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Appreciating Stained Glass

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

I smiled when I learned that Royal Mail is using images of stained glass windows in England for its Christmas 2020 stamp series. Stained glass is a wonderful, underappreciated medium. Artists and their workshops have overcome so many compositional and technological challenges during the past millennium to create such transcendental beauty. Late nineteenth century Britain has many wonderful examples of the genre, so Royal Mail’s tribute is fitting.

Appreciating the challenges helps one appreciate the accomplishments. Consider the differences in designing a composition on canvas and designing a stained glass window. A blank canvas is literally a tabula rasa: artists are not only able to choose the size of their composition, but can place and balance figures, forms, and colors however imagination dictates. In contrast, a stained glass window is designed to fit an architectural space. It can be circumscribed not only by stone tracery but by the lead panes separating the fragile glass panes. Its image is effectively powered by the sun, a light source that changes throughout the course of the day. A workshop must achieve a careful balance in the chemical composition of the glass so one color does not overwhelm the others as the refracted light hits the human eye. Moreover, an artist usually needs to conceive of a vertical composition rather than a horizontal one, a constraint that can pose a challenge, particularly when depicting a narrative.

While many fine examples of secular stained glass windows exist, the medium is mostly frequently associated with Christian art. The most noteworthy pieces appear not in museums, but in cathedrals or churches. Stained glass certainly has its decorative and aesthetically pleasing qualities. But its purpose is more transcendental; there is something mystical about the nature of light itself that makes it so well suited to religious art. In Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, light is associated with truth and knowledge; darkness, with ignorance. In John 8:12, Jesus refers to himself as “The Light of the World”. This pairing is not arbitrary with respect to stained glass. With his 12th century restoration of the Church of Saint-Denis, Abbot Suger (1081-1151) is regarded as the father of Gothic Architecture. Stained glass was an integral component of his vision. Pictured below is the interior of Saint-Denis, although much of the stained glass is a later restoration.

Suger was greatly influenced by the writings of the sixth century Neo-Platonist Christian philosopher “Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite,” who wrote:

“Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights. But there is something more. Inspired by the Father, each procession of Light spreads itself generously towards us, and, in its power to unify, it stirs us by lifting us up. It returns us back to the oneness and...the Father who gathers us in….As far as we can, we should behold the intelligent hierarchies of heaven and we should do so in accordance with what scripture has revealed to us in symbolic and uplifting fashion. We must lift the immaterial and steady eyes of our minds to that outpouring of Light which…comes from...the Father.” (1)

Abbot Suger ran with this concept. The art of Saint-Denis, he wrote, “should brighten the minds, so that they may travel, through the true lights, to the True Light where Christ is the true door…The dull mind rises to truth through that which is material and, in seeing this light, is resurrected from its former submersion.” It is not difficult to see how these concepts influenced the evolution of Gothic Architecture. The vertical relationship between God and man is reinforced by the 154 foot nave of the 13th century Beauvais Cathedral. But its soaring vaults were to lift the worshiper towards God. Similarly, the 22,000 square feet of stained glass in Chartres Cathedral can be said to illuminate scripture in a symbolic and uplifting fashion, and thus focuses the mind on the source of the light, i.e. God. For Suger, the creation of art and architecture was more of a spiritual exercise than ars gratia artis – art for art’s sake.

Here are a couple of images from the 22,000 square feet of stained glass from Chartres, dating from 1205-1225:

From its Gothic heyday, stained glass declined as an art form until the 19th century. The reasons are complex – in general, Protestants rejected the figurative aspects of the religious medieval stained glass tradition. But even in Catholic countries, tastes changed towards preferring clearer glass or exploring less durable enameling techniques. Many of the great glass workshops in Germany and France were destroyed in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), and with them, centuries of experiential learning were lost. Unfortunately, during this interlude, countless panels of medieval stained glass and religious artwork were destroyed – most notably by Cromwell’s Puritanical minions during the English Civil War as well as the fanatical cultists of ‘Reason’ during the French Revolution. Never underestimate the destructive potential of those who loathe the past in their effort to build the future.

The Plundering of the Royal Tombs at Saint-Denis, by Hubert Robert, circa 1793.

What accounted for the revival of stained glass in the 19th century? In so far as such generalizations are possible, Romanticism as a broad movement spurred a rediscovery of Europe’s medieval heritage. Rather than revile the past, Romanticism sought to study it, interpret it, and draw artistic inspiration from it. In France, this movement was embodied by Prosper Mérimée, who not only served as Inspector-General of Historical Monuments in France for two decades, but pioneered the genre of the novella – the most famous of which served as the basis for Bizet’s opera Carmen. Supported by Mérimée’s restoration program, the number of stained glass workshops in France increased from three to almost forty-five. In England, changing religious practices also contributed to the revival of stained glass production. With the legalization of Catholicism, churches needed to be built, and stained glass fit into its aesthetical paradigm. Within Anglicanism itself, the Oxford movement led to an interest in medieval liturgical practices and architecture.

