Medieval stained glass is a unique and precious form of art which was used by only the wealthiest patrons, including the Christian church.
The Origins of Stained Glass
The technique of creating stained glass became widespread in Europe from the tenth century AD. Early glass factories were established, close to supplies of silica, the main component in the production of stained glass.
Over the years, different techniques were developed which helped progress the production of stained glass windows. For example, early Gothic stained glass windows were divided by heavy metal frames, whilst later examples used iron rods to hold the different panes of glass in place. From the 1300s onwards, glassmakers began to use silver stain, a product made with silver nitrate which gave a yellow effect. In the late medieval period, Cousin’s Rose stain was used to enhance flesh tones.
The process of creating stained glass in medieval times was quite a complex one, with sand and wood ash heated at high temperatures to turn the substances into liquid form, then mixed with powdered metals and colours to produce the required pattern and shade. For very detailed stained glass, the artist would paint the design of the pattern directly onto the glass.
The use of Stained Glass in Medieval Cathedrals
The rarity of stained glass and the expense involved in producing it meant that its use was often reserved for only the wealthiest households and the finest cathedrals, rather than for ordinary households and parish churches. Stained glass when used in religious buildings was a way to tell biblical stories to a largely illiterate congregation. People could learn of the horrors of hell, the story of creation, the angels and saints through the detailed glass which they saw in the cathedrals.
Much of England’s medieval stained glass was destroyed during the Reformation. However, there are some notable survivals. York Minster’s Great East Window, created in 1408, is the largest medieval stained glass window in the world and depicts scenes from the Biblical books of Genesis and Revolution. Other stained glass in the Minster dates to 1250 (part of the Five Sisters window) and the Great West Window, which dates to 1338.
Chartres Cathedral is another cathedral famed for its medieval stained glass. The glass is from the early medieval period and covers a wide variety of religious subjects, as well as scenes of donors carrying out their trades. Some of the glass dates back to the 1140s, and there are more than 150 stained glass windows.