Color has a unique transformative ability. If you paint a room red, a person can have an entirely different gut reaction upon walking in than if the same room were painted green or blue. When color is combined with glass, as it is in stained-glass windows, the effect is nothing short of magical. Stained-glass windows have been around since the 7th century and the process of coloring glass has been around for much longer, but the medium still proves to be a popular one today. From its use in the Middle Ages as a storytelling tool to the beautiful accents of modern windows, stained glass has a history every bit as rich as the colors it uses.

Origin of Stained Glass
The process of coloring glass has existed since the time of the ancient Egyptians and the Roman Empire, but the earliest known example of a stained-glass window can be traced to 675 AD at the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow Abbey in England. The abbot, Benedict Biscop, brought artisans back from Gaul (the region that is known today as France, Belgium, and Luxembourg) for the specific purpose of decorating the windows of his new abbey. These early windows were created in a simple mosaic design, with basic colors fitted together in small circular windows. However, these windows utilized the same construction technique that would be found in the stained glass of the Middle Ages and the 19th century.

Stained-Glass Production
Stained-glass windows in the Middle Ages were created by connecting different specially shaped pieces of glass in a lead frame. The glass, created from sand and ash, would first have to be forged and cooled. The glass could be colored through the addition of specific kinds of tree ash or copper or by the layering of paint on top of clear glass. Soda could even be added to the molten mixture to produce a lovely blue hue in the finished product. Once the required colors were assembled, the glass would be cut and carefully arranged in the desired pattern within the metal frame.

Stained-Glass Windows in the Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, one could most frequently expect to find stained-glass windows in a church. The liturgy and traditions of the church provided ample subject material, and given the scriptural significance placed on light, the addition of stained glass to these religious buildings was a sensible one. Stained-glass windows had the added benefit of helping to educate a largely illiterate population through illustration and progressive panels that told a story. Stained-glass windows could even be found in the homes of the wealthy or in communal buildings. On the whole, however, stained glass remained largely confined to churches or mosques.
Early Modern Stained-Glass Windows
Many stained-glass pieces were lost in the rioting that followed the Reformation movement of the 1500s in Europe. Happily, the new churches that sprang up from the divide - along with the existing Catholic churches - began commissioning more windows and works of art. The art contained in these new windows experienced a sort of refinement, with fine, thin lines for shading and curling accents that would become stylistic of the Baroque period. As the art moved into the 18th and 19th centuries, designers like Louis Comfort Tiffany began using stained glass not for religious iconography or family crests but for windows that looked as though they'd been created from watercolor - art for art's sake. Tiffany windows are still prized today for their vibrant colors, craftsmanship, and soft, detailed representations of nature.

Stained-Glass Windows Today
Through the late 1900s and early 2000s, stained-glass windows have seen a regression from the opulence of the 18th and 19th centuries to a more geometric experimentation with pure color. Stained-glass windows are now used to transform spaces and to work in tandem with specific architectural designs, creating unique settings in otherwise commonplace areas such as airports or homes. Stained-glass windows may have originated as an indicator of wealth or prestige (and indeed, they can still be found in new and old churches around the world), but modern times have made them a bit more accessible to the population as a whole. One thing that time hasn't changed, though, is the simple beauty of kaleidoscopic light through these remarkable works of art.
Article written by Lexi Westingate
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