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The History of Stained Glass

It’s believed that glass dates back to the ancient Egyptians or Mesopotamians. Glass beads dating to 2750 BC were found in Egypt. However, there’s a legend of some shipwrecked ancient Phoenician sailors who accidentally created glass by putting their cooking pots on blocks of soda and then building a fire around the blocks in the sand.    

Technically, any colored glass is “stained” glass. But colored glass pieced together into a picturesque stained glass window can be traced back to 7th-century England. It’s thought the earliest known stained glass window was created by French workmen for the monastery of St. Peter in Wearmouth, England. 

The oldest remaining stained glass in situ (in its original place) dates to an 1184 window in the Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been the seat of the spiritual head of the Church of England for nearly five centuries. 

Stained Glass in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, stained glass reached its height of popularity in Europe. Between 1150 and 1500, soaring cathedrals with magnificent windows were built. Chartres in France became the leading stained glass manufacturer because of their high-quality glass. The Chartres Cathedral still holds one of the earliest examples of a rose window. Completed in 1220, the awe-inspiring North Rose Window spans 33 feet in diameter and is the only rose window to retain its original glass. In fact, the 167 stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral are the most complete group surviving from the Middle Ages. You can visit the gorgeous windows of Chartres Cathedral – also known as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres – in northern France, just over 50 miles from Paris.

Renaissance Stained Glass

The Renaissance period represented a change in stained glass. During this period, there was stained glass used on secular buildings and secular scenes shown on some church windows. The labors of the season and heraldry were popular themes during this period. Sadly, the Protestant Reformation led to many stained glass windows being smashed and replaced with plain glass. According to Grassmoor Glass Company in Derbyshire, England, “this destruction meant that many traditional stained glass methods were forgotten and not rediscovered until the 19th century.”

Early 19th-Century Stained Glass

According to the Victoria and Albert Museum, stained glass was effectively a dead art at the beginning of the 19th century. Then, Victorian designers started to look back at reviving historical styles to combat what they thought was the vulgarity of mass production. This brought stained glass back into popularity. The Gothic Revival period of the 19th century also led to the construction of new churches with large, story-telling, stained glass windows.  

Modern Stained Glass

In the late 19th century, Louis Comfort Tiffany brought a new level of sophistication to stained glass by incorporating opalescent glass and layering colors. In the 20th century, French artist Jean Crotti developed Gemmail – a technique of creating stained glass without using lead. For this technique, the work is laid out on a clear pane of glass bearing the outline of the design. When all the glass fragments have been glued in place, the work is dipped in transparent enamel and baked until fused.

Did You Know?

  • Opalescent stained glass was invented in the United States in the late 19th century by artist John La Farge.
  • One of the most interesting new techniques is dalle de verre, better known as faceted glass, which was developed in France and patented in 1933.
  • You can find beautiful stained glass at mosques in the middle east – like the 1,300-year-old al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem – but you’ll notice the windows have geometric or nature-inspired patterns. Islamic law prohibits depicting human likenesses in mosques.
  • Stained glass is a much newer art form in Japan; the first stained glass window was donated by a French monastery to a church in Nagasaki in 1865.
  • There is no tradition of stained glass in orthodox churches in Russia.

 Check out our beautiful stained glass collection!

 Information for this story came from The Stained Glass Association of America, Encyclopedia Britannica, World History Encyclopedia, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Grassmoor Glass Company and The Stained Glass Museum.

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