Stained glass got its reputation for subliminal, breath-taking beauty first in medieval Europe, where it was incorporated into stunning Gothic cathedrals with their flying buttresses, rose windows, and sky-high ceilings. These graceful works of architecture wouldn’t be the same with out their rows and rows of stained glass windows, whose intricate designs and images seemed to glow in the sunlight, filling interior spaces with jewel-like color.
The process of adding ground-up metals to molten glass to give it color dates from ancient Roman times, when stained-glass windows first appeared. The technique was perfected around 1150, when pieces of colored glass were assembled into patterns and then fitted between soldered strips of lead. At first these windows were mostly geometric in design, but during the Renaissance, artists would actually paint on the colored glass to create enormous glass paintings, whose religious imagery was illuminated by natural light.
For centuries, the Catholic Church was the only organization in Europe wealthy enough to afford such extravagance. During the Victorian Era, secular stained glass did appear as coats of arms or diamond-shaped Dutch windows, but this was rare.
It wasn’t until the late 19th century that stained glass made its way into laypeople’s homes. In 1889, architect E.S. Prior developed a new kind of glass called slag glass, which had irregular texture and color. This kind of glass was favored by those in the Arts and Crafts movement, who employed stained glass in abstract, geometric patterns to produce slag glass lamps, among other objects. From this innovation, Christopher Whall invented a new style of stained glass that focused on the lines made by the lead and used very little paint.
Some of Whall’s students found their way to the Glass House studios, run by Mary Lowndes and A.J. Drury. Whall also influenced Sarah Purser who founded the Tower of Glass studio in Dublin, run by Whall’s colleague A.E. Childs—the studio led to a revival of stained glass in Ireland. Over the decades, Tower of Glass produced work by influential designers like Michael Healy, Wilhelmina Geddes, and Evie Hone.
Meanwhile, around the turn of the century, American artists John LaFarge and Louis Comfort Tiffany set out to put a modern-day spin on medieval ideas with their stained glass windows, lamps, and works of art glass. LaFarge, like Tiffany, began his career as a painter and brought a painterly sensibility to unpainted glass. Sometimes he would layer pieces of differently colored glass to achieve new hues, and in 1879 he even developed and copyrighted a type of opalescent glass. These two rivals made both church and home windows.
The work of these artists became more intricate as a new process allowed them to assemble their stained glass with copper instead of lead. Tiffany jumped on new electric lamp tec...
After Tiffany’s and LaFarge’s experiments, stained glass became a more common medium for decorative artists, who made stained glass in patterns and images that reflected the movement du jour—Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, De Stijl, and Bauhaus. Frank Lloyd Wright designed stained-glass windows in geometric patterns intended to complement the serene lines and patterns of his rooms and their furniture. Piet Mondrian made stained-glass windows that echoed his famous black-on-white grid paintings with their colored squares. Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, and Henri Matisse are just a few of the other artists who executed pieces in stained glass.
During World War II, much of the medieval and Gothic style glass in Europe, usually featuring narrative religious scenes, was destroyed. After the war—particularly in Germany—it was replaced with stained glass in the abstract geometric patterns of the day. In fact, Germany is credited with completely breaking the art of stained glass from its pictorial past, starting with ’20s artists like Johann Thorn Prikker, and continuing after the war with Georg Meistermann, whose symbolic work had a sense of movement, and Ludwig Schaffrath, who created tremendous walls of light.
In France, artist Jean Crotti is credited with developing a technique in the 1930s known as gemmail, in which no lead or copper is used between the pieces of colored glass. Instead, the different pieces of glass are fused together, creating a 3D illusion. Many great paintings have been reproduced in glass using this method.
Stained glass thrived again as an art medium in the 1970s as artists, particularly on the West Coast, experimented with the design, imagery, and illusions that could be produced with glass. Their experiments often featured highly detailed imagery, optical illusions, organic shapes, or jokes on the nature of glass and windows. Jad Fair, Paul Marioni, Fred Abrams, Peter Mollica, Dan Fenton, Narcissus Quagliata, Otto B. Rigan, Kathie Stackpole Bunnell, James Hubbell, Dick Weiss, and Judy Raffael are among these modern innovators.
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Restoration ManBU Today, March 9th
Peter Ureneck had a passing interest in stained glass until the 1970s, when a child's sled cracked one of the long multicolored windows that flank the front door of his childhood home in Dorchester, Mass. He had been silk screen printing silhouetted...Read more
Stained-glass master made people happy, inspired documentaryStarNewsOnline.com, March 5th
In the feature documentary "Let There Be Light," nationally renowned stained glass artist and former Wilmington resident Rowan LeCompte describes the scene of a young girl dancing in the colorful light that shines through his stained glass windows in...Read more
Stained glass in ARCH Cafe sparks controversy among Korean studentsThe Daily Pennsylvanian, March 4th
The windows in the Arts, Research and Culture House Cafe have pieces of stained glass embedded within them. One of these panels caught the attention of College sophomore Seunghun Lee while he was eating in Tortas Frontera one day. He noticed in the ...Read more
"Stained glass" photovoltaics fuse form and functionGizmag, March 4th
A beautiful stained glass installation, a colorful billboard, or rows of windows on an office building ... all as electricity-generating solar cells? New research at the University of Michigan gives a method for creating such transparent and colorful...Read more
New stained glass window honors longtime Smiley Director Larry BurgessRedlands Daily Facts, March 3rd
New stained glass window honors longtime Smiley Director Larry Burgess. Burgess, who served as 26 years as Smiley's director, “talks shop” with the Smiley Brothers in a scene from the stained glass window area artist Tom Medlicott created in his honor...Read more
Stained-glass company stays faithful to traditionArizona Republic, March 1st
The Valley-based company, with a new affiliate whose roots go back to 1898, restores and designs stained-glass windows, the colorful religious art that has graced houses of worship for a millennium. Associated Crafts Inc., in a recent friendly buyout...Read more
Luminous Canterbury PilgrimsNew York Times, February 27th
The installation, like the medieval worldview, appears to be fixed but is open to fortuitous interventions, and there's one on view now in the form of six large windows that seemed to have been beamed down from on high for “Radiant Light: Stained Glass...Read more
Rowan LeCompte dies at 88; stained-glass artist designed National Cathedral ...Washington Post, February 15th
The cathedral became nothing short of an obsession. Mr. LeCompte began to study its stained-glass windows, then went home to Baltimore to read everything he could find on the subject. In October 1939, he made a watercolor study for his first window...Read more