A Brief History of Stained Glass
When I was in college, I learned many things about stained glass and fell in love with the art. I have created many stained glass creations both 2-D and 3-D! Here is a brief introduction to the history of the art:
There is a tale by Pliny the Elder that Phoenician sailors accidentally discovered glass while camping on the shores of the River Belus. They left their cooking pots on lumps of soda over a fire while they went to sleep. When they woke up they saw that the pots had melted, mixed with the sand, and hardened into glass. However, the earliest known manmade glass was Egyptian beads made between 2750 and 2625 BC. They made these beads by winding a thin strand of molten glass around a piece of clay.
An innovation in glass technology occurred when the blowpipe was invented. It is not known for sure when or where it was first created, but scholars think it first appeared in the mid-first century. It allowed a greater manipulation of glass. The mouth blown vessels that were created could be mass-produced, and was also used to make glass for windows. This became popular in the first century A.D.
Romans first began to use clear sheet glass for windows in the 1st century A.D. It was crude, irregular and not very transparent, but by the end of that century, glass factories began to appear in Italy and Southern Gaul. Sheet glass was being used to make windowpanes, but it wasn’t used in designs till much later. One of the oldest known examples of multiple pieces of colored glass used in a window were discovered at St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, England, which was founded in 686 AD. While Romans were the first to use glass for purely functional purposes, they were responsible for some of the most beautiful works of art such as the Portland Vase (a free-blown vessel). The Romans and Greeks also used colored glass chips to do mosaics on floors, walls, and ceilings. This art grew well into the tenth century A.D.
In early windows, the glass was held together with linen cloths, wood, plaster, or bronze. The next great innovation was the grooved strips of “strong yet malleable lead” used as a “matrix for the glass pieces.” When this advance first appeared, in not known, but remnants of glass set in lead have been found in some Roman buildings.
Window glass had been used for domestic atmospheres at an early date, but its use in Christian churches was where it began to grow. “Its appeal to the church was as much spiritual as it was aesthetic.” With the Bible’s emphasis on light, the decorative and functional role of a stained glass window in a place of worship was a huge success. “Another advance in the art of stained glass occurred when paint was applied to and fired on the glass. It isn’t known when it was first done, but glass fragments with paint on them were found from as early as the sixteenth century. In 1878 at a dig in a cemetery abandoned about 1000 AD at Sery les Mezieres, Aisne, France, Jules Pilloy found about 30 pieces of glass which had suffered from an apparent fire, a lead strip with two channels and a small slab of bone among some charred wood. The bone (which might have been a holy relic) pre-dated Charlemagne. Edmond Socard arranged the glass into a small, simple window.” The green and yellow fragments of glass formed a cross with the Alpha and Omega symbols. “This symbol was very popular from the sixth to ninth centuries. Unfortunately, this treasure was destroyed in 1918 during World War I.” At the site of Lorsch, Germany, pieces of an early painted head of Christ were discovered.
During the eleventh century, many churches were decorated painted glass. The magnificent eleventh century head of Christ, preserved in the Musee de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame in Strasbourg displays a painting using three tones, or values, described by Theophilus a century later. The earliest painted glass used for architecture is in Augsburg Cathedral. Four of the twenty-two figures still survive in the upper windows of the cathedral.
In the early twelfth century, the monk Theophilus wrote down a formula for making glass. It consisted of “two parts beech and bracken ash (yielding potash, an alkaline base) and one part river sand, washed free of earthly particles. When heated, this mixture was pale green, and then started to become a “flesh-color.” Suger, the Abbot of Saint Denis, boasted of grinding up sapphires to obtain a blue tinted glass. This is an unlikely story. Adding oxides or salts to the molten sand is what usually makes color in class. Different colors depend on which chemical was used and to what temperature it was heated. In the beginning, colors were limited to blue, red, yellow, purple, and green.
By this time, the twelfth century, stained glass was a main part of Gothic architecture. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were known as the Golden Age of Stained Glass. This era produced some of the finest windows ever created.
