The Abbey Church of St. Denis, consecrated in 1144 near Paris, is considered the first great Gothic masterpiece. Abbe Suger, the Abbot of St. Denis and spiritual advisor of Kings Louis VI and Louis VII, took full advantage of the new possibilities of this style. With the walls no longer bearing the weight of the vault, he replaced the thick and heavy masonry with thin and fragile stained glass. Large and radiant “mosaics of glass” were created. The iridescent jeweled windows allowed the expansive interior to be deluged with color, and the sanctuary was charged with light. The effect of morning sun pouring through the many-colored windows was beautiful and spellbinding, and as the sun followed its course throughout the day the interior became the center of a mobile kaleidoscope of color. The look and mood was also transformed by each cloud that passed overhead. Stained glass became an organic part of Gothic architectural design, and Abbe Suger became known as the “Father of stained glass”.
To Christians at the beginning of the second millenium, stained glass windows provided visual lessons to explain the Church festivals, the life of Christ, the importance of the Virgin Mary, the prophets, saints, martyrs, and other Christian themes. Abbe Suger wrote, “The pictures in the windows are there for the purpose of showing people who cannot read the Holy Scriptures what they must believe.” They inspired a sense of devotion and faith, and Suger’s hope was that each window would “illumine men’s minds so they may travel through it to an apprehension of God’s light.” The windows, together with the arches and high vaulted ceilings, seemed to point toward Heaven, providing an inescapable reminder of what the building was for. The goal was to give those on Earth an image of Paradise, of the New Jerusalem, the Civitas Dei (“City of God”). The Gothic cathedral was often compared to Noah’s Ark, a great ship carrying the faithful to salvation; the buttresses protruding from its sides were likened to giant oars.
The Gothic style which made these cathedrals so magnificent was soon applied to smaller structures, as well. The Sainte-Chapelle was built in Paris by the saint-king, Louis IX, to house Christ’s Crown of Thorns and other relics of the Passion brought back from the Holy Land. The windows of this chapel are so glorious that St. Louis is sometimes referred to as the patron saint of stained glass. For the next few centuries Gothic architecture and its characteristic stained glass windows would be utilized in the construction of cathedral and parish church alike.
The windows of the early Gothic period show affinities with the manuscript illumination of the times, with its depictions of detailed costumes and natural and architectural settings. The expressionism in German sculpture and illumination of the 1300s, with their emotionally charged scenes of tenderness, sorrow, and agony would later influence the way scenes were depicted in stained glass windows. Developments in the science of anatomy also found their way into the art world as artists (including stained glass craftsmen) began portraying the human form in much more realistic poses and proportion. Other developments affected the glass which was used. In the 1400s, the making of grisaille – lightly toned glass which allowed the maximum penetration of light – was mastered. Two centuries later, it was discovered that firing silver stain onto glass produced rich hues of gold and yellow. During that same period flashed glass was also developed. This was a method of layering colored glasses over one another to produce different shades. These innovations provided stained glass craftsmen a larger color palate with which to use when assembling their translucent mosaics.
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