Accounts vary on the earliest use of stained glass mainly because it was invented before recorded history. Some historians claim it was first used as a domestic luxury in the homes of wealthy Romans in the first century. Stained glass eventually gained recognition as an art form sometime in the fourth century as Christians began to worship openly and built elaborate churches to celebrate their religion. Other historians point to evidence in ancient ruins that implicate the use of stained glass in pagan traditions and decor. While we may never know the exact origin of the medium of stained glass it is clear that the spread of Christianity is directly related to the expansion of stained glass across the globe.
The twelfth century began what is known as the Gothic Era and stained glass windows took center stage in elaborate and monumental cathedral designs. Beginning with the innovative designs on the St. Denis, stained glass windows were used to bring light, both literally and metaphorically, into cathedrals to enhance the worship experience. Most of the stained glass from the St. Denis Cathedral was destroyed during the French Revolution but a few select fragments and even some entire windows can be found on display in varying locations throughout Europe.
The bold lines and strong figures of Gothic style stained glass were eventually phased out as Renaissance artisans leaned toward greater detail, more delicate coloring and increased realism. Stained glass windows evolved into something more like a painting on glass than an architectural element and some of the notable elements such as lead lines disappeared. Although there were numerous pieces created and even some masterpieces, due to the difficulties in expressing the great detail of requisite to the Renaissance era, true stained glass became somewhat of a lost art.
Stained glass had been primarily used by the Catholic Church and much of the precious art form was destroyed during the 1600’s by order of King Henry VIII after his break with the Church. Not only were cherished stained glass windows recklessly destroyed, but many of the glass making facilities were ruined as well. Religious unrest was not the only factor in the decline of stained glass. During the Baroque period the fashion leaned toward more intricately detailed interiors and elaborate wall painting which necessitated the use of clear glass in the architecture. Many of the remaining stained glass windows were left unmaintained and allowed to decay during this period and very few new stained glass windows were created.
During the late seventeenth century the hearts and imaginations of the people returned once again to the Gothic style of architecture. This revival was apparently motivated by the need to escape the harsh realities of “modern” life including the daily grind of factories. With the return of Gothic architecture emerged a newfound interest in stained glass. Artists initially continued to use the technique of painting on glass, but eventually realized the superiority of the old pot metal glasses used in medieval times. Since the old techniques had not been used for such a long time, the technique used for making the lead lines had been lost and the artisans of the period floundered when trying to recreate the dynamics of the Gothic stained glass. This coupled with a reluctance to give up the newer more detailed “modern” depictions of scenes and figures lead to windows with an interesting design with the old architecture and an unusual blend of the old and new stained glass styles.
During the nineteenth century, artisans La Farge and Tiffany created new variations of opalescent stained glass. La Farge tended towards architecture and window designs with a small private studio, while Tiffany boasted a larger studio that branched out into other areas, like the Tiffany Lamp which has become a household name. Today’s stained glass artists are bound by no particular style or religious themes. Much of the work they do involves restoration, but can also be seen in both small and large decorative touches in homes of people from almost any economic background. New and innovative techniques are constantly being discovered and stained glass continues to add interest to our lives.