There existed a scientific dimension to the revival as well; workshops competed with one another to try to equal and eventually exceed the quality of Medieval stained glass. The English barrister and art connoisseur Charles Winston supported numerous chemical experiments with the workshop James Powell and Sons to try to produce glass that was equal to the radiance to its medieval antecedents. The Birmingham glass manufacturer William Edward Chance announced in 1863 that after years of experimentation, he had finally reverse engineered the composition of medieval glass. We live in age of such remarkable technological progress and ingenuity that it is difficult to conceive of catching up to the scientific achievements of a previous civilization. With a bit of humility, however, we might consider whether we live in the shadow of the artistic achievements of previous ages.

In my subsequent essays, I have chosen to write about the stained glass windows in St. Philip’s Cathedral in Birmingham, England, which were designed by Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by Morris & Co. from 1885-1897. [See detail, above.] There were several reasons for my choice. The most basic is that my wife grew up outside Birmingham, and I have spent some time over recent decades exploring the city. More importantly, the collaboration between the pre-Raphaelites Burne-Jones and William Morris was such a fruitful one on so many levels. Drawing inspiration from artists who preceded them, driven by an at times religious zeal in pursuit of aestheticism and beauty, and applying meticulous attention to the details of craftsmanship, the two epitomized the distinct artistic creativity of the late Victorian era. Lastly, three of the four panels - the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement - help tell the story of Christian redemption.

I want to retell that story in a language that is not academic, but one that attempts to capture the religious significance of those images. My concern is that so many in our society have lost the ability to “read” Christian art, much like the techniques of the medieval artisans had been lost. The Nativity is more than a birth story; the Crucifixion, more than an execution. A valid criticism of this approach is that it may blur what the artist intended to convey with what I want it to convey. Burne-Jones’s religious beliefs certainly do not fit neatly into a denominational box. I was fortunate to find an unpublished and meticulously researched Ph.D. dissertation on the internet, Dr. Colette Crossman’s “Art as Lived Religion: Edward Burne-Jones as Painter, Priest, Pilgrim and Monk.” Even if his beliefs can’t conform to the “customary parameters of denomination or broad, theological movement,” Crossman writes, “In the overlapping, and at times conflicting, guises of a priest mediating the divine, an artist-monk for whom labor is a devotional act, and a pilgrim seeking salvation, Burne-Jones cast his artistic practice as a religious vocation meant to improve the world through the redemptive power of beauty and, in the process, secure divine favor.” (2)

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, 1890.

It would be impossible to recreate the beauty of the stained glass without good photographs. I am very grateful to Alastair Carew-Cox for letting me use his photographs of the windows at St. Philip’s Cathedral for these essays. With his associate William Waters, Alastair is soon completing his third exquisitely illustrated volume on Pre-Raphaelite stained glass. A labor of love, they depend upon donations to defray the not insubstantial printing costs. Incidentally, he was the photographer for three of the stamps being used by Royal Mail for its 2020 Christmas series. To support their worthy endeavor, visit their website.


(1) PSEUDO-DIONYSIUS, The Celestial Hierarchy, 121A-121B. In case you are wondering: Denis and Dionysius are variants of the same of name, and the First Bishop of Paris – Saint Denis – was sometimes conflated with the sixth century writer, who adds to the confusion by identifying himself as the Dionysius the Apostle Paul converts in Acts 17:34. If you are dying to learn more about Pseudo-Dionysius and his influence on Abbot Suger, a good article can be found here.

(2) Dr. Crossman's thesis can be found here.

Notes on the images:

Interior of Saint-Denis, Wikimedia Commons. Information on the photo can be found here.

Chartres Cathedral, digital collections of the University of Pittsburgh. Details can be found: here, and here.

The plundering of the Royal Tombs at Saint-Denis, by Hubert Robert. Le Musée Carnavalet, P 1477. For more information, see here.

Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, Sir Emery Walker, after Frederick Hollyer, National Portrait Gallery (London), 19619. For more information, see here.

Detail from The Nativity, by Edward-Burne Jones. St. Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham. Photo copyright Alaister Carew-Cox. For more information on his publications, visit his website. American donors may want to use Paypal. Contact me for details.

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