The Obscure beginnings of Stained Glass

(This a reprint from the Stained Glass Association of America)


Many histories of stained glass begin with Pliny’s tale of the accidental discovery of glass by Phoenician sailors. The legend recounts shipwrecked sailors who set their cooking pots on blocks of natron (soda) from their cargo then built a fire under it on the beach. In the morning, the fire’s heat had melted the sand and soda mixture. The resultant mass had cooled and hardened into glass. Today, though, it is thought that Pliny — though energetic in collecting material — was not very scientifically reliable. It is more likely that Egyptian or Mesopotamian potters accidentally discovered glass when firing their vessels. The earliest known manmade glass is in the form of Egyptian beads from between 2750 and 2625 BC. Artisans made these beads by winding a thin string of molten glass around a removable clay core. This glass is opaque and very precious.

Jean Lafond’s gripping story tells how, in the desert west of Palmyra in 1937, David Schlumberger, director of excavations, showed Lafond a cache of 115 colored glass fragments that Lafond described as “Greenish white, bluish white, moss green, two tobacco yellows (one more gold than the other), burnt sienna, smokey, three purples (one near wine, one more brown), a garnet of great beauty and two violet purples. A varied thickness adds to their nuances.” The greens had been blown in a roundel which he could surmise because of the presence of part of the outer rim. Several pieces showed a right angle and traces of a grozer on the edge. Schlumberger explained that these glasses had decorated claires-voies (literally “clear ways”) of stucco designed in elegant interlaced arabesques (Jean Lafond, Le Vitrail, P.20).

In the first century AD, the Romans glazed glass into windows. They cast glass slabs and employed blowing techniques to spin discs and made cylinder glass. The glass was irregular and not very transparent.

One of the oldest known examples of multiple pieces of colored glass used in a window were unearthed at St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, England, founded in 686 AD.

The oldest complete European windows found in situ are thought to be five relatively sophisticated figures in Augsburg Cathedral. (These five windows are no longer in their original setting. They have recently been moved into a museum and replaced with copies.) These five windows show fired glass painting which utilizes line and tonal shading and they are made of bright, varied colors of glass. The authors of Stained Glass say, “they are the work of skilled, experienced stained glass artists. Where are the children who are father to these men? Where are the earlier windows?” (Lawrence Lee, Seddon and Stephens. Stained Glass. P. 67)

Authorities believe that Arabian glass windows appeared in the second half of the thirteenth century. Lewis F. Day suggests that Byzantine, Moorish or Arabian glass could have appeared by the tenth century AD. Pieces of glass were either inserted into intricate pierced marble or stone, or glazed in plaster before the plaster had set hard. Ribs of iron were often used to strengthen the plaster.

Arabian filigree windows moved into Europe when the Moors entered Spain. As the fashion moved farther north into areas of more inclement weather, covering became more necessary. This covering usually came in the form of slices of alabaster. In Europe, plates of pierced lead replaced the plaster grillwork. The first of these had no glass in the decorative openings, but later small pieces of glass were attached using strings of lead.

Arabian glass windows’ development was slowed because Islam allows no subject other than geometric or vegetal ornament. Traces of cold paint on glass have been found in the mid-east indicating that windows probably stood up better than those windows in damper climates.

In 1930 at Saint Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, the archaeologist Cecchelli dug up three glass fragments showing Christ with a cruciform nimbus standing between an alpha and omega painted with grisaille. (The word grisaille applies equally to vitrifiable glass paint, as well as a style of lightly toned window that has been painted and stained in a decorative pattern.) It is assumed these fragments date from approximately 540 AD, the time of the construction of the building.

In 1878 at a dig in a cemetery abandoned about 1000 AD at Sery les Mezieres, Aisne, France, Jules Pilloy found about 30 pieces of glass which had suffered from an apparent fire, a lead strip with two channels and a small slab of bone among some charred wood. The bone (which might have been a holy relic) pre-dated Charlemagne. Edmond Socard arranged the glass into a small, simple window. A cross patee, from which hung an alpha and omega, were painted and fired on it. This symbol was very popular from the sixth to ninth centuries. Unfortunately, this treasure was destroyed in 1918 during World War I.

Fragments of a very early head of Christ were excavated in 1932 at Lorsch Abbey in Germany. This is similar to the better known and more complete head of Christ from the Abbey Church of Saint Peter, Wissembourg, Alsace (c.1060). The latter has more advanced glass painting with both trace line and wash. Because of their size and their aspect — that is, with the heads forward like the icon called the Panto crater, as well as the lack of any fragments showing bodies — Catherine Brisac thinks these heads were displayed as icons in the middle of windows in which they would have been the only painted elements.

Christian iconography developed from pagan illustrations found in the catacombs. The beardless pagan god of the underworld, Orphaeus, was transformed into a youthful Christ the Good Shepherd. From the fourth century forward, He had a beard. The pagan phoenix and peacock were used for resurrection symbols.

Wall paintings gave way to mosaics of ceramic tiles, stones and glass bits. Moving from the catacombs, the earliest Christians worshiped in their homes; then, when they became politically secure enough, the Christians built churches. The first churches housed the relics of saints. Architecturally, they were based on the basilica, the Roman law court. The cruciform floor plan developed from the Byzantine square floor plan with a dome added.

European kings and bishops sent to Jerusalem and the east for holy relics. Their emissaries brought back small works of art such as cloisonne , damascene and carved ivory set with jewels and precious glass. Oriental and African craftsmen and glassmakers found their way to Europe as early as the third century. We can no longer agree with Hugh Arnold when he writes, “The making of stained glass windows is one of the arts that belong wholly to the Christian Era. Its traditions do not extend back beyond the great times of Gothic architecture.” (Hugh Arnold, Stained Glass of the Middle Ages in England and France. p.3) We can no longer say that stained glass is a purely Christian art form, either at its beginning or in its current usage.


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