Although the Gothic artists were limited to their color range, their creativity had no bounds. On of the rose windows of the Chartres Cathedral is a wonderful example of this.
The influence of the Chartres windows stretched all over Europe. You can see in other cathedrals such as Bourges, Le Mans, and Tours that they used similar backgrounds and colors. “By the end of the medieval period, (the middle the fourteenth century), perspective and volume were becoming evident. Subject was more pictorial and not subservient to the architecture.” This was the beginning of the Renaissance period.
Renaissance stained glass had silhouettes of people dressed in period clothing, secular scenes appeared in churches, and more windows were used in secular building. The craft of stained glass also began to change. People set up permanent workshops, usually next a cathedral or other major employer. Pattern books were being made and artists were now shipping windows to customers other than their commissioner.
New tools such as the diamond cutter were used, allowing more complicated designs. Lead was thinner so it was less important in the design. Many well-known artists began to work in stained glass during this period such as Filippino Lippi, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, Giotto, Giovanni Cimabue, and the Gesuati brothers. This period extended in to the 1700’s.
Sometime between the medieval age and the nineteenth century, stained glass art faded. This happened because churches had been the primary patrons of the art, and during the Reformation, the Protestants looked down upon the elaborate, grandiose of the Catholic Cathedrals. During the Thirty Years War, Cardinal Richelieu ordered all castles and palaces in Lorraine razed. Due to their destruction many glass workshops in that area were closed.
Glass making was the first industry set up in America in Jamestown, which was settled in 1607. The English were running out of wood to fuel their furnaces. The many forests in the New World provided plenty of fuel. They mostly made bottles and window glass. However, the puritans rejected the religious imagery of the Churches of England, so there isn’t much glass left from the colonial times. “Less than 1% of the Nation’s stained and leaded glass predates 1700.” 
Despite all of the wars stained glass was available in limited quantities during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, and then glass production began to increase steadily throughout the century. Many workshops were built, one of which was set up by Jan Smeedes, in 1679, in Lower Manhattan where made roundels. Another was William Gibson, who was labeled the “Father of Painted Glass.”
The most significant early stained glass piece in America was by John and William Jay Bolton between 1843 and 1848, called St. Ann and the Holy Trinity. 
In 1851, London held the first World’s Fair, where the products of the Industrial Revolution were shown off. When Japan first participated, in 1894, the world was introduced to Tiffany glass. Siegfried Bing, Japanese artist, had commissioned Louis Comfort Tiffany to make ten panels, which were designed by some of the top fine artists. It was done in art noveau style that is characteristic of flowing line, and natural subjects.
Louis Comfort Tiffany became known for his designs of richly colored works of glass in the art nouveau style. He wasn’t satisfied with the kind of glass that was available, he wanted glass that didn’t need to be painted or treated in any way. Tiffany experimented in many glass shops “to produce glass that was to make it possible for the entire design of a window to be carried out by means of the color in the glass itself.” Through his studies of chemistry and years of experiments, he found a way to avoid treating glass.  He patented it and now it is called Tiffany glass, and also a type of iridescent glass called Favrile. For his designs, he often used flowers, birds, dragonflies, and landscapes. He even made stained glass lampshades.
By 1900, stained glass and lead were being mass-produced, so they were available to almost everyone. In many places, stained glass windows were being used for domestic use. A nationwide building boom created a high demand for stained glass windows and door panels. However, during World War I, lead became scarce and people moved away from the ornate Victorian style windows. The “great age of stained glass” had ended. Even so, countless stained glass windows remain all over the country and are appreciated as important features of historic buildings.
All around the country and world, people still work in stained glass, in their homes and classrooms. There are also still companies such as Kokomo Opalescent Glass, Uroboros Glass Studios, Oceana Sheet Glass Co., and Blenko Glass Co. that keep the art alive.
*Originally written for Stained Glass I at Indiana Wesleyan University