[Ascension window]

Figure 1: Ascension window (detail), LeMans Cathedral, France. Artist: unknown (twelfth century). Technique: painted and leaded glass. Dimensions: 27"h x 16"w. Photo: Sarah Hall.

Take a sheet of glass. Fold it in half, and then told it again. Knead until soft, then shape and mold it into an artistic expression of an idea, event or feeling that can be understood and appreciated by this generation and the next.

On second thought, a sheet of glass might not be flexible enough. Even a stained glass panel may pose a problem. But stained glass as an art form -- that's a different story , and a remarkable one. Stained glass through the ages has demonstrated an immense capacity for evolution and growth, and for many centuries it kept pace with developments in art, religion and architecture. This aptitude for change wasn't unlimited, however. For a time, stained glass forgot its strengths, and when it strayed from the qualities that make it unique, it nearly disappeared as an art form. But the resilience of the medium -- the marvelous potential offered by colored glass, paint and lead -- ensured the survival of this art, and led to its subsequent blossoming into the lively and courageous medium it is today.

Although there are few records of the early uses of stained glass, it was most likely used without decoration or painted images. Nevertheless it was only a matter of time before the sacred art that was already well established in the churches found its way into the glass. The idea of bringing images into stained glass would not have been too large a jump for those familiar with the medieval art forms of mosaic, cloisonne enamel and manuscript illuminations.

Two important discoveries were necessary for the development of stained glass as we know it. The first was the invention of milling or casting, which produced the "H" channel lead came that holds the assembled pieces of glass together. The second was the development of glass paint, which is composed of finely ground iron filings mixed with a flux of powdered glass. This allowed details such as facial features, hands and drapery to be painted on the glass, which is then fired in a kiln to permanently fuse the paint to its surface. Throughout its early history, the primary function of the stained glass window was to provide light, color and protection from the elements for the church. The image, while important, was secondary to this primary function. The earliest known images in stained glass were based on Christian themes, and it is interesting to trace the development of the art through various eras by looking at the changing images of a well-known figure -- the Virgin Mary .

Images of Mary and Christ were among the first to appear in stained glass windows. These early images were possibly rather primitive in appearance, since the first glass artists -- most likely painters drafted into the new medium -- would have been subject to its technical limitations, and not yet aware of the unique possibilities that glass offers to the artist. But technical advances in glass painting, and the unique qualities of glass itself would have quickly led medieval artists to adapt their techniques to this new medium.

Typical for a Gospel figure, the New Testament tells us much about what Mary did, but nothing of how she looked. By the time Christianity was established and Mary's role was recognized, she and those who knew her were gone. The lack of description posed little problem for the painters, sculptors and iconographers of the time, however. Their primary task was not to personify Mary or create a historical portrait of her; instead, their purpose was to represent her -- to create a visual symbol of her that could serve as a focus for worship. This approach placed strictures on the portrayal of religious figures, for in presenting them as symbols, every aspect of the image has meaning. Naturalism in appearance, attitude or action is transcended, in favor of an idealized appearance, and correct positioning in order to make the symbolic point. Despite the limits imposed by these considerations, artists of the time created distinctive and extraordinary works.

Mary probably made the artistic move into stained glass around the turn of the century (1000 AD), and was well established in glass art when the Romanesque cathedrals were being built. Very few Romanesque windows survive, but a good example is the Le Mans Ascension window. Made around 1145, this is the earliest example of stained glass in situ in France. With its highly stylized iconographic painting, this window shows a strong Byzantine influence. The central image of this window is that of Mary surrounded by the apostles, looking towards heaven (Figure I). In keeping with the artistic intent, she is shown as a symbolic figure within the greater tableau of the Ascension.

Another Romanesque Mary is found in Chartres Cathedral. This is perhaps the best known window in the world. Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere (Figure 2), was created in the twelfth century, and an indication of its popularity, this window was rescued by the devout people of Chartres when the original Romanesque cathedral went up in flames. It was subsequently installed in the choir of the new Cathedral at Chartres. and because the new window opening was larger, thirteenth-century angels were placed around the original

The monumental central image of Mary in this window measures seven feet tall, and both she and the Christ Child on her lap are richly symbolic. Mary, as the Queen of Heaven, sits on a throne, and the infant Christ in her lap raises his right hand in blessing, while his left holds a book showing a quotation from Isaiah, "Every valley shall be exalted." Although the figures are formal, they are beautiful. The ethereal quality of the coloration of this window has never been duplicated. It uses a luminous and unbelievable blue, set off by ruby and rose-colored glass. Even today, when printed and televised images infuse every aspect of our lives, viewing the window is a spectacular and transcendent experience; imagine its effect in the Middle Ages.

