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Stained Glass

Stained glass refers to a decorative material which is created out of thin translucent glass that is tinted with various colors. Stained glass can be used as a decorative element for buildings, in windows, artistic three dimensional objects, and lighting fixtures. However, over the years it has almost exclusively come to be used as a term for a technique used to decorate the windows of churches and other significant buildings. Stained glass is used in a mosaic style technique in which smaller fragments of colored glass are artistically arranged to create designs, images and other patterns and glued together into a frame. A complex craft, it requires a certain element of design thinking and architectural skill to plan and execute an image from start to finish. Many examples of stained glass exist that exhibit both medieval and contemporary styles. Certain outstanding works of art are found in buildings all over the world, where millions of tourists visit them every year. The themes of stained glass over the years have ranged from pure patterns, to Biblical themes, to flora and fauna and many others. Stained glass techniques and materials have also evolved over time to reflect the changing styles of stained glass design. In addition to this, modern day applications of stained glass have stretched well beyond their traditional use as decoration for church windows, and can be found in examples of contemporary design all over the world, often achieving great cultural and historical value.

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Glass Manufacturing

Silica is the primary material used in the manufacturing of glass. Pure silica can be mixed with various elements and materials, such as lead, soda and potash, to reduce its extremely high melting temperature. Other strengthening agents such as lime can also be added to increase the resistance of the glass, making it more durable and resistant to wear and tear. There are different methods for creating glass sheets, depending on the design, durability, and tools available. Crown glass, for example, is created by blowing air into molten glass, and spinning it rapidly, which causes the air bubble to open up and go flat, causing wavy, concentric patterns with an undulating pattern. Rolled glass, another type, is created by rolling out molten glass onto a flat table top, which gives it a much smoother texture. Glass of this technique can also be “double rolled”, in which it is passed through a machine to give it certain characteristics. One of the older techniques that was widely in use was the muff glass technique, which involved slicing a glass cylinder that had just been blown, right before it cooled down. In modern day glass manufacturing, there are several glass factories all over the world that produce glass using all these techniques. While old techniques are not as widely used any more, modern day artists have attempted to keep them in mind, so as not to lose knowledge of this ancient and valuable craft and to preserve the cultural heritage of medieval stained glass techniques. In recent times, more varieties and designs of glass are used for stained glass decoration, such as opalescent glass, fracture glass, ripple glass, and others.

Stained Glass Coloring and Method

Coloring agents are used to give stained glass its different hues. When the glass is molten, different chemicals are added to it, causing reactions that give transparent glass its vivid coloring. Iron oxide, for example, adds a richer green tone to transparent glass, which already has a greenish tint. Cobalt, which was used in the medieval times to color glass blue, has now been replaced by sulfur and copper oxide to experiment with different shades. Copper and metallic gold are common coloring agents used to produce vivid shades of red and pink glass, whereas silver and uranium achieve lighter, orange yellow shades. In order to begin the work on a stained glass piece, first a design is created, which corresponds to the specifications of the window or piece. Pieces of glass are then cut to suit the mosaic style design. In case pieces do not fit the exact design, sharpening and cutting tools can be used to trim the pieces. Though colored pieces are used to create broad designs, additional details can be added using special glass paint. Once the glass pieces have been cut into the desired shapes, the design is assembled by fitting the pieces into frames known as cames. These are made of different materials, like copper, zinc, or brass, and helps to hold the pieces together. The final frame is welded together when the design is fully assembled.

Glass Texture

Though stained glass colors are one of the most important elements of the design, the glass texture also plays an important role in the aesthetics of stained glass. Some of the common textures associated with the craft of stained glass are baroque, water glass, dichroic glass, and cathedral glass. These different styles of glass are created using different techniques, which gives them their unique textures. Baroque, for example, which is a machine made glass contains beautiful swirls, an effect brought on by the mixing of different compositions of glass. Beveled glass is thicker and has edges that are polished to an angle, which makes them ideal for borders. Dichroic glass is coated with layers of transparent oxides, which cause a rippling effect that appears to be different colors in different lights. Iridescent glass is another such type, which is coated with metallic oxides to create a shiny, colorful effect. Different textures are obtained by running a roller over molten glass, and then allowing it to cool immediately after. Depending on the theme of the image to be designed, the colors required, and the type of frame, different textures of glass can be used in coordination to achieve a striking combination that adds variety to the overall design.

