The beginnings of stained glass production are a bit of a mystery. Bits of colored glass are known to have been used by the ancient Romans. In the Christian Era, records exist of some form of colored glass being used in the Church of St. Martin in Tours, France in the 6th century, and pieces found in Ravenna, Italy may also date from the same period. Fragments depicting the face of Christ have been found in Germany and France that are as old as the 9th century. The Romanesque-style Cathedral of Augsburg houses the oldest extant stained glass windows, five small frames depicting Old Testament figures, made circa 1050. A German monk named Theophilus wrote a detailed description of the techniques of making stained glass in the 1100s.
Developments by glaziers, jewelers, goldsmiths, cloisonne enamelers and mosaic producers were combined to produce what was, at that time and for several centuries afterward, a uniquely Christian art form. After a design was conceived, brilliantly colored glass was blown and then cut into the desired shapes, which were then fitted into lead strips within an iron framework. It was discovered early on that small amounts of lead and pigment could be smeared and then fired onto the colored glass to provide some details (such as fingers or facial features) that would have been difficult to produce otherwise.
The earliest stained glass windows were housed in the bulky Romanesque churches of the time. Due to the small size and sparse number of windows in these ancient churches, the art of “painting with light” would not become a widespread and significant movement until the development of a new architecture which allowed for more windows.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian preacher and a Doctor of the Church, was among those who helped change the outlook on Catholic monastic life and worship spaces. This reformer of the Benedictine Order encouraged his monks to “seek to approach God... by successive illuminations of the spirit. The soul shall seek the light by following the light.” His Cistercians built the first churches with larger windows to allow for more light, which, according to Bernard, was “peculiarly conducive to meditation.” The presence of natural light stimulated the worshipers’ sense of the presence of God, the source of spiritual light. Architects in various areas soon tried to devise ways to brighten church interiors. During this same period, the social and monetary economies were changing in Europe, making large sums of money available to build grand edifices for the glory of God.
Early in the 12th century, French architects from the region around Paris began building cathedrals with towering, seemingly infinite interior expanses which were flooded with radiant natural light. Their system used ribbed vaults and pointed arches, supported by a strong exoskeleton of piers and columns which carried the stresses from the weight above to the ground below. External braces called buttresses were either attached to the walls directly (as in the buttresses here at St. Martin’s), or were “flying” by way of an arch to the wall (as first used at Notre Dame de Paris, ca. 1170). These appendages applied a counter-thrust which enabled the construction of tall, thin, non-loadbearing walls. With these innovations, the stout piers and thick walls of the Romanesque architectural style could be eliminated.
This French style spread west to Germany and north to Scandinavia, greatly influencing the art and architecture of those lands. The Norman Conquest also took the style to England, where glaziers began producing their art around 1150. Due to the Moorish occupation of the Iberian Peninsula, the new ways would get a late start in Spain. It was also slow to catch on in Italy. In fact, it was an Italian critic who gave his harsh opinion that this new architecture of Western Europe was “pagan,” and he theorized that the characteristic pointed arch was invented by nature-worshiping barbarian tribes, who supposedly bound the upper branches of trees together to create arches. Recalling the pagan Ostrogoth and Visigoth tribes (the latter of which had sacked Rome in 410 A.D.), the critic gave this style of architecture the name by which it is still known: Gothic.
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