengthened with mails and set it up in the place where you wish."
The Gothic age produced the great cathedrals of Europe and brought a full flowering of stained glass windows. Churches became taller and lighter, walls thinned and stained glass was used to fill the increasingly larger openings in them. Stained glass became the sun filled world outside. Abbot Suger of the Abbey of St. Denis rebuilt his church in what is one of the first examples of the Gothic style. He brought in craftsmen to make the glass and kept a journal of what was done. He truly believed that the presence of beautiful objects would lift men's’ souls closer to God.
Stained glass windows are often viewed as translucent pictures. Gothic stained glass windows are a complex mosaic of bits of colored glass joined with lead into an intricate pattern illustrating biblical stories and saints lives. Viewed from the ground, they appear not as a picture but as a network of black lines and colored light. Medieval man experienced a window more than he read it. It made the church that special, sacred dwelling place of an all powerful God.
We see medieval craftsmen were more interested in illustrating and idea than creating natural or realistic images. Rich, jewel colors played off milky, dull neutrals. Paint work was often crude and unsophisticated: a dark brown enamel, called grisaille, was matted to the glass surface to delineate features, not to control the transmission of light.
In the 15th century, the apex of high Gothic, the way stained glass was viewed changed. It became more a picture and less an atmosphere. Paler colors admitted more light and figures were larger, often filling the entire window. Paint work became more sophisticated, more like easel painting. The rediscovery of silver stain allowed the artist to realistically depict yellow hair and golden garments.
Stained glass artists became glass painters as the form became closer and closer to panel painting. Lead lines that were once accepted as a necessary and decorative element became structural evils to be camouflaged by the design. The Renaissance brought the art of stained glass into a 300 year period where windows were white glass heavily painted. They lost all their previous glory and it seemed the original symbolism and innate beauty of stained glass was forgotten.
In this period, stained glass became a fashionable addition to residences , public buildings and churches. Heraldic glass showing detailed shields and coats of arms on simple, transparent backgrounds was common. Much of what stained glass was became forgotten. The 18th century saw the removal of many medieval stained glass windows. They were destroyed as hopelessly old fashioned and replaced by painted glass.
England in the mid 1800’s saw a revival of interest in Gothic architecture. Several amateur art historians and scientists rediscovered the medieval glass techniques. Pieces of glass were tested and their color secrets unlocked.
Glass studios in England made their versions of medieval windows for Gothic Revival buildings. The Bolton Brothers, English immigrants, established on of the first stained glass studios in America. These Gothic style windows enhanced churches and simple ornamental windows and painted figural windows were the norm until the development of a distinctive American style.
John LaFarge and Louis Comfort Tiffany were two American painters who began experimenting with glass. Contemporaries, but working independently, they were trying to develop glass that possessed a wide range of visual effects without painting. They soon became competitors. LaFarge developed and copyrighted opalescent glass in 1879. Tiffany popularized it and his name became synonymous with opalescent glass and the American glass movement. LaFarge and Tiffany used intricate cuts and richly colored glasses within in detailed, flowing designs. Plating, or layering glass layers, achieved depth and texture. Both made windows for private homes as well as churches.
The process of using thin strips of copper as a substitute for lead came allowed for intricate sections within windows. Tiffany adapted the technique to construct lampshades and capitalized on the new innovation of electric lighting. Tiffany’s customers were wealthy, turn of the century families including the Vanderbilts' and Astors. The Tiffany style prompted many imitators and opalescent windows and shades remained popular through the turn of the century.
Tastes changed after WWI. A revival of archeological accuracy in architecture called for new gothic glass windows for the NeoGothic churches. LaFarge had died in 1910, interest in opalescent glass waned and Tiffany remained its last defendant until his death in 1933 and the subsequent bankruptcy of his studios. New craftsmen such as William Willet, Rambusch, Charles Connick and Nicolai D’Ascenzo, made window for churches across America.
Except for church windows, stained glass remained in decline until the post WWII era. The abstract and expressionist movement in painting influenced a new group of artists to explore artistic expression in the medium of glass.
Contemporary church window may in some ways be closer to those of the early Gothic period. Not easy to identify scenes, they again create a pure atmosphere of light and color, inspiring a contemplative attitude through the transformation of the ordinary into the mystical.
Stained glass, or more appropriate art glass, is all around us today. An explosion of interest in the last 30 years has give rise to many new and imaginative forms of this art. The rise of the individual artist, new technologies and the growing interest in stained glass as a hobby craft have all lead to what is being called A a new golden age in glass. New homes are frequently embellished with spectacular beveled glass entryways, stained glass bathroom windows and Tiffany style lampshades. Decorative panels are purchased just to hang in a sunny window. Marvelous hot formed glass pieces adorn tables, walls, shelves and fill windows. New artists are combining, creating and developing unique new forms and styles every day.