Themes and Designs of Stained Glass

Stained glass designs have ranged from abstract, to decorative and figurative over the years. The vast majority of them depict famous scenes from history, religious texts, or even culture and literature, often incorporating the use of symbols and motifs. A variety of subjects, including forms of nature, flora and fauna, and people have formed the basis of famous works of stained glass through history. Though initially more in vogue for the range of colors that were used for decorative purposes, stained glass developed over the years to become an integral part of religious structures, such as churches, where it was used to depict religious scenes. The use of stained glass as a decorative technique for church architecture became so prevalent by the Middle Ages, that it came to be known as “The Poor Man’s Bible”. These works were created either as standalone pieces, or a series of scenes depicting various momentous points in the Bible, meant for those who were illiterate. While many innovators used their own styles and artistic sense to come up with different designs, the underlying theme remained the same. Some of the most commonly recurring panels included the Passion of Christ, the Life of the Virgin, Saints and Apostles, and the Old Testament. These stained glass windows, along with other architectural forms, such as painted panels, gargoyles, metal and wood works, and mosaic formed the basis of a complex narrative that would explain the Bible to those who could not read.

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Stained glass in the Cathedral of St. Mary the Crowned.

Origins of Stained Glass Technique

Some of the earliest uses of stained glass technique have been observed in pieces of pottery dating back to the 4th century. Even before this, the Egyptians and Romans were famed for their use of colored glass pieces in decorative architecture. One of the most famous pieces of art that incorporates the stained glass technique that dates back to the Roman Empire is the Lycurgus Cup, a beautiful cup made of dichroic glass that changes color depending on the lighting it is exposed to. The cup shines red when light passes through the front of it, and green when light passes through the back. Apart from this example of stained glass in another medium, several ancient churches exhibited signs of the early stained glass technique, though instead of glass pieces, thinly sliced alabaster was inlaid between wooden frames. In the kingdom of Syria in the Islamic period, transparent colored glass pieces were very popular as aesthetic embellishments to architecture, and early glassworkers were already perfecting the technique of cutting glass panels into small gemstones that could be inlaid for decorative purposes. The earliest known example of stained glass technique as it is known today was found in the monastery of St. Peter in Monkwearmouth, where pieces of colored glass and lead imported from France were found.

The Medieval and Renaissance Era

In the Middle Ages, stained glass became a more mainstream form of architectural design, owing to its widespread use in churches as the “Poor Man’s Bible”, to depict religious scenes. The large nature of the windows in churches gave rise to the need for frames that would support the tiny pieces of glass. As stained glass increased in popularity, designs became bolder and more flamboyant. Geometric as well as flowing designs of stained glass were incorporated into architecture, and beautiful examples of stained glass windows could be seen all over Europe. As the style flourished, it began to develop from the Gothic to the Classical style, which was better represented in Central European countries like Germany and the Netherlands. Though many beautiful pieces of stained glass were destroyed across countries as a result of war or civil unrest, many of these early examples survived to this day. A revival in interest in the stained glass technique was observed in the middle to late 19th century in Europe, with the restoration of several pieces in more modern styles. Stained glass studios flourished across the continent, and several renowned glass manufacturers gained far-reaching reputations as craftsmen of great skill and quality.

Modern Day Revival

In the 20th and 21st century, a widespread interest in the restoration of stained glass arose as a result of all the loss and destruction caused by the Second World War Many new techniques were developed as a result of this restoration. One of the famous ones, Gemmail, was developed by the French artist Jean Crotti, in which contiguous pieces of stained glass were overlapped instead of separated using cames, leading to a more subtle, vibrant effect. Abstract stained glass also grew to prominence in this era, with stained glass workers like John Hayward, Louis Davis, John Piper, and others leading the movement. The latter half of the century also saw more formal efforts being spearheaded to undertake the conservation of stained glass in a more organized and regulated manner. One of the milestones in this regard was the foundation of the Stained Glass Association of America, which offered training and education to glass workers, enabling them to preserve and protect integral pieces of stained glass across the country. Several pieces of stained glass were recreated to incorporate elements of both, traditional and modern design. For example, in the Church of Saint Michael at Paternoster Row, the English artist John Hayward combined traditional methods with modern by using tiny sharp pieces of glass to achieve the overall effect.

