The La Sainte-Chapelle in the beautiful City of Paris was built around 1239 and remains the last remnant of French Gothic architecture from the Rayonnant period (ca. 1240-1350). King Louis IX commissioned the structure to house the treasured relics of medieval Christendom most notably the Crown of Thorns and a piece of the True Cross. However, the beauty of this great Chapel is not in its history alone but its magnificent mid-13th century stained glass. In addition to a 15th century rose stained glass meticulously illuminating stories from the bible on the western wall of the upper chapel. As each piece comes together to unravel an illustration of the times, it is hard for visitors at The La Sainte-Chapelle not to be mesmerized by the composition of vibrant colour and light through glass.
The exact origin of stained glass is unknown although the Egyptians and Romans in antiquity were known to create artefacts from coloured glass. Around the 4th and 5th century, many windows of early Christian churches had an appearance very similar to that of stained glass. The decorative designs in gypsum (a white translucent mineral) were set delicately against the wooden framework creating an illusion of coloured glass. But in Britain there is historical evidence dating back to early 7th century of stained glass windows churches and monasteries. In the 8th century, Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan, the Persian alchemist documented the crafting of coloured glass into imitation gemstones.
However, it was in the Middle Ages that stained glass truly evolved to become a popular art form. The illustrative and colourful design in narrating events from the Bible was a way for the church to reach out to a populace that was mainly illiterate at that time. The Gothic period saw architecture becoming more decorative and defined by large windows edged with iron frames to allow more light. Therefore, stained glass too became more ornamental and extravagant in design to complement the architecture. But the fate of stained glass was tied to the culture of its time evolving to incorporate new elements while holding on to traditional craftsmanship.
The art of stained glass continued to flourish in Europe till the end of the 15th century. But as the Middle Ages made way for the Renaissance and a world of new ideas and movements the popularity of stained glass began to swiftly decline. In 16th century England, the age of Reformation swept a nation into political and religious turmoil. Several churches and monasteries came under attack and with the splendour of stained glass windows were reduced to fragments of glass. By 17th century as the fires of the French Revolution spread across France, many stained glass windows were either damaged by mob fury or abandoned to deteriorate amidst the chaos.
Although a few stained glass windows remained intact to remind the world of its once glorious existence, the old art of stained glass techniques had perished. But by the 18th century, the art form was being revived at Sevres in The Royal Porcelain Manufactory of France and under the patronage of King Loius Philippe. As churches were restored to former glory, the fate of stained glass began to rise from the splinters of obscurity. Europe too showed a renewed interest in an old art form as part of restoration of old churches or new building projects. In 19th century England, the revival of Catholicism and the church meant a return to Gothic architecture of medieval ages and stained glass windows.
As the popularity of this art form grew, so did the need for artists to explore and experiment. The stained glass was no longer just confined to the windows of churches and monasteries. British artist like William Morris inspired artisans to return to basics and develop newer glass painting techniques. With the beginning of the Art Nouveau movement, several artists had begun to work with different textured glass and explore materials and techniques. It became an innovative medium to experiment from abstract art to expressionist painting. The ingenuity of Louis Comfort Tiffany and John LaFarge introduced new opalescent process and techniques into creating stained glass. The renowned Scottish designer Dr. Robert Douglas Strachan, Ludwig Schaffrath and Paul Woodroffe are among a list of known stained glass artist who have considerably contributed to make stained glass a more contemporary art form. French artist Jean Crotti created an innovative technique called Gemmail in the 1930’s that deviated from the traditional craftsmanship of assembling the coloured glass pieces individually within lead came or divider. Instead, the coloured glass pieces were pasted on the design outlined in the surface without any dividers.
Stained Glass can be classified into either clear cathedral glass or frosted opalescent glass with the designs, textures and colours within these two classifications are numerous. Also, in recent years clear art glass has also become a popular medium to create stained glass. The different techniques from the simple copper foil method preferred by beginners to the delicate glittering glass mosaic method broaden the scope for artistic creativity.
The old charm of stained glass painting has survived the changing pages of history as skilful artisans over the centuries have taken its legacy forward with passion and innovation. Once admired in churches, the beauty of stained glass painting has evolved into one of the most sought after contemporary decorative artefacts to adorn buildings and homes across the world.
By arrangement with Global Times Magazine
Image (c) Jaroslaw Baczewski