Accounts vary on the initial use of stained glass primarily because it was invented prior to recorded history. Some historians state it was first used as a domestic luxury in the homes of rich Romans in the first century. Stained glass finally gained recognition as an art form sometime in the fourth century as Christians began to worship explicitly and built highly structured churches to celebrate their religion. Other historians point to facts in ancient ruins that involve the use of stained glass in pagan traditions and interior decoration. While we may never know the exact derivation of the medium of stained glass it is open that the swell of Christianity is directly interconnected to the expansion of stained glass across the globe.
The twelfth century began what is identified as the Gothic Era and stained glass windows took center stage in highly structured and monumental cathedral designs. Beginning with the modern designs on the St. Denis, stained glass windows were used to bring light, both accurately and metaphorically, into cathedrals to improve the worship experience. Most of the stained glass from the St. Denis Cathedral was smashed during the French Revolution but a few select fragments and even some full windows can be found on exhibit in varying locations throughout Europe.
The bold lines and strong figures of Gothic style stained glass were finally phased out as Renaissance artisans leaned towards greater detail, more fine coloring and increased realism. Stained glass windows evolved into something more like a watercolour on glass than an architectural element and some of the outstanding elements such as lead lines disappeared. Although there were numerous pieces created and even some masterpieces, due to the teething troubles in expressing the great detail of requisite to the Renaissance era, true stained glass became somewhat of a lost art.
Stained glass had been largely used by the Catholic Church and much of the valuable art form was destroyed during the 1600’s by order of King Henry VIII after his break with the Church. Not only were touching stained glass windows hastily destroyed, but many of the glass making amenities were ruined as well. Religious unrest was not the only cause in the decline of stained glass. During the Baroque age the fashion leaned toward more intricately detailed interiors and highly structured wall painting which necessitated the use of clear glass in the architecture. Many of the lingering stained glass windows were left unmaintained and allowed to rot during this period and very few new stained glass windows were produced.
Throughout the late seventeenth century the hearts and imaginations of the people returned another time to the Gothic style of design. This revival was actually motivated by the need to escape the harsh realities of “modern” life together with the daily grind of factories. With the arrival of Gothic architecture emerged a newfound interest in stained glass. Artists primarily continued to use the skill of painting on glass, but finally realized the superiority of the old pot metal glasses used in medieval times. Since the old proficiency had not been used for such a long time, the skill used for making the lead lines had been lost and the artisans of the period stagger when trying to recreate the dynamics of the Gothic stained glass. This tied with a reluctance to give up the newer more thorough “modern” depictions of scenes and figures lead to windows with an out of the ordinary design with the old architecture and an remarkable blend of the old and new stained glass styles.
Throughout the nineteenth century, artisans La Farge and Tiffany created new fluctuation of opalescent stained glass. La Farge tended to architecture and window designs with a small personal studio, while Tiffany boasted a larger studio that divided out into other areas, like the Tiffany Lamp which has become a household name. Today’s stained glass artists are bound by no specific style or religious themes. Much of the work they do regard restoration, but can also be seen in both small and large attractive touches in homes of people from almost any economic background. New and modern techniques are perpetually being discovered and stained glass continues to add attention to our lives.