The History of Stained Glass


It seems as though politics is continually capturing the headlines, and it appears that political change is impacting societal norms more and more rapidly. What was once easily discernable, only after perusing history books with the benefit of decades or centuries of analysis, is now apparent over the course of a few years or even months. The effects of seemingly minor historical events can be far-reaching. It’s too soon to tell what impacts some of the current legislation or social trends have in store.

Art is an example of a byproduct that can be heavily influenced by actions that are taken during a specific era. Unless you appreciate art, you’re probably rolling your eyes or cringing at the thought of wasted hours sitting through tedious history or humanities classes that examined the ingenuity and craftsmanship that defined various time periods. Art is an integral part of every civilization, from cave paintings of early man to the pop art movement of Andy Warhol and beyond. Artists were well-received and often sponsored by royalty, and crews of skilled artisans created architectural wonders that survive today.


Stained glass is an example of an art form that was affected by historical events. Although the ancient Egyptians and Romans both created objects made of colored glass, the earliest evidence of stained glass windows is from the 7th century A.D. In 686 A.D., St. Paul’s monastery was built in Jarrow, England, with a window made from colored glass. Arab artisans were also known to have mastered the skill. There are even recipes recorded by a Persian chemist in the 8th century in Kitab al-Durra al-Maknuna or The Book of the Hidden Pearl, which discusses colored glass.

The West didn’t write down any details regarding stained glass until Theophilus, a German monk, chronicled the process in the 12th century. By this time, the spread of Christianity had precipitated the construction of churches and cathedrals, which included elaborate stained glass windows depicting religious figures and scenes. Theophilus described pot metal glass which hasn’t changed measurably over the centuries. After melting sand, potash, and lime in clay pots, color is achieved after adding metallic oxides like cobalt for blue, gold for red, and copper for green. Lead strips called calmes are soldered between the individual pieces of glass to hold them in place.

By the early 14th century, further advances had been made in the manufacture of stained glass. By applying a silver stain to glass and firing it in a kiln, additional coloring could be produced. Now, more skin tones, from light yellow to dark orange, are added to the palate. The middle of the 16th century brought the innovation of painting directly onto a single pane of glass, which eliminated the need for calmes to connect multiple pieces of glass.

Around this same time, reforms in the church placed less emphasis on sacred images. Traditional stained glass techniques were already on the verge of being lost to the ages, as demand for its artistry was dwindling. Churches in England suffered an especially devastating blow as Henry VIII had numerous religious artifacts destroyed when he broke with the Catholic Church because they refused his request to nullify his marriage to his first wife.

Fortunately, this type of glass experienced a revival in the 19th century. Not only has the craft been reintroduced into churches, but it has also expanded to various forms of art. As with any work of art, such windows require care and maintenance, so it’s imperative to ensure these delicate pieces are preserved. There are professional studios like the ones found on that are skilled in restoring and protecting the stained glass. An art form that has survived so many centuries deserves to be maintained for future generations to enjoy.