The history of windows is an interesting study, but perhaps even more so is the history of stained glass windows. Used as a form of art in churches and other places, stained glass gives us glimpses into the periods of time when Gothic and Renaissance architecture flourished.
Stained glass windows are basically a type of mosaic, made up of pieces of colored glass and fit together to form a design. The pieces are traditionally joined by thin lead strips. The colored glass is made either by adding metallic salts during the making of the glass, or painted on the glass after its manufacture, and then fused to the glass using a kiln.
The earliest windows that could be called stained glass windows have been found in churches built in the 4th and 5th centuries, and were made of thinly sliced pieces of alabaster and set in wooden frames. Pieces of colored glass and lead were found in a monastery in Jarrow, England that date back to the 7th century. The oldest surviving pictorial stained glass window is a Head of Christ found in Lorsch Abbey in Germany, dating back to the 10th century.
Stained glass window design during the Gothic period (roughly the 13th and 14th centuries), consisted largely of elaborate geometric designs. The windows let much-needed light into the cathedrals, which, at the time were being built with high, vaulted ceilings. It wasn’t until the Renaissance time period that stained glass windows began depicting scenes—usually from the Bible. During this time, stained glass artisans (called glaziers) also started using paint to bring more realism to their designs.
When the Reformation spread across Europe in the 16th century, church design and architecture became less elaborate. There was even some backlash during this time with regard to the ornate (and expensive) cathedrals that held the bulk of European stained glass, and some of the pieces were destroyed. The art of stained glass languished during the Reformation years, but was revived in the late 17th century when the Gothic style of architecture came back into fashion.
Stained glass was most popular in the United States in the early 20th century, but began with William Bolton, who made what is thought to be the first stained glass window in America for a New York church in 1843. Perhaps the best-known stained glass artist in the United States was Louis Comfort Tiffany, of Tiffany & Co. fame. The 20th century brought about a new golden age of stained glass with more abstract and less pictorial designs. Stained glass windows were still found in churches, but were also widely used in homes, particularly those with an arts-and-crafts design.
The largest stained glass window currently in the world is located in a mausoleum in Justice, Illinois. Covering more than 22,000 square feet, it depicts stories from the Bible in chronological order.
In San Diego, you can see a beautiful display of stained glass windows in the San Diego Hall of Justice. Each of the 12 windows is an elaborate depiction of a state seal. You can read the interesting story of how the windows ended up in the Hall of Justice here. There are also local churches and missions worth visiting for their stained glass windows, such as the First Presbyterian Church of San Diego and Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Little Italy. If you’re interested in stained glass for your own home or business, there are several glaziers working in the San Diego area like San Diego Glassart and Blue Dolphin Art Glass. Blue Dolphin also offers stained glass classes for those interested in learning the art, as does the Art Glass Guild of San Diego.