The History of Stained Glass Windows

Looking to learn more about the history of stained glass? While windows clearly serve a utilitarian purpose, stained glass windows developed over millennia as a blend of function and art. Here are some of the fascinating facts about stained glass.

Ancient origins

While no historian can pinpoint the exact origin of stained glass, it’s believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to discover it. The oldest examples of manmade glass found throughout the world—an early type of colored glass beads—were found in Egypt and date back to around 2700 BC.

The use of stained glass expanded throughout the ancient world, and the Romans in particular developed glassmaking technologies to create stained glass windows for their homes around the first century AD. Throughout the Middle East, stained glass windows were crafted for some of the finest palaces and mosques. The techniques and traditions of making stained glass even reached England. At St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, you can still find some of the earliest examples of stained glass windows, dating to 686 AD.

The Medieval period

Many people associate the history of stained glass with the Medieval period, as much of the architecture of that remains from this age is characterized by beautiful, elaborate stained glass windows and other functional objects.

The church was the primary patron of stained glass windows, and art in general, throughout the Middle Ages. You’ll find the oldest examples of complete stained glass windows, dating back to the late 11th century, at Augsburg Cathedral in Germany. Stained glass flourished in France under the early patronage of Abbot Suger at Saint-Denis. He envisioned stained glass as a tool for teaching, commissioning stained glass windows with depictions of Biblical stories.

The Renaissance

Stained glass flourished into the Renaissance, exhibiting some unique changes compared to the work of the Medieval period. There were stylistic changes in clothing to reflect the changing fashions of the time. Shifting subject matter represents another key development in stained glass during Renaissance times. Secular scenes began to be incorporated into stained glass windows at churches. The development of linear perspective also contributed to the stylistic changes of the era, making figural and architectural depictions much more realistic.

The Victorian and Art Nouveau styles

At the turn of the 20th century, several art and architectural styles around the world used stained glass as an integral design motif. In the U.K. and America, stained glass artists like Louis Comfort Tiffany created fantastic windows, as well as decorative objects like lamps and mirrors in the medium of stained glass. In continental Europe, in particular France and Austria, the Art Nouveau movement in the early 20th century saw stained glass rise in popularity in domestic architecture and decorative objects.

While stained glass declined in popularity later in the 20th century, it’s seeing a resurgence of interest today as people appreciate the timeless beauty of handcrafted art that serves a purpose.

There are countless interesting facts about stained glass—it’s an art and craft with a rich tradition that continues to this day. Learn more about the unique history of stained glass by reaching out to the experts at Smiths’ Stained Glass today!