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Stained glass is essentially the colored glass used to make decorative windows that are seen in churches, public buildings, and in today’s modern homes. It‘s the metallic oxides added to the glass while its in molten state that causes this “stained” effect. The term “stained glass” usually refers to the finished pictorial windows and other items like tiffany lamps, sun catchers and many of the other colored glass work created by today’s innovative artisans.

Light, the location of the stained glass window or sculpture and the individual perception of the human eye also has a great deal to do with the way each creation is perceived. It’s almost as if the stained glass artisans are painting with light as well as other mediums.

The history of colored glass can be traced as far back as the 3rd century BC in Eqypt and Mesopotamia. A millennia later, clear glass was being moulded and by the lst century Roman glassmakers were creating delicate vessels and vases that have survived shipwrecks and volcanic eruptions. They also crafted thin transparent sheets of glass that were glazed and used for various purposes like shelving and room dividers. Mosaics were popular during this time as well, particularly in the Arabic cultures, and were crafted from cubes of colored glass called “tesserae”.

Glass making continued to evolve and by the 9th century pictorial stained glass windows were popular. The oldest examples have been found in Germany at Lorsch Abbey, all of them presenting biblical themes.

The technique of making stained glass was first described by the monk, Tehophilus, in an early “how to” parchment written around 1100 AD. Dimensions were marked on a whitewashed wooden board or table. Scroll work or other patterns that pleased the eye were drawn and then colored glass selected and cut, or “cracked”, with a hot iron. The pieces were then fitted together with a notched tool called a “grozing” iron. Enough space was left between the pieces to apply lead. Vitreous enamel was painted on and then the window was fired in a kiln at temperatures just hot enough to fuse everything together. The stained glass creation was now ready for final assembly and installation.

The 12th century Romanesque period saw stained glass flourish because many new cathedrals were being constructed. Themes still revolved around biblical figures. The Ile de France region became a well known centre for stained glass and soon influenced that of Germany and England. Bible themes remained constant and the favored colors for windows were reds, yellows, blues or lighter pinkish shades for backgrounds or use as flesh tones.

Rose windows were soon introduced. These were huge, circular medallions that resembled radiating wheels and were generally located in the west end of buildings for best light. Other patterns and designs that evolved during this time were of prophets and evangelists, legends, coats of arms and signs of the zodiac. One masterpiece of stained glass art is Saint Chapelle, the court chapel of King Louis the IX. Once inside it appears as if the entire chapel is constructed of glass. As the Romanesque period came to and end a wider range of colors had been introduced to the former repertoire, including various shades of purples, darks greens and yellows.

“Grisaille” windows were popular in England, and were favored by Cistercian churches. The most beautiful examples are at Lincoln and at York Minster. The Five Sisters, a tall and narrow mosaic of grey, reds and greens is considered a true stained glass masterpiece.

By the 14th century an even more exciting color had been introduced -- silver or yellow stain -- which was widely used to depict crowns and halos. It was produced by an application of silver or silver nitrate, which was fixed by heating at low temperatures. During the Renaissance in northern Europe, stained glass artisans began paying more attention to fine and realistic details. Rather than using cut glass they painted actual scenes on glass sheets. New secular themes were introduced as well as ever increasing scenes of Heraldry.

Once the Reformation took hold in the 16th century production of stained glass declined. A new and easier enamelling technique had been invented. There was no longer any need to use individually cut pieces of glass to create a picture. England was the only country to continue the old traditions of stained glass making .

William Morris and his “Art Nouveau” movement brought about a stained glass revival in the 19th century. Morris was founder of the Arts and Crafts movement, forming his own company in 1861. Some of the artisans and designers he enlisted were painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. In the US, Louis Comfort Tiffany produced an exciting new style in stained glass. His Tiffany lamps were met with enthusiasm and then derision until the 1960’s when they evolved as an expensive and collectable art form.

Contemporary stained glass has seen many innovations. Today it’s more commonly called “art glass” and there’s been an explosion of interest in the last 30 years. New artists and new technologies have made creating stained glass easier than ever. Many people have taken up stained glass crafting as a hobby. Windows and doors in homes all around the country are embellished stained glass windows or Tiffany-style light fixtures. Decorative “sun catchers” in a myriad of designs are a hot item these days. Gifted artists are creating free-standing, three-dimensional glass sculptures in black and white Deco Art styles, delicate Oriental pastiches and colorful and flowing fantasy themes. The ancient art of colored glass has indeed come a long way.