Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

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Artisans have found inspiration in glistening glass for thousands of years. In any form, glass can produce beautiful works of art.

Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Artisans have found inspiration in glistening glass for thousands of years. In any form, glass can produce beautiful works of art. Nevertheless, when colored, the medium climbs to kaleidoscopic new heights.


Though stained glass was often associated with windows and places of worship, it's been adopted and adapted for every kind of art, from ancient cups to contemporary installations. But before we trace the age-old history of stained glass, it's essential to understand the medium's primary characteristics.


"Stained glass" refers to glass which has been colored by metallic oxides during the manufacturing process. Different additives produce different hues, allowing artisans to produce glass of specific colors strategically. For instance, adding copper oxides to molten glass culminates in green and blue tones.


Once the glass has cooled, it can be pieced together to produce works of decorative art. According to My Modern Met, those fragments can be held in place by several materials, such as lead, stone, and copper foil.


Evidence of stained glass dates to the Ancient Roman Empire when craftsman started using colored glass to produce decorative wares. Though few fully in-tact stained glass pieces from this period exist, the Lycurgus Cup indicates that this practice emerged as early as the fourth century.


Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Sainte-Chapelle in Paris (SIAATH/Shutterstock)


Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

HelloRF Zcool/Shutterstock


Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

The British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


The Lycurgus Cup is a decorative drinking glass made out of dichroic glass—a medium which changes color depending on the direction of the light. When lit from the inside, the cup produces a red glow, and when illuminated from the outside, it's got an opaque green appearance.


Today, the process used to create that piece is shrouded in mystery. Though historians are particular gold and silver droplets in the glass are responsible for its color-changing qualities, they think that it might have been produced by accident, as no other work of dichroic glass from that time features such a drastic color contrast.


"The Lycurgus Cup demonstrates a short-lived technology developed in the fourth century CE by Roman glass-workers," a group of art historians explained in The Lycurgus Cup – A Roman Nanotechnology. "We now understand that these effects are due to the development of nanoparticles in the glass. However, the inability to control the colorant process meant that relatively few glasses of this type were produced, and even fewer survive."


Yet, the Lycurgus Cup is celebrated as one of the most famous ancient glassworks, with art historian Donald Harden calling it "the most spectacular glass of the period, fittingly decorated, which we know to have existed."


By the seventh century, glassmakers began to shift their attention from wares to windows. As expected, those stained glass windows were used to adorn abbeys, convents, and other religious buildings, with St. Paul's Monastery in Jarrow, England as the earliest known paradigm.


Created when the monastic building was founded in 686 CE, fragments of those centuries-old windows were excavated by archaeologist Rosemary Cramp in 1973. Though the original composition of the blue, green, gold and yellow pieces are unknown, the monastery compiled them into a collage.


Stained glass windows could be found in many Catholic churches across Europe by the Middle Ages. Until the twelveth century, though, these windows were relatively simple, small in scale, and outlined by thick iron frames. That's because Romanesque architecture dominated architectural tastes.


Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

lynnlin/Shutterstock


Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Viacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock


Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Wellcome Collection CC BY 4.0


In the 12th century, though, the Romanesque style was replaced by Gothic architecture. Unlike Romanesque buildings, cathedrals, and churches built in that style illustrate an interest in height and light. The focus is evident in all aspects of Gothic design, including sky-high spires, delicate, thin walls, and, of course, large stained glass windows.


Gothic windows usually come in two forms: tall and arched lancet windows or round rose windows. In both cases, they are often monumental in scale and rendered in meticulous detail. Because of their size and intricacy, Gothic stained glass windows were able to let in more dazzling light than ever before.


By the eighth century, stained glass had made its way to the Middle East. The magic behind the medium is discussed at length in Kitab al-Durra al-Maknuna ("The Book of the Hidden Pearl"), a colored glass cookbook written by Persian chemist Jābir ibn Ḥayyān.


In that manuscript, Jābir ibn Ḥayyān offers dozens of "recipes" for colored glass and artificial gemstones. Experimentation was vital in creating high-quality glass.


At that time, glass industries were thriving in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. Artisans adopted and adapted the ancient Roman medium, using it to adorn palaces, mosques, and other staples of Islamic architecture with windows rich in color and complex in pattern. The pieces became increasingly ornate over time.


In the 19th century, American artisans turned the ancient art of stained glass into a modern art form. Their approach is particularly evident in the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, pioneer of the Prairie School movement, a style of architecture and interior design which emphasizes craftsmanship and a connection to nature.


Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Artur Bogacki/Shutterstock


Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays

Edi Chen Lopatin/Shutterstock


Clear windows with pops of stained glass became an intrinsic part of Wright's Prairie School interiors. Those accents materialized as "ribbons of uninterrupted glass" featuring "geometric abstractions unique to each building for which they were created," making every window a one-of-a-kind work of art.


At the same time that Wright was producing his windows, another American glassmaker successfully reinterpreted the ancient art form. In 1885, Louis Comfort Tiffany established the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, a New York City-based studio which produced spectacular stained glass lamps.


While those once-popular lamps fell out of fashion in the middle of the twentieth century, they recently saw a revival and remain coveted collector's items.


Nowadays, contemporary stained glass artists keep the age-old art form alive. Like their twentieth-century predecessors, these artists continue to come up with creative new ways to reinterpret the ancient craft.


Whether they use sparkling glass to spruce up the New York City skyline, enhance an enchanting cabin, or make a botanical garden bloom in new ways, those artists prove that stained glass is anything but outdated.

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Thinking Humanity: Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays
Stained Glass, An Ancient Art Form That Is Still Mesmerizing Nowadays
Artisans have found inspiration in glistening glass for thousands of years. In any form, glass can produce beautiful works of art.
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