Stained Glass Windows…For The Illiterate Masses
Crucifixion, stained-glass window (13th century), Canterbury Cathedral (Unesco World Heritage List, 1988), England, United Kingdom. Source: (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)
A focal point of nearly every Catholic cathedral of the middle ages is the stained glass windows. Exquisitely detailed, stained glass quickly became the number one art form of medieval Europe. The windows, however, served a more practical function than decorating the church buildings. They provided a way to explain the biblical teachings to the illiterate masses.
Colored Glass was Actually an Egyptian Thing
It was the ancient Egyptians that first developed methods of making colored glass. They mostly used small bits of colors glass to make jewelry items. The Romans acquired this craft from the Egyptians and soon, they too were making small, decorative pieces using stained or colored glass.
Light was an Important Tangible Metaphor in Medieval Churches
The very first thing that God says in the Bible is “Let there be light.” Light remained an important symbol for goodness, godliness, and heaven, so naturally early Christians wanted their churches to be bathed in light. Besides, natural sunlight was much better than a bunch of dangerous candles. The architects of the great medieval churches and cathedrals took care to make sure that there were windows aplenty to help illuminate the darkest recesses of the church…a metaphor for the way Christianity drives out darkness so that people may walk in the light.
Stained Glass Church Windows Appeared in the 10th Century
It wasn’t until the 10th century that the technique of fusing together bits of colored glass with lead frames was in widespread use. With it came the birth of stained glass windows as a fixture in the great churches and cathedrals that were being erected across Europe. As Christianity spread, so did the stained glass art techniques. Without its association with the church, the art form may not have received the level that it did. By the 11th and 12th centuries, it was the dominant artistic medium in all of Europe.
The Oldest Stained Glass Windows are in Germany
The Roman Catholic Cathedral of Augsburg in Germany boasts the oldest surviving stained glass windows. The cathedral was built in the 11th century, though it may have been constructed on the foundation of a 4th-century church. The five stained glass windows are original to 11th century. Depicted in each of the windows are the prophets Daniel, Moses, David, Jonah, and Hosea.
Stained Glass Windows were a Teaching Tool for the Illiterate
The majority of the people in the medieval era could not read, and yet the clergy had to somehow reach them with their religious messages. Putting these messages in picture form was the best way to explain Bible stories and demonstrate the importance of biblical saints or prophets. The illiterate masses would get that message while attending church services, but the message was reinforced to them daily. Every time they walked by the stained glass windows, they were reminded of, and inspired by, the depictions of the saints and prophets. If the church was large enough and had the financial resources available for many stained glass windows, the artwork in the windows illustrated every key moment in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.
Henry VIII Destroyed a lot of Stained Glass Windows
In the 1600s, King Henry VIII had a falling out with the Catholic Church and severed ties with the Vatican to establish the Church of England. Because the stained glass was so closely linked to the Catholic Church, Henry VIII sought to erase vestiges of Catholicism in England. He ordered many of the beautiful and intricate stained glass windows to be destroyed. Much later, during World War I, World War II, and other conflicts, steps were taken to preserved medieval stained glass windows.
The Popularity of Stained Glass was Up and Down
Throughout the Gothic Age of 13th and 14th centuries, stained glass enjoyed a huge popularity and the artistic windows were spreading throughout all of Europe. But in the Renaissance age in the mid-1400s, the movement was away from using the windows as the dominant storytelling method in the church. In its place were the works of the great painters and sculptures of the Renaissance. In the late 17th century, however, stained glass windows experienced a revival. The same technique for creating stained glass windows is being used today, but the trend is away from religious scenes in favor of abstract and geometric patterns. But the stained glass windows in medieval churches and cathedrals remain an attraction to visitors both for their spiritual messages and their fragile beauty.