Whether you’re an avid lover of history or not, a quick glance at some of the oldest and most revered churches in the world will tell you that stained glass has been around for quite some time. It began even before that with colored glass used by the Egyptians and the Romans to create beautiful and colorful glass items.
Widely recognized as a Christian art form beginning in the 4th century due to the plethora of churches, the spread of Christianity also brought for the spread of stained glass across the world. Experts agree that one of the oldest examples of use of colored glass to create dazzling window displays is in Jarrow, England, at St. Paul’s Monastery which was founded in 686 AD. This ancient art form is still one of the most stunning methods of expression even today.
Historic Stained Glass Wares
Going back to the days of the Ancient Roman Empire, craftsmen used colored glass to create decorative wares. Although very few completely intact pieces of stained glass wares still exist from that period, one of the most revered, the Lycurgus Cup, which can be found at the British Museum, remains a shining example of early stained glass from the 4th century.
Made from dichroic glass, it produces a red glow when lit from the outside while casts a green illumination when lit from the outside. With all our technology today, it is still unknown as to how this piece was mastered back in those ancient times. Historians only know that droplets of gold and silver in the glass are what achieve the fascinating changes in color, but they surmise that it was likely created by accident.
The Lycurgus Cup is an ornamental drinking glass made out of dichroic glass—a medium that changes color depending on the direction of the light. When lit from the inside, the cup produces a red glow; when illuminated from the outside, it has an opaque green appearance.
How did early Roman artisans craft such a cup? Today, the process used to create this piece is shrouded in mystery. Though historians are certain gold and silver droplets in the glass are responsible for its color-changing qualities, they believe that it may have been produced by accident, as no other work of dichroic glass from this time features such a drastic color contrast.
Medieval Stained Glass Monasteries
Onward to the 7th century, this was when glass-makers focused on windows for resplendent displays, as was the case for St. Paul’s Monastery. Although it is no longer intact, it was excavated by Rosemary Cramp, an archaeologist who attended to the site in 1973. No one can be certain exactly how the original composition was laid out, though the monastery created collages with the stunning stained glass pieces of gold, blue, yellow, and green to give visitors a chance to see what it could have been like which is nothing short of majestic.
Gorgeous Gothic Stained Glass Cathedrals
In the Middle Ages, stained glass windows were in just about every Catholic church anywhere in Europe. They remained small in scale and rather simple with thick iron frames due to the style of Romanesque architecture during the times. Then in the 12th century, Gothic architecture took over, shedding new light on an ancient artistic practice. This is what you see when you gaze upon spires that jut into the sky, thin and delicate walls, and those absolutely breathtaking large stained glass windows.
A classic example of this is of course the incredibly revered Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which despite the recent fire, hasn’t lost its stained glass treasures. The intricate style and size of Gothic stained glass windows like these let in more light than previous stained glass forms, forever changing the beauty of this craft.
Islamic Architecture and Stained Glass
In the 8th century, stained glass had found a home in the Middle East as well. Glass industries in countries like Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq were booming. The artisans took on the ancient art form from the Roman styles and used to make their palaces, mosques, and other Islamic architectural elements shine. Rich with colors and complex patterns, Middle Eastern stained glass has always been something of an ornate and stunning art form.
Stained Glass Becomes a Creative Art in America
Once America grew from the bounty of immigrants hailing from all over the world, it wasn’t long before stained glass spread throughout the land. In the 19th century, stained glass artists in America took the ancient art form and brought it into modern times. Frank Lloyd Wright was one of the most influential of architectural artists to begin using this medium.
With his clear windows that popped with stained glass, the style was almost like ribbons running through the glass. Abstract geometric shapes added to each of his unique pieces made every single window in every structure its own art form. Wright wasn’t the only one to take stained glass to the next level. Around the same time, Louis Comfort Tiffany created the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company which you likely know from the famed stained glass lamps. The lamps have recently become popular antique items and are highly-prized.
Stained Glass Today
Even in modern times, stained glass is still a timeless classic, one that can be carried out in traditional techniques or with modern practices. Artists that use stained glass as their medium today continually find new ways to push the limits of this ancient form of art. With different variations in glass styles and creative expression, it’s little wonder that stained glass is still just as popular today as it ever was.