The use of light is a crucial reason why stained glass remains beautiful in the 21st century. Nestled in the windows of cathedrals; whether French, English or German, stained glass bakes the walls and floors with rainbow lights. A vast amount of stained glass is religious. However, as this essay shows, stained glass offers many opportunities in a secular, and even fantastical, context. The history spans from the High Middle Ages to the present.
A Gothic History
One cannot discuss stained glass without giving attention to the Gothic. This prominent art style, circulating in the High Middle Ages, emphasized beauty and power as Christianity, and the Holy Roman Empire, shaped Europe. But there’s more to gothic architecture than splendid glass panels. Pointed archways, ribbed vaults, flying buttresses and decorations all defined the Gothic era. These cathedrals were shaped by an intellectual and competitive environment, which emphasized regional differences, technical mastery and spreading the message, and wisdom, of God.
When you visit Strasbourg Cathedral, you’ll draw comparisons with other great churches: St. Stephen’s in Vienna, St. Vitus’ in Prague and York Minster. All four of these buildings may appear the same to an untrained eye. But look closer. These cathedrals were shaped by variations in language, access to materials and weather conditions. There’s a reason why, in the South of France, the Gothic cathedrals emphasize a certain style compared to say, the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (a royal chapel which is well worth a visit). However, Gothic Cathedrals do not belong solely in the Middle Ages. Some, such as Cologne Cathedral, were developed and furnished over five hundred years.
A mistake in art criticism is treating Gothic architecture as a static and old category. This becomes a problem when modern audiences interpret the Gothic as having nothing relevant to teach or show. This is not true. A vast number of Gothic churches are vibrant places with various artworks and refurbishments, some quite modern. For example, Westminster Abbey deserves a special mention. The tomb of the unknown warrior is explicitly modern, as it deals with World War I history. Many of these Gothic buildings are intervened with modern history. For example, one cannot study the French Revolution and Reign of Terror without considering Chartres Cathedral, where brave townspeople protected it from looting and fire.
The Gothic style eventually experienced a revival in the 19th century. Notable examples of Gothic Revival include St. Paul’s Cathedral in New York, St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney and the Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest. Of course, England was an epicentre for Gothic Revival. The esteemed art critic, John Ruskin, argued that Gothic architecture gained supremacy over other art forms due to the level of detail present in each stone. This is certainly true for the capital of the British Empire: London, boasted the Big Ben and the famous Parliament building, established during the reign of Queen Victoria.
The Gothic became global. You can find Neo-Gothic buildings in India, China, Brazil and Azerbaijan. But North America deserves special attention. The development of university campuses, such as Princeton and Yale, resulted in a Gothic presence. You may have heard the term ‘Dark Academia’ online. This aesthetic movement appreciates Collegiate Gothic and finds solace in various study ASMR’s depicting Gothic buildings. The connection between education and the Gothic is hard to ignore. A novel that emphasizes this is Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, where a group of friends deal with both murder and its classical routes.
Many interesting events occurred in the history of stained glass. For one, the production and commerce of tiffany glass, by Louis Comfort Tiffany in New York City, connected both sides of the Atlantic. The Victoria & Albert Museum proved a unique influence on the glassmaker. Later, he innovated the development of ‘Favrile’, glass transmitting rich colour and texture. Tiffany Glass is present in a variety of churches and museums in the United States of America.
Certain technological and educational developments occurring since the High Middle Ages gave rise to more variations on stained glass. For example, the production of rippled glass increased, which allowed artists such as Tiffany to portray water in a more vivid and involved way. Other developments, such as masking tape, impacted on the production of Came glasswork. Because of this, a historian must not divorce technology from art history.
Examples of Stained Glass
It’s difficult to pick a few examples of stained glass. For one, there are so many! One cannot give the history of stained-glass justice with a list. Also, stained glass is not a static category. There are many techniques, styles and functions for stained glass. However, it’s helpful to discuss at least one example of stained glass, so I will discuss the Rose Windows at Chartres Cathedral.
