Stained Glass Window

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Cathédrale de Chartres: Death and Assumption of the Virgin

Technical Development

Stained glass is not so much a medieval craft, as a craft that was brought to perfection in the Middle Ages. (Reyntiens 1990, 8)
. . . its materials were arranged in such a way as to reveal their natural beauty—an arrangement which is not arbitrary but evident in the physical properties of the medium, in its ‘immutable laws.’ Such laws in the end define the medium. (Sowers 1954, 34)


And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3–4)
As a transparent as well as a colored material, glass resonated profoundly with the concepts of clarity and opacity that functioned as primary dichotomies for both moral and ontological systems. Light was transparent as it left the Creator, acquiring color, and thus its ability to be visible, as it penetrated the material world. Colors can therefore be seen as representing the diversity and imperfection of creatures, although they still betray the radiance of their origins. (Raguin 2003, 13)
For the evolution of stained glass the influence of the author known as the Pseudo-Dionysius is of paramount interest. . . . Writing in the sixth century, he produced two books which, brief though they were, proved to be highly influential. His two treatises, The Heavenly Names and The Celestial Hierarchies, which dealt with the composition of heaven and angels, in their ascending degrees of importance, were the inspiration of most theologians in the Middle Ages. From the point of view of the stained-glass artist these two books triggered-off the concept of light being the main constituent, if not the bed-rock, of matter. All was made of light, and the light was the material reflection of the heavenly light, the wisdom of God. (Reyntiens 1990, 19)

Art and Architecture

The medieval lay masters wanted to master their materials, and to bend and fashion them in such a way that anything was possible. They vaulted huge spaces on slender points of support. They introduced light into their enormous covered spaces in such a way that this light itself constituted a kind of decoration, indeed painting. There were no longer walls but rather translucent tapestries. (Viollet-le-Duc 1990, 260)
Imagine a world in which everything was bright and shining and new, a world in which one thing reflected off another in such a way as to enhance the attractiveness and beauty of both—and further, that the visual quality of reflection and transparency was an indication of a higher, moral order, an order which was the beginning of the ultimate reality, which, in a word, reflected heaven. This is the concept of ‘claritas’ as it was understood in terms of scholastic philosophy of the thirteenth century and probably earlier. It was the most highly prized of medieval visual qualities. (Reyntiens 1990, 20)
Hitherto, with the close construction of Romanesque architecture, the individual widely spaced, deep-set windows piercing the thick walls afforded a series of seperate experiences rather than a generally dispersed atmospheric experience. It was as though the viewer went from transparent icon to transparent icon as he progressed up the aisle. Suger, by employing the new flat’bed technique of construction, reduced the interval between the windows and cut down the bulk of the stone-work. Consequently the eye was enabled for the first time to take in a broad sweep of window expanse rather thn individual points of interest. This unifying gesture towards not only the windows but also the interaction of the windows with the architecture was the great breakthrough, and on this new formal reality the rest of the achievement of stained glass in the Middle Ages depended. (Reyntiens 1990, 25)


In the thirteenth century, stanied glass had been part of a living cosmology of materials . . . By the sixteenth century it was not unusual for the glass painter to be given the task of imitating in stained glass a ‘school of Raphael’ fresco cartoon. Engraved reproductions of such works, by Marcantonio Raimondi and others, at the time were being circulated throughout Europe, and these were being accepted by the newly ascending mercantile patron as the final word in taste. Fine Art had been born and was beginning to be ‘applied’ to certain of the traditional arts. In this new hierarchy easel painting had become supreme and all of the other arts were practically shamed into imitating its effects. With his own standards of excellence thus revoked, the stained-glass artist, like the tapestry maker, illuminator, and mosaicist, was reduced to a common laborer, his traditional skills committed to the four winds. He was held to a formula alien not only to his instincts, but to the very nature of his medium. He could neither liberate himself from the structurally necessary network of leads nor could he any longer, in his effort to imitate the characteristics of painting, allow them to retain their normal decorative function. He had to try to hide them. Thus the ‘lost art’ of stained glass was never really lost; it was thrown away. (Sowers 1954, 26–27)

Works Cited

Raguin, Virginia Chieffo. 2003. Stained Glass: From Its Origins to the Present. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Reyntiens, Patrick. 1990. The Beauty of Stained Glass. London: The Herbert Press.

Sowers, Robert. 1954. The Lost Art: A Survey of One Thousand Years of Stained Glass. New York: George Wittenborn, Inc.

Tasker, Edward G. 1993. Encyclopedia of Medieval Church Art. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd.

Tryggvadottir, Nina. 1968. Painting with Light through Colored Glass. Leonardo, Vol. 1, No. 2. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Viollet-le-Duc, Eugène-Emmanuel. 1990. The Foundations of Architecture: Selections from the Dictionnaire Raisonné. Translation by Kenneth D. Whitehead. New York: George Braziller, Inc.