[Chartres] Figure 2: Notre Dame de la Belle Verrière, Chartres Cathedral, France, Artist: unknown, twelfth century.

Although technical innovations had brought about the introduction of images to glass, it was architectural advances that allowed stained glass to come to full flower as an art form. The development of the flying buttress meant that the weight that had been borne by massive walls in Romanesque cathedrals could instead be transferred to external structures, and the walls themselves made thinner and lighter. Architects took advantage of this by designing larger window openings that became glorious walls of glass in the Gothic cathedrals of the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries and through to the fifteenth century. In these buildings, colored glass was no longer considered a decoration; it was an essential part of the fabric of the building.

It was in the thirteenth century that most of the glazing of Chartres Cathedral took place, including the stunning north transcept Rose window. This window, a gift of Blanche of Castile (the mother of King Louis IX of France) is made up of multi-form medallions depicting angels and doves, kings and prophets, which radiate outwards from an image of Mary and Child, who are seated in the centre rosette. Even at this stage, realism in rose windows remained less important than structure and symbol. Everything in this window is dominated by the arrangement of the spokes and other elements to produce its exquisite flower-like effect. It is through this structure and its use of images that rose windows achieve the abstract qualities that allow them to float in space and occupy our imaginations in a profoundly symbolic manner.

In this time, changes were taking place in the arts that would set the stage for a less formal portrayal of religious figures. Some of the credit for this goes to the Franciscans, who, with other more esoteric movements, helped to shift religious art towards more human depictions. The humanization of Mary took place over decades -- throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The artist Giotto, working in fresco painting at the turn of the century, introduced volume and depth to this art form -- a revolutionary development at the time! With his expressive faces of Mary in the Upper Church of Assisi, Giotto established an artistic precedent. The work clearly demonstrates a break with the formal, stylized Mary of Byzantine/Romanesque art. Under these influences, and through a steady process of artistic and technical development, Mary as portrayed in stained glass gradually became less distant and severe; eventually, even tender and charming. Changes in stained glass in the fourteenth Century were also driven by technical and architectural advances. The discovery of silver stain ushered in new techniques; while colorization and improved glassmaking techniques allowed for larger pieces of glass, which in turn led to an increased ability to naturalize the figures. Mary, in addition to becoming more human, was able to shed the mosaic appearance that characterized her early centuries in church windows. The windows at the Shrine at Köonigsfelden, Switzerland (Figure 3), portray Mary with a much greater sense of her humanity (and femininity!).


Figure 4: Presentation in the Temple (detail), Shrine at Künigsfelden, Switzerland. One of many windows dedicated to Mary at the shrine. Artist: unknown, fourteenth century.

The influence of architecture and church design is seen in an increased use of lighter colors in stained glass. This was done so that more light could enter the church to illuminate the increasingly intricate interiors. This era saw a much greater use of greens and golds, replacing the predominately rich reds and blues of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The fifteenth century architecture ushered in even more desire for light and color. Painting became more realistic, and the use of silver stain was more abundant than ever.


Figure 3: Crucifixion widow, detail of Mary, King's College Chapel, Cambridge, UK. Artist: possibly Dirck Vellert, sixteenth century.

By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Mary was consistently portrayed as the gentle mother of Jesus, completing her transformation from a symbol to a human figure. This development led to many images of the suffering Mother of Christ, who, as a human, was subjected to seeing her son tortured and crucified. The sixteenth century window at King's College Cambridge (Figure 4), is a good example of this imagery.

Two trends marked the transformation of Mary as she moved towards the Renaissance -- the humanization of the icon through the increased portrayal of emotion, and the increase in realism through the use of perspective and shading. Of these two, the first was translatable to stained glass; technical developments in glass, paint and silver stain had made possible stunning and emotionally powerful windows. The second trend, towards realism, posed more problems for the medium; and it was artists' attempts to solve these problems that profoundly changed the way windows were made.

