Friday, August 22, 2014

The History of Stained Glass in 5 Minutes

By Gretchen Sawatzki

Stained glass windows often were used
to create icons of important people
or religious figures. This window by
German artist, Karl J. Mueller depicts
the marriage of Henry V of England
and Catherine of Valois, France in 1420.
Image by Gretchen Sawatzki
Did you know that the oldest known piece of man made glass ever found, was an Egyptian bead that was likely made around 2600 B.C.?  Or, that stained glass was found in the ruins of Pompeii? The method for making glass is old, dating back nearly 4,500 years - the basic recipe for which stayed virtually the same for much of glassmaking's history. You simply take some wood ash, add a little sand, heat to a liquid, cool, and boom, glass!

But for much of glassmaking's early history, pigmentation or "staining" was rarely used, making its debut in the first century A.D. when wealthy Romans started adding colored glass to their country villas. This is the earliest known date at which the, "same basic method," changed with the addition of powered metals that created brilliant color when liquified. In 313 A.D. stained glass moved from domestic-only production to an art form, when the Roman Emperor Constantine declared freedom of worship allowing for grandiose iconography, including stained glass windows in places of worship.

The Romans quickly developed methods for casting glass panels, blowing, and spinning glass, pushing the medium to its breaking point, literally. To combat the breakage and allow for the creation of larger windows, artist pieced together smaller stained pieces joining them with wood or metal frames, gluing each piece in place using a plaster-like mixture. As this method progressed, so did the windows' subject matter. By 1100 A.D. stained glass windows took on religious decoration in the forms of Jesus, saints, and the Apostles - designs that required new labor intensive shading methods. To achieve realism in these designs, artisans applied dark paint directly on the stained glass, firing it to solidify the color, creating shadows and depth.

To achieve dark shadows and heavy outlines artists
would apply dark paint directly on the stained glass
as seen in this window.  Image by Gretchen Sawatzki
By the 13th and 14th centuries, glass in blues and reds were coveted and with pigmentation down to a science, artisans began crafting windows on a massive scale. Rose windows, the large round stained glass masterpieces used to illuminate gothic cathedrals, were the epitome of the craft. As the Middle Ages progressed however so did the destruction of religious relics and places of worship. By the end of the period, stained glass fell out of favor.

It wasn't until the Gothic Revival period in England around 1750 that stained glass made its comeback - using its historic methods, craftsman developed stained glass on a larger scale, eventually mechanizing the glassmaking process. As stained glass became cheaper to produce, craftsmen could purchase pre-manufactured stained glass pieces, arrange them, add a little paint, and create beautiful works of art not only for churches, but for the home as well, bringing the history of stained glass full circle.

Sources:
              Notre Dame de Paris
              The Metropolitan Museum of Art
              University of Wisconsin, Milwaulkee
              Wikipedia


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