The cathedral has three large windows: a Western one, depicting the Last Judgement. The final two are dedicated to Christ and the Virgin Mother. All three of these subjects are typical for Rose Windows and stained glasses more broadly. However, there are specific French aspects to the window. For one, there is yellow rose symbolism, connecting the window to French royal patronage. Yet tying all three windows together is Catholic ecclesiology and medieval Apocalypticism. Present in the depiction of the Last Judgement, it’s also present in the other two windows, where one witnesses the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse, who play music on instruments. Although the Biblical symbolism, especially the Old Testament, relate to the past, it’s important to have a more nuanced view. Catholics, and Christians more broadly, are just as concerned with the present and future. This is seen in the Rose Window, as it not only represents the Catholic faith, but French royal patronage and skilled artisans.
A Rose Window is also positioned quite high in a cathedral. This positions Christ as watching over us from an above heaven. But in terms of aesthetics, it lets the cathedral drown itself in light, symbolising God’s presence, love and power.
Although the history of stained glass presents replicas, each artwork of it stands out. National contexts are crucial to understanding the development and production of stained glass. Each country, whether France or England, has their own history, language, culture and customs. One must acknowledge the differences as well as the similarities. For example, teachers of stained glass, such as Christopher Whall, had his own philosophy regarding design and the visual arts. Likewise, the Belle Epoque shaped much of French stained glass in the 19th century.
The use of curving and sinuous lines is also found in Poland and the Czech Republic. As for the United Kingdom, we must remember the Arts & Craft movement, which shaped their visual culture.
As for medieval history, there are two words worth knowing: Rayonnant (France) and Perpendicular (England). This refers to specific aesthetical traits of stained-glass windows. Also, certain artistic movements, such as Romanesque, had a much stronger presence in France compared to other countries.
There are many ongoing projects into the study and restoration of stained glass. A notable one comes from York, England. The York Glazier’s Trust does ongoing conservation work while other companies throughout the Anglosphere offer restoration services to churches and homes. The University of York also offers a Masters program in Stained Glass Conservation which speaks to the importance and potency of it.
For many people, stained glass has a sentimental affect. One can associate a particular work of stained glass with family members, a community or a Church. This speaks to our human need to understand, and appreciate, our own history and place in the world.
Film & Television
There’s a noteworthy example of a film using stained glass. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Neville Longbottom and his classmates are left upset after a class. Neville, who, to this point, hasn’t received much attention in the films, is given more emotion and there’s a hint to a backstory. There’s a splendid shot of a melancholic man etched on stained glass. I made a video about this which is worth considering.
This is not the only example of stained glass in the Goblet of Fire. When Harry, the fourth Triwizard champion, takes a bath; he witnesses mermaids moving in the glass itself. This is clear foreshadowing for the second test where he battles sea creatures. Overall, stained glass in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is used to explore a character’s past and future, as well as give greater detail to the Wizarding World.
An artist must paint on light to create stained glass. The crucial reason why it’s beautiful relates to the use of light. Through daylight, various moods are established, which adds to the meaningful experience one has in a Gothic cathedral. Rain and night can translate into melancholy, whereas the beaming sun emphasizes magnificence. The sun, or lack of, can focus on certain aspects of the stained glass. Part of the opulence of stained-glass stems from the contrast each shard has with the next.
However, it’s helpful to not view a panel of stained glass in isolation. One must consider the aesthetics of the building and the overall immersive experience offered. There’s a reason why the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris ‘feels different’ to Gloucestershire Cathedral in the Southwest of England. Both the histories, functions, artistry and current use differ.
A window gives insight into the outside. Not only does stained glass do that, but it also illuminates our inner selves. The most majestic examples of stained glass teach the viewer about art, history, religion, family and beauty. This is why stained glass remains valuable. Even if we are not producers or artisans of stained glass, we ought to still appreciate it.