The efforts of Renaissance artists to achieve accurate anatomy, perspective and realism translated badly to stained glass. Realistic figures look unconvincing in a medium where both the images and their surroundings were enclosed by the structurally-imposed heavy lines of lead. To create more painterly windows in keeping with their times, artists used larger pieces of glass, and made every effort to use glass paints to create a three-dimensional modeled effect. While this brought increased realism, it also weakened the connection between the figure and glass it rested on; the glass became little more than a canvas for what was, in essence, a painting. The essence of stained glass artistry, the creation of a design by the use of separate pieces of colored glass held between leads, was lost when paintings were imitated, larger pieces of glass used, and the leading disregarded.

The medium's association with architecture, which had long been one of its strengths, also began to work against it. Cathedrals are vast, and many of the windows are quite distant from the eyes of parishioners -- as much as one hundred feet for a clerestory window. While the simpler and more iconographic figures could be "read" from that distance, the subtlety of the more human versions, with real-life features and emotions, was lost with distant viewing. The desire for realism had run smack up against the severe restrictions placed on stained glass by its material nature and by the monumentality of the art form. The Protestant Reformation wrought further changes on stained glass, and our tracing of Mary shows fewer and fewer examples of her image. The Reformation brought about the destruction of much of the stained glass that was considered "too Catholic," and the new windows in Protestant churches almost completely ignored religious imagery in favor of heraldry and historical themes.

The last gasp for architectural glass art in this time was the introduction of enamel paints, which allowed artists to use many colors -- brown, red, cobalt blue, green and purple -- on a single piece of glass, and then fix them by firing. With this technique, glazing became secondary to painting, as sheets of white glass were cut to larger, more regular patterns and painted in full-color enamel. Leads no longer played any part in the design: the pieces of enameled glass were held in a geometric, metal armature. Although this medium was popular for a time, glass painted in this way possesses none of the brilliance and transparency of colored, hand-blown glass. In addition, durability is a problem. In time the enamels flaked and peeled off, leaving fragmented, unattractive images that are almost impossible to restore. Although they continued to use glass for these techniques, the windows that resulted were no longer "stained glass." The art lived on in name only, and from the perspective of our times, true stained glass was on its way to becoming a lost art. Further changes in architecture sealed its fate, as the Baroque and Rococo styles, with their gilded interiors and painted ceilings, needed abundant clear light. Colored glass was considered too heavy, dark and primitive-looking for consideration in these churches, and was therefore avoided.

The misfortunes of stained glass in this time are well summed up in this quote by George Seddon in Stained Glass, "The medieval art of stained glass was the offspring of the Catholic Church. It was born in northern Europe in the eleventh century, spent a magnificent youth there during the great Cathedral Age, traveled widely in southern Europe as it matured, and died in the sixteenth century, slowly poisoned by the Renaissance and, finally, stabbed in the back by the Reformation."

For nearly two centuries stained glass languished in obscurity. The technology of making colored glass died. The techniques of painting and silver staining were forgotten, and the method of making leaded stained glass windows was lost. It wasn't until the nineteenth century, and the revival of interest in the Gothic styles, that a real effort was made to reclaim the technique of Medieval stained glass windows.

The obsession with Gothic architecture, medieval legends and arts in nineteenth-curtury Europe was widespread, but it was not necessarily accompanied by a deep understanding of what was being copied. Outward forms could be imitated, but it was impossible to recapture the spirit of the Medieval times that created those forms; the actual quality of medieval thought was alien to them.

Nevertheless, the energy put into reconstructing and preserving Medieval stained glass and its techniques led to positive results, as the endless experimentation of the revivalists led to the rediscovery or reproduction of much of the art. With the revival of Gothic styles, Mary reappeared often in stained glass. Frequently she was portrayed as the formal Queen of Heaven, much as she was in Medieval times. But there were other influences in the nineteenth century. Pietism and the social and artistic cultures of the time, combined with the lingering influences of the Renaissance, began to steer religious art towards the sentimental. Mary of the nineteenth century became the gentle mother, with soft features and a sweet expression. This is the Mary that survives in many of the Victorian-style windows that continue to afflict churches in Europe and especially America.

Copies of Gothic windows and Victorian sentimentality were not universally embraced in the nineteenth century. One influential dissenter was the British designer, William Morris. Morris believed artists should be inspired by the best of Medieval arts and crafts, for, while he acknowledged the "outburst of genius" that took place in the Renaissance, he did not agree with the precise and academic artistic style. Morris was not a Gothic revivalist, but rather an innovator with a deep respect for medievalism and for the satisfaction that skilled craftsmanship can afford the practitioner.

