Light has made the world visible since the first day of Creation. "And God
said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw that it was good: and
God divided the light from the darkness." According to Genesis, the rainbow,
which is the light of the sun broken down into the colors of light, was God's
covenant with man after the Flood. Light has always been a symbol of goodness
Abbot Suger, known as the father of Gothic architecture, was the first to
transform God's light into the church's light. He did this through the use of
stained-glass windows. When rebuilding his Abbey Church of St. Denis in France,
he used-and these are Abbot Suger's words-"the most radiant windows to illumine
men's minds so that they may travel through the light to an apprehension of
God's light." He brought man to God through his windows.
Painting with light
Stained glass is the only art form that relies entirely on natural daylight.
Every other art form, such as painting and sculpture, is designed to be seen by
reflected light. With a stained-glass window, however, the artist designs it so
that the artistic effect is created by light passing through the glass. In a
sense, the artist must paint with light.
St. Denis Catholic Church, France
The creation of a traditional stained-glass window is very simple, although
it takes a great deal of skill to accomplish effectively. First, the design is
sketched and then drawn to the full size of the window on a piece of paper, show
the cutlines. Then the glass is chosen and cut to the proper size. In the Middle
Ages the glass was made on the site where the glass craftsmen were working.
Cutting the glass was a very important part of the process. The medieval artist
used a hot iron to make the cuts. Next, the glass is painted and fired in
a kiln which is heated to about 1250 degrees.
Once the glass is properly prepared, the artist lays out the pieces of glass
as they will be fit together in the final window. Meanwhile, the leading is made
from lead strips and cement. This is what holds all the pieces of glass together
to form the final image. The final step is fixing the window into the opening in
the wall of the church, where the light will enter through and bring the stained
glass to life.
A great many different images have been depicted in stained glass. The
imagery of the saints, of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin were used and developed
in the stained-glass images. The Bible and the lives of the saints were the two
main inspirations for the donors who commissioned the stained-glass artists,
called glaziers, to create the windows.
Just as the stained-glass window was an integral part of the Gothic church,
the glazier was an important craftsmen in the medieval world. Before the
Renaissance, the glazier considered himself, not an artist, but a craftsman-on
par with a shoemaker, a baker, or blacksmith. Art in the medieval era could not
be separated from the craft. There was no art for art's sake. No galleries for
voyeurs to visit simply to gaze. Art and craft was a daily concern, although
perhaps not consciously. The glaziers saw themselves servants of the Church.
They worked to glorify God, not themselves. Therefore, most glaziers are unknown
to us today since their works were unsigned.
Attacks on the Catholic arts
Stained glass in Ste Chapelle, Paris
The Renaissance, beginning in the 16th century, changed all that. In many
ways, the values of the people shifted from being God-centered to being
man-centered. This had a great effect on stained-glass windows. Because
stained-glass was so much a Catholic art it was seen as the antithesis, the
opposite, of the new humanistic Renaissance art.
Then the Protestant Reformation took aim at all Catholic art. Many of the
stained-glass windows with their stories of the Bible, the saints and their
miracles were destroyed by newly formed Protestant sects which were out to
eliminate all objects of Catholic devotion. The new Protestants claimed that the
images depicted in the windows were expressions of idolatry and superstition.
The reaction to Catholic art was the most violent in England and the
Netherlands. In England all the monasteries and convents which had been closed
by Henry VIII in the 1530s began to fall into decay. Laws were passed by the
English parliament which called for the destruction of all church paintings and
windows which depicted "feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and
In the Netherlands in A.D. 1566, the Calvinists attacked churches all over
the country and smashed the art treasures and the windows in the streets. Both
the Calvinists and the Anglican Protestants in England, despised images of the
Blessed Virgin and Christ on the Cross.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, after the Protestants had further
separated themselves from the Christ's one, true Church, the craft of the
glaziers almost died away. In places where the Protestants took control,
religious imagery was completely ignored in any new church windows. Many
Protestants instead decorated their windows with historical themes and images of
Image of Sarah and Tobias after they
were married from the book of Tobit.
In the late 19th century North America and parts of Western Europe revived
the use of stained-glass windows. The Catholics in North America often tried to
imitate works of the medieval artists. A Neo-Gothic movement took hold and the
Americans built smaller versions of the great Gothic cathedrals. So they tried
to reproduce the same types of Gothic stained-glass windows that could be found
in the German and French churches. Although some Americans succeeded in creating
beautiful pieces of Catholic religious art on their church windows, most of the
work did not compare to the work of the medieval artist.
Often American cathedrals simply have glass painted with religious images, as
if they were painting a canvas. Other modern stained glass is simply fit
together to form a pattern that represents nothing other than the colors. Even
so, the concept of the light being transformed through the colored glass remains
effective. Stained glass remains as a part of Catholicism's artistic and