See the light! Antique stained glass church window designs (1924)

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stained glass church windows (1924)

Origin of stained glass art

The art of fitting together small pieces of glass into a pattern with a heavy lead binding about each piece is supposed to have developed about the eleventh century. Glass-making was then crude. Only small pieces of glass could be blown, and yet large windows were needed in large buildings, so lead came into extensive use. The glass varied in texture and thickness and was far from being perfectly clear and white like modern glass. Differences in lighting effects began to be noted, colored bits of glass were introduced, and interesting designs evolved.

In the following centuries, stained glass rose to the height of its artistic fame. Church windows showed dramatic scenes or religious symbols which recalled stories of the Bible and the lives of the saints. The windows were like a religious primer to those churchgoers who could not read. But stained glass gradually fell from its place of high importance. In Queen Elizabeth’s time, an ordinance prohibited its use in English churches, and it was slowly replaced by plainer glass.

But stained glass gradually fell from its place of high importance. In Queen Elizabeth’s time, an ordinance prohibited its use in English churches, and it was slowly replaced by plainer glass.

Doomed by removal

Once removed from its setting, a window was generally doomed. It is said that much of the fine English glass was sent over to the continent and that it was hawked about France by peddlers of old clothes. As a result, there is comparatively little of the early medieval glass left today. Viollet-le-Duc, French expert on architecture, said that not a single panel of colored glass authentically earlier than the twelfth century remains today.

Because of the loss of so many old windows, and the damaged condition of others — and because modern stained glass, even the best, is considerably different from the old — the tradition is current that the art of making stained glass is a lost secret. This is denied by modern experts.

What the work of the medieval masters was really like in the twelfth century we can only imagine because time has wrought great changes in the glass. Colors that must have been elementals the best tints that the artists could get in their melting pot-have become mellow and brilliant. Cobwebs and disintegrating effects of the weather have softened harsh colors. Windows that arouse admiration now may not have been so beautiful when they were first set up to light the old chapels and cathedrals.

Modern workers skilled

Critics say that the modern glass worker can produce any color that the medieval craftsman knew and many others that were quite beyond his skill. Moreover, Viollet-le-Duc defended the modern artist’s technique.

“Our most able workers,” he says, “have made at times excellent copies; they have completed ancient windows with such a perfection of imitation that one can not distinguish the restorations from the old part. They have been able to recognize the remarkable qualities of the ancient windows in point of’ decorative effect and harmony, the perfection and skill of the workers, and to appreciate how admirably the style of these masters was fitted to this object. The art of the stained glass worker can not then be a mystery or a lost secret.”

Evolution of a new kind of stained glass

It is true that for several centuries after stained glass fell into disuse, attempts to reintroduce it were mostly failures. But about 50 years ago, a few American artist began to evolve a new kind of stained glass art modern processes and colors. Some of the American glass has won praise from experts. On the other hand, there is a great deal of glass in America which is far from artistic. Many of the picture windows, for instance. do not conform to ideals of what is most attractive in stained glass.

Mention of a few of the standards which still obtain will indicate what is good and bad in this unusual art. In the first place, the purpose of a window is to admit light and the old stained glass took account of this. It aimed to admit light in the most beautiful and decorative way. The medieval artists knew that colored glass and lead are simple materials and that painting over glass leaves it less luminous, and so when they attempted to depict human figures and scenes they did not try to achieve faithful realism. When a window is burdened with perspective and detailed realism, it lacks the simplicity of design and color of the early windows and the charm of colored light is lessened.

Another point is that some modern windows fall short of the medieval, standards because they are not in keeping with the architecture of the building in which they are placed. The windows theoretically are a part of a church no less than the doorway of the choir loft. In shape, design, and treatment, they should fit in with the architectural scheme.

Because of this principle, architects may not give hearty approval to the project of flood-lighting stained glass, one architect in this city believes that special lighting devices would tend to overemphasize a window beyond its due importance. It would become the feature of the edifice rather than a harmonious part of the entire design.

Then, too, a window lighted by the steady, even flow of light from a powerful arc lamp would be less intriguing than a window that is played upon by shifting sunlight and shadows.

Whether a window flood-lighted by impersonal rays of electricity loses very much of its artistic quality is something for architects and lighting experts to battle over. Meanwhile, the project of lighting stained glass windows is bringing the glass, art into greater prominence than it has enjoyed for some time.


More stained glass from the International Art Glass Catalog for churches (1924)



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