The production of stained glass windows began to slow during the Renaissance. Artists during that period began painting much more detailed and realistic religious scenes on canvass and in murals. As these works became popular, the populace expected to see this degree of realism when viewing art of any kind, including windows. However, this realism was difficult to translate into the medieval stained glass medium, as each small detail would entail the cutting of another piece of glass which then had to be outlined in lead and fitted with many other like pieces. The resulting number of lead lines running through the piece were unsightly and offensive to the new artistic sensibilities and expectations.
A series of events and changes in attitudes during the 17th and 18th centuries further led to the demise of the stained glass craft, and also to the tragic loss of much which had been crafted in earlier periods. The Protestant Reformation brought a plague of religious wars and political revolutions. In continental Europe many windows, with their “Popish” imagery, were smashed, and the new breed of iconoclasts even destroyed many of the stained glass and religious art studios – a significant segment of the economy for many towns and regions. In England the Parliament of 1644 ordered all images of the Blessed Virgin Mary destroyed, and this naturally included those that appeared in windows. At Canterbury Cathedral, where St. Thomas a’Becket had been hacked to death by knights in 1170, a fanatical Puritan rector climbed up a 60 step ladder and attacked a stained glass image of the great martyr with a pike.
In the areas where Catholicism remained strong, other factors took a toll on the production of stained glass. The Baroque style of architecture often used during the Counter-Reformation utilized painted interiors with lavishly carved and gilded decorations which required bright interior lighting, necessitating the use of clear glass windows. Some parishes deemed their stained glass windows to be “old fashioned” and removed them, perhaps in an attempt to make the older churches look more like the newer Baroque structures.
The French Revolution brought a new period of destruction to Catholic imagery, including stained glass windows. Many great Gothic cathedrals were desecrated and taken away from the Church. There was no room for religious pictures or symbols of faith in these newly named “Temples of Reason.” The ancient stained glass windows in the great Abbey Church of St. Denis – windows which were, in a sense, the “ancestors” of all that followed – were not spared destruction at the hands of the rabid revolutionaries.
Of the European stained glass windows which survived these turbulent times, many would be lost due to the lack of maintenance and necessary intermittent repairs. This distinctly Christian medium became a lost art. The birth and apparent death of stained glass had both been due to radical changes in religious thought and social consciousness. It would take another age of social change and new philosophies to resurrect the art of stained glass.
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