Predominantly associated with places of worship, stained glass has been used by artisans across the globe for thousands of years in an array of art ventures and installations. Intensifying architecture with vivid color, the process of stained glass refers to a particular action in which glass has been colored via metallic oxides during its manufacture, using different additives in order to create a range of hues and tones.
In terms of architectural enhancement, stained glass is often pieced together in order to produce depictions of decorative art, allowing light to filter and penetrate a particular structure or building. As a component it is both decorative and a variety of window, allowing a substantial and sufficient amount of light into a space, for atmospheric and beneficial effect.
Origins of the application of stained glass in architecture originate around the 7th century, as it began adorning religious structures including churches, abbeys and convents, with St. Pauls Monastery in Jarrow being once one of the earliest known examples according to excavations. By the 8th century the use of stained glass was set to adorn elements of ornate Islamic architecture, including mosques and palaces, with thriving glass industries across Syria, Egypt, Iran and Iraq.
By the Middle Ages these stained glass windows could be found upon countless churches across Europe, simple in form until around the 12th century, stained glass transitioned into far more splendor during the Gothic period, as architecture became more attentive to both height and light. Monumental in scale these Gothic windows, including rose and arched lancet windows were more decorative in nature, able to support more intricate glass work and let in a great deal more light.
Characterized by its solid nature, the presence of columns and its dominating appearance, Romanesque architecture often used stained glass to depict individuals in action, with series of events associated with the Bible enclosed within medallions. Originating as a more primitive variation of stained glass, the style predominantly used red and blue hues. Unfortunately, over time many have been lost and few remain. Chartres Cathedral (1252) in France, built in both Romanesque and Gothic styles presents some of the most important examples of Romanesque stained glass in France, with depictions of both Christ and the Virgin Mary brought to life in color, best seen during sunset, as the warm light illuminates the figures with a spiritual ambiance.
Following the Romanesque period, the Gothic period heralded a formation of new religious orders meaning many churches and cathedrals were built, as patroned by the medieval church. This development kick started the evolution of depictions in stained glass, transitioning from simple figures to complex iconography. Some examples include the stained glass seen at York Minster (14th C.), Wells Cathedral (14th C.) and Sens Cathedral (13th C.).
The Renaissance age offered a different take on the use of stained glass in architecture. Whilst remaining mostly biblical in nature, stained glass was also used in secular buildings including town halls and even in residential buildings. Panels with stain and paint in silver were often used on white glass, applied onto clear glass windows in homes, with the ‘labors of the seasons’ and historic scenes being a popular theme of this period. Depictions of people became more emotive and perspectives became more accurate.
Decreasing in popularity, stained glass began to fall from favor during the late medieval period and the 19th century. Since the Catholic Church has been the key patron of the arts, the wave of new Protestants were not keen on more elaborate decor, calling for simpler and more unadorned buildings. Puritan groups and English parliament sought to remove images of the Virgin Mary and the trinity resulting in the destruction of a great deal of stained glass. The destruction finally coming to a halt due to the sheer cost of replacing the colored glass with more ordinary clear counterparts.
As fascination with the Gothic style of the Medieval period was flung back into fashion in the form of Gothic Revival around 1740, many wealthy individuals had castles built for themselves corresponding with the structures described in Gothic novels. Strawberry Hill Mansion (1717-1797) in London features elements of surviving medieval stained glass, restored and installed for Horace Walpole, an avid collector of the art form. Few others maintained their interest in the technique, collecting pieces which are now displayed in museums today. As stained glass began to reappear in circulation, many English firms presented stained glass at the great Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.
The popularity of Gothic Revival led to the construction of a great number of new churches, packed with eye-catching and evocative colored glass. Reviving medieval techniques of glass production, they became widespread, used widely by artists utilizing the style. During the 19th Century the American Arts and Crafts movement sought to transition the art of stained glass into a modern art form, with the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright using elements of stained glass as an intrinsic part of Wright’s Prairie school interiors, creating windows with unique displays of art not be to be found anywhere else.
During the 20th century both the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau featured much stained glass amongst furnishings and interior design. Contemporary stained glass makers continue to replenish the ancient art of colored glass making, using the feature to continue to enhance elements of architecture today.