Conservation of Stained Glass

Stained glass conservation refers to any actions or efforts taken to prevent the deterioration of stained glass so that it can be appreciated by future generations as a part of cultural heritage. As one of the most beautiful yet fragile pieces of architectural art, stained glass is vulnerable to both natural and physical decay due to a variety of factors. Stained glass deterioration can occur due to chemical imbalances that cause colors to fade, exposure to the elements or pollution, or even due to sudden accidents such as natural disasters or physical damage. These may cause the vibrancy of the colors to fade, pieces to get tarnished or marked, or even cause more serious decay that renders the glass totally invisible. Sometimes, it may not be the actual glass pieces, but the frames that require refurbishment. The aesthetic and cultural value of stained glass make it worthwhile to conserve, and such activities are undertaken by experienced caretakers to preserve their integrity. A lot of research has been carried out on the preservation of stained glass, and several tried and tested techniques of preservation are still widely in use today. These include cleaning, protective glazing, repair and replacement of glass pieces, and chemical treatment. Sometimes, the damage can be so severe that it requires the complete removal of the authentic glass, and well-designed replicas are put in their place. Many of these activities involve the design of a well thought out restoration plan which is vetted by experts to ensure that the glass suffers minimal damage during the protective process.

Stained Glass in Architectural Design

Due to its ability to depict images and scenes from religious texts, a vast majority of the buildings and architectural structures that incorporated stained glass into the design were religious buildings. Churches were often donated stained glass windows by members of the congregation as tributes or memorials for loved ones. Some of the most famous examples of stained glass in churches are the Cathedral of Chartres, where stained glass technique reached its peak in the Middle Ages, Sainte Chapelle in Paris, and Coventry Cathedral in England. Churches were not alone in their use of stained glass as a technique to convey religious depictions. Jewish synagogues as well, caught on to the trend, and began to see an emergence in the mid-19th century as contributors to the stained glass craft. One of the foremost examples of Jewish stained class is the image of the sanctuary in New York’s Anshi Chesed. Stained glass was not only restricted to being used as a decorative material for public structures, but also began to see greater use in private home design. The houses designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, for example, are well known for their intricate pieces of stained glass art. Though the motifs and imagery used in private residence were less religious and more nature-related, many homes have beautiful examples of traditional and modern techniques of stained glass that are of great value today.

Stained Glass by the Numbers: Records and Facts

Stained glass having existing for centuries, it is difficult to identify which works of art represent the authentic styles of the era, and being a beautiful craft, it is hard to recognize outstanding pieces. However several well-known pieces of stained glass have broken records for longevity, complexity, and design, which makes them a unique part of a beautiful craft. For example, the largest piece of stained glass is located in the St. Mary’s Basilica in Kentucky. The scene, which depicts the Assumption, measures 67 feet by 24 feet. However, the York Minster Cathedrals Great East Window contains the largest stretch of Medieval Age stained glass in the world. Equally stunning is the stained glass dome of the Chicago Cultural Center, which was constructed by Tiffany – the largest stained glass dome ceiling in the world. To take a look at the record holders for longevity, the oldest known example of a stained glass window was located in the Augsburg Cathedral in Germany, which has panels dating back from the 11th century. However, the Lycurgus cup is the oldest preserved relic that exhibits the stained glass technique in a form other than window panels. For beauty and intricacy of design, the La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris is known for its fifteen windows that form the structure of a “jewel box”, with the high reaching panels filling the nave and apse of the chapel. These panels are said to depict 1,130 figures from the Bible in the 6,458 feet that they cover. In a more modern work of stained glass, the Washington National Cathedral is said to contain the world’s most expensive stained glass panel, the Space Window, which contains a fragment of moon rock, and depicts the Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins.

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