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A Short History of the Stained Glass Window

Stained glass has been around for more than one thousand years. Still used almost exclusively for the windows of churches, cathedrals, and other religious buildings, over the years, innovations and developments by modern stained glass artists means it’s sometimes used in 3D sculpture and other structures these days.

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How it’s made

Stained glass is made by adding metallic-colored salts to glass during the manufacturing process. The windows are created by cutting small pieces of the colored glass to size, and binding them together with strips of lead. Other details are then painted on if required. 

Stained glass can also be created by painting plain glass, and then firing it in a kiln.

The beginning

Stained glass has been around since ancient history. Both the Romans and Egyptians produced small colored glass items, few of which survive today. Early Christian churches also featured stained glass-style windows made from alabaster and wood. 

Stained glass first appeared in British churches in the seventh century, when artisans were brought over from France to work on the windows of the monastery of Saint Peter.

Stained glass was also produced in ancient Southwest Asia, with early colored glass dating to the seventh century BC. Ancient texts describe in detail how to produce colored glass and artificial gemstones. This tradition has continued into modern times with mosques, palaces, and public spaces decorated with stained glass across the Islamic world. Islamic stained glass differs from the Western stained glass in that it’s usually geometric in design, while Western designs tend to be pictorial. 

Stained glass peaked in the Middle Ages, when it was used in churches across Europe to depict the Bible to churchgoers, most of whom would have been illiterate. As time went on, designs became more and more elaborate, with sections divided by elaborate stone tracery and more intricate details beginning to appear. 

In the United States

The first major stained glass maker in the United States was J&R Lamb Studios of New York. The company was the country’s biggest producer of stained glass for churches for some years. Louis Comfort Tiffany is perhaps the best-known American maker, who’s believed to have invented the copper foil method that replaced lead and patented a specific opalescent process. The opalescent glass had been invented earlier by another American maker, John La Farge.

Later, in the early 1900s, Boston’s Charles J Connick led the charge for a revival of traditional, medieval-style stained glass. Over the next few decades, he created huge windows across the country, including a famous window at Princeton University Chapel. Lots of other American makers then followed suit. 

The United States is home to the largest stained-glass window in the world – at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. The window was created using a new ‘fused glass’ method, described as painting ‘with’ glass instead of ‘on’ glass. The window depicts stories from the Bible, surrounding a portrait of Jesus Christ, and is 100 feet wide and 40 feet tall.

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