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by Bob Brooke


Stained glass has fascinated people for centuries. Its beginnings can be traced back to the Church of St. Paul, near Rome, built by Constantine in 337 A.D, in which mosaic windows were held in place by metal frames or pierced stone slabs. Painted glass windows, however, date from about the time of Charlemagne, 800 A.D.

The Origins of Stained Glass
Early in the 12th century, the monk Theophilus first recorded an ancient glass-making formula which when heated turned a pale green color. As the craftsman applied more heat, the mixture turned a warm purple.

Later, they colored glass by adding metallic oxides and salts to the molten ash-and-sand mixture during the process of fusion. Different temperatures produced different colors. In the beginning, the colors were limited to red, blue, purple, green and yellow. They created red, the most difficult to produce, by throwing copper filings and flakes of iron into the molten mixture. For rich, azure blues, they used cobalt oxides. Copper dioxide produced green, manganese oxide purple, and dioxide of manganese yellow.

The term “stained glass” refers to the basic coloring of molten glass, the point at which color becomes fused with clear glass. It came into use at the beginning of the 19th century as a contraction of "painted and stained glass." In the Middle Ages, it was simply called "glass" or glaziers' work." Gathering the molten glass on the end of his blowing tube, the glass bowler blew the liquid into a rough sphere, and, by swinging and twisting, obtained a cylindrical shape. This was cut at both ends, opened along its axis, and allowed to cool. It was then placed in an annealing oven and reheated, causing the glass to flatten out on a stone, forming a small sheet of uneven thickness. Made in this way, medieval glass—like today's "antique glass"—had considerable variations of thickness, causing greater and lesser intensities of color within each sheet. This harmonious union of flaws and irregularities, reams and air bubbles, caused the glass to refract the sun's rays, making the now-colored light dance and sparkle.

After being cut, each glass piece was placed in position and inserted into its lead channel and soldered at the joints until a panel of predetermined size could be lifted in one piece. A putty-like compound was then hand-rubbed into the areas between the lead flanges and the surface of the glass, making it weatherproof and providing additional strength as well. The completed windows were made up of a number of panels set between iron crossbars, additionally supported with tied and soldered small square rods fashioned by a blacksmith.

Types of Stained Glass
There are almost as many different styles of stained glass windows as there are windows, themselves. The 13th century, the age of "cathedral glory," saw windows that had a shimmering, ethereal quality, as if matter had been transformed. Negative space, in the form of paint and lead, allowed some colors to merge harmoniously, while others seemed to dance and vibrate with the movement of the sun. As evening approached, the iridescent jewels of color began to dull, receding into an atmosphere of peace and tranquility. Grisalle and semi-grisalle windows--those with a light monochromatic color scheme--were used frequently in churches toward the end of the 13th century, probably due to a demand for increased interior light.

It's sometimes supposed that enamel painting on stained glass is a relatively late
innovation. While it was possible to make a patterned or pictorial window entirely of glass and lead work, such windows weren't produced until after the end of the Middle Ages. In a good stained glass window, the lead work isn't only a container for the glass but also an integral part of the design, but the details of a picture, such as the features of faces, folds of drapery or petals of a rosette were from the earliest times done by painting with a brush dipped in black enamel pigment derived from iron.

The Revival of a Lost Art
The old techniques were all but obliterated during the 17th and 18th centuries, becoming a lost art. With the Gothic Revival Period of Victorian times came a call for pure color in glass once again. But now designers no longer created windows just for churches. The glazier again became as important as the glass painter, and lead once more became an integral part of window design.

Stained glass is to this day often the production of virtually unnamed artists. Later 19th-century glaziers all signed their work. Sometimes these "signatures" were merely symbols, such as a monk in a habit as a sign of the Powell family of Whitefriars, England. Some hid their initials somewhere in the glass design. The signature, if there is one, should be authenticated, according to said Michael Delaware, president of Artistic Glass of Roswell (Atlanta), Ga.

Of all the stained glass designers, Tiffany is probably the most well known to Americans. “Though he pioneered in stained glass windows in America at the turn of the century, he, himself, never personally made any of his windows," said Delaware.

Later, as World War I took its toll on the world's economy, Frank Lloyd Wright embraced the Art Deco style for his window designs, helping to further the interest in non-religious stained glass.

Collecting Stained Glass
But not everyone can collect large windows. For one thing, they can't be hung like a painting. Most need to be mounted permanently. Though larger ones sell from $5,000 to $50,000, smaller, more common window designs are available from $200-300, according to Jeff Venturella, owner of the Architectural Emporium in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "We've got plenty of transoms in their original frames. Many people hang these in front of their regular windows. I suggest this because if they're built in, they can't take them with them if they sell their house."

While the best examples of medieval stained glass are in the great cathedrals of France at Chartres and in Paris at Saint Chappelle and others, there are extraordinary examples here in the United States in historic Bryn Athyn, a small town just outside of Philadelphia that’s home to the New Church and Bryn Athyn Cathedral. Glaziers from all over Europe produced all the windows in this church on site in much the same manner as those in Europe’s greatest cathedrals. Though the designs are distinctly representative of the teachings of the New Church, the techniques and colors harken back to medieval times.

There's only one major stained glass museum in the world--The Stained Glass Museum of Ely Cathedral, in Ely, England. It displays over 100 panels, tracing the history of the craft from medieval to modern times, at eye-level so that they can be viewed closely.

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