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Stained Glass: A Meeting of Art and Engineering

Stained Glass: A Meeting of Art and Engineering

Standing in the middle of the Chartres Cathedral in France, it's easy to be completely awed by the majestic 167 stained glass windows of the UNESCO world heritage site, bearing down on the humble visitor with the weight of 800 years of history, presented in the most exquisite craftsmanship. It's a scene that repeats itself across place and time, from medieval England to early modern Iran. Our history with glass is incredibly long and complex. Naturally occurring glasses, such as obsidian, have been used for aesthetic and utility purposes by human beings since time immemorial, and as early as 4000 BC, Mesopotamians had begun manufacturing glass. Before long, the Egyptians joined them in making beads and rods, and, by the second millennium BC, a glass trade had cropped up, making more complex objects and vessels such as vases. But it was not until the newly created Roman empire had sprawled across the Mediterranean that the clear glass that we are familiar with made its debut with the invention of glassblowing, allowing people to not merely look at glass, but through it.


Stained Glass

Depictions of the life of Emperor Charlemagne on the stained glass windows of the Chartres Cathedral.


This technological revolution ushered in a new era of mass production of glass by the Roman empire, and its spread throughout Europe and Asia. It also brought forth glass in what has been perhaps its more recognizable form, the window. With plastic still millennia away, glass allowed the use of a sturdy material for use in housing and shelter that was nevertheless transparent, making for, well, a window into the outside world. Then, in the 5th century AD, the Western Roman Empire collapsed, replaced by smaller entities that dotted the landscape of Europe. Nonetheless, these new polities were still united by their faith in the messianic figure of Jesus Christ, and very soon, it was the Church that took center stage in the story of glass, giving rise to a new chapter in its history with the use of the stained glass. 


Peacock's Paradise Stained Glass Window

This majestic Peacock's Paradise Stained Glass Window stands at nearly a yard tall! 


The earliest example we have today dates back to 675 AD, when a Benedict Biscop imported specialist workers from France to England to create stained glass windows in the monastery of St. Peter that he had been building. At the same time, the levant in West Asia, where glassblowing had arisen, still boasted the most developed glass manufacturing centers of the world, which now created stained glass or mosques and palaces in the Islamic world. By the time of the High Middle Ages, Romanesque and Early Gothic architecture took hold in Europe, and the medieval cathedrals that we most associate with stained glass were built in this period, boasting massive glass panels that were genuine marvels of artistry and engineering. The city of Chartres, home to its famous cathedral, soon acquired the distinction of being the finest glassmaker in the world, giving rise to such innovations as the circular rose window.


stained glass

Culture Kraze brings you this kaleidoscope inspired stained glass window, with each piece of glass painstakingly hand-cut.


It was not long before stained glass windows gained their reputation as the Poor Man's Bible, serving to inform and educate the poor and illiterate masses of Europe through their detailed imagery. Unfortunately, stained glass was a major casualty of the reformation and rise of Protestantism, with thousands smashed in Protestant England in an iconoclastic destruction of catholic motifs. Nonetheless, in Central Europe, many examples of stained glass windows in the classical style of the renaissance remain available today.


This stunning beaux-arts inspired window radiates elegance and grace.


The dawn of the modern period saw a revival of, and renewed interest in, stained glass, kicking off restoration movements across Britain and Continental Europe from the 18th century onwards. Across the Atlantic, Louis Comfort Tiffany's patented techniques to create opalescent glass at the close of the 19th century led to a further flurry of interest and activity, spawning critics and admirers alike. This interest survived well into the 20th century, especially after the destruction and damage caused by the world wars, which led to large scale restoration efforts throughout the century. Contemporary makers of stained glass have further attempted to combine ancient and modern styles in their work, continuing a tradition of glass as a medium of artistic innovation. Today, stained glass has diversified from windows to three dimensional structures and sculptures as well.


stained glass pedestal

Why confine yourself to a window? Get this illuminated hand-carved stained glass pedestal!


Glass is a peculiar substance that possesses elements of both solids and liquids, owing to its unique manufacturing process. Glass is usually produced by heating, and then quickly cooling, a mixture of substances, ensuring that the atoms that constitute it do not have the opportunity to form a stable and set pattern, resulting in a disordered solid whose atoms are seeking to adopt a crystalline lattice structure, but find themselves unable to do so. In fact, the atoms in glass are technically "flowing", as in a liquid, but do so at an incredibly slow rate, which would require a billion years just to flow a single nanometer! Quite apart from its peculiarities in properties, and sometimes because of them, glass also serves key functions in human society and economy. In addition to its aesthetic value, it is impossible to imagine modern TV, mobile, tablet and computer screens without it, and the information and communications industry, which forms the bedrock of the modern global economy, relies entirely on fiber-optic glass cables to allow us to remain globally connected in real time. Glass is so ubiquitous today that we seldom notice it at all, but it very frequently lies at the very heart of who we are, and how we are. It is an incredible substance, unfortunately frequently ignored by those that look through it, but seldom at it.



  1. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2018/04/humankinds-most-important-material/557315/
  2. https://mymodernmet.com/famous-stained-glass-windows/
  3. http://www.bsmgp.org.uk/
  4. https://www.ukcraftfairs.com/guides/stained-glass
  5. https://vimeo.com/126036027
  6. https://thestainedglassmuseum.com/
  7. https://web.archive.org/web/20070115100255/http://www.cr.nps.gov/hps/tps/briefs/brief33.htm
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