Morris and his compatriots introduced naturalism and beautiful figures into the many media they worked in. In stained glass, the windows of the 'Arts and Crafts' movement avoided the pious sentimentality that characterized Victorian work, and reestablished lead lines as an elegant and vital part of the design. It is from this artistic thread that much of modern stained glass is woven. An early outgrowth of the Arts and Crafts movement was the stained glass of the Irish School, which was a vital and creative force in shaping glass in this century. Harry Clarke, Evie Hone, Wilhelmina Geddes, Michael Healy, and Isabel Gloag all produced original and exceptional images of Mary.

[Lawrence Lee]Figure 5: Nativity window, detail, St. Mary's Church, Sussex, UK, Artist: Lawrence Lee, twentieth century.

Art in the twentieth century has been shaped by many factors -- artistic, historical and social. Developments in painting and sculpture, including the different movements in abstract art over the past century, have had a profound effect on stained glass. The obviously inappropriate attempts at realism in Renaissance and Victorian styles alike have inspired caution in glass artists, especially when using figures. Some have rejected figures entirely; others have portrayed them using a synthesis of historical and modern styles, and still others have embraced varying degrees of abstraction to create interesting, evocative figures in stained glass. Tracing Mary's journey through these more modern styles, we find a variety of images reflecting different approaches.

Lawrence Lee, with whom I apprenticed, counts the Arts and Crafts movement and a devotion to the fourteenth century among his influences. His work (Figure 5), shows a unique synthesis of styles. Another approach is taken by Marc Chagall (Figure 6), who translated his distinctive painting style into stained glass.


Chagall]Figure 6: Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial Window, detail, Artist: Marc Chagall, twentieth century.

The terrible wars of the first part of the twentieth century also had a significant effect on art. In addition to the human tragedies wrought by World Wars I and II, many thousands of churches and cathedrals were destroyed. The wars had a profound social impact as well, clearing away old social structures and certainties, and infusing subsequent generations with a distrust of the old, and a hunger for the new.

Post-war Germany was especially affected by this change; within a generation its stained glass artists completely rejected a tradition of sentimental and idealized painted images, and embraced a dramatic and uncompromising return to the eloquence of unpainted glass and strong linework. The extensive rebuilding program of churches in Germany, many with vast walls of stained glass, was met by this exceptional generation of designers. [Meistermann]

Figure 7: Pieta window, St. Mary's Church, Cologne/Kalk, Germany, Artist: Georg Meistermann, twentieth century.

The work of Georg Meistermann, one of the first and foremost of these artists, is shown here in Figure 7. Meistermann is notable for his strong figures and compositions, which are decidedly modern, but which use the simplest of stained glass techniques. In this Pieta, the figure of Mary, while a powerful presence, is not entirely distinct from her background, and the lines separating her and Christ are sometimes indistinguishable.

In my crucifixion window at Immaculate Conception Church (Figure 8), this idea of fragmentation is furthered. Using a screen print and hand painting, I have abstracted the figures of Mary, Christ and John until they are nearly absorbed into the background. Abstraction dispels the notion of separateness, and makes the images and narrative part of a larger picture -- one of the infinite and complex universe we are struggling to comprehend.


Figure 8: Crucifixion window, Immaculate Conception Church, Woodbridge, Canada, Artist: Sarah Hall, twentieth century.

The wide variety of commissions, clients' tastes, and artistic visions have moved contemporary stained glass away from the direct portrayal of figures. This is to be expected, since the realism of the Victorians has been trumped by the realism of the photograph, computer image, and high definition TV. Nevertheless, even in the most abstract works, stained glass continues to evoke the human presence, sometimes in something so subtle as the sweep of a lead line, or a tracing of silver stain.

As it moves into the next millennium, stained glass continues to evolve and adapt to the artistic, architectural and social transformations of the time, with thanks to Mary, and all those who ensured its survival through the centuries, stained glass makes this journey with spirit, creativity, and an uncanny flexibility.

by Sarah Hall and Jeffrey Kraegel

This article appeared in Glass Art, March/April 1999, and has been reprinted with the permission of the author, April 2000. Further duplication requires permission of the author. See Sarah Hall's website at http://www.sarahhallstudio.com

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