Light has made the world visible since the first day of Creation. “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.” According to Genesis, the rainbow, which is the light of the sun broken down into the colors of light, was God’s covenant with man after the Flood. Light has always been a symbol of goodness and beauty.
Abbot Suger, known as the father of Gothic architecture, was the first to transform God’s light into the church’s light. He did this through the use of stained-glass windows. When rebuilding his Abbey Church of St. Denis in France, he used — and these are Abbot Suger’s words — “the most radiant windows to illumine men’s minds so that they may travel through the light to an apprehension of God’s light.” He brought man to God through his windows.
Painting with Light
Stained glass is the only art form that relies entirely on natural daylight. Every other art form, such as painting and sculpture, is designed to be seen by reflected light. With a stained-glass window, however, the artist designs it so that the artistic effect is created by light passing through the glass. In a sense, the artist must paint with light.
The creation of a traditional stained-glass window is very simple, although it takes a great deal of skill to accomplish effectively. First, the design is sketched and then drawn to the full size of the window on a piece of paper, show the cut lines. Then the glass is chosen and cut to the proper size. In the Middle Ages the glass was made on the site where the glass craftsmen were working. Cutting the glass was a very important part of the process. The medieval artist used a hot iron to make the cuts. Next, the glass is painted and fired in a kiln which is heated to about 1250°F.
Once the glass is properly prepared, the artist lays out the pieces of glass as they will be fit together in the final window. Meanwhile, the leading is made from lead strips and cement. This is what holds all the pieces of glass together to form the final image. The final step is fixing the window into the opening in the wall of the church, where the light will enter through and bring the stained glass to life.
A great many different images have been depicted in stained glass. The imagery of the saints, of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin were used and developed in the stained-glass images. The Bible and the lives of the saints were the two main inspirations for the donors who commissioned the stained-glass artists, called glaziers, to create the windows.
Just as the stained-glass window was an integral part of the Gothic church, the glazier was an important craftsmen in the medieval world. Before the Renaissance, the glazier considered himself, not an artist, but a craftsman — on par with a shoemaker, a baker, or blacksmith. Art in the medieval era could not be separated from the craft. There was no art for art’s sake. No galleries for voyeurs to visit simply to gaze. Art and craft was a daily concern, although perhaps not consciously. The glaziers saw themselves servants of the Church. They worked to glorify God, not themselves. Therefore, most glaziers are unknown to us today since their works were unsigned.
Attacks on the Catholic Arts
The Renaissance, beginning in the 16th century, changed all that. In many ways, the values of the people shifted from being God-centered to being man-centered. This had a great effect on stained-glass windows. Because stained-glass was so much a Catholic art it was seen as the antithesis, the opposite, of the new humanistic Renaissance art.
Then the Protestant Reformation took aim at all Catholic art. Many of the stained-glass windows with their stories of the Bible, the saints and their miracles were destroyed by newly formed Protestant sects which were out to eliminate all objects of Catholic devotion. The new Protestants claimed that the images depicted in the windows were expressions of idolatry and superstition.
The reaction to Catholic art was the most violent in England and the Netherlands. In England all the monasteries and convents which had been closed by Henry VIII in the 1530s began to fall into decay. Laws were passed by the English parliament which called for the destruction of all church paintings and windows which depicted “feigned miracles, pilgrimages, idolatry, and superstition.”
In the Netherlands in A.D. 1566, the Calvinists attacked churches all over the country and smashed the art treasures and the windows in the streets. Both the Calvinists and the Anglican Protestants in England, despised images of the Blessed Virgin and Christ on the Cross.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, after the Protestants had further separated themselves from the Christ’s one, true Church, the craft of the glaziers almost died away. In places where the Protestants took control, religious imagery was completely ignored in any new church windows. Many Protestants instead decorated their windows with historical themes and images of the donors.
In the late 19th century North America and parts of Western Europe revived the use of stained-glass windows. The Catholics in North America often tried to imitate works of the medieval artists. A Neo-Gothic movement took hold and the Americans built smaller versions of the great Gothic cathedrals. So they tried to reproduce the same types of Gothic stained-glass windows that could be found in the German and French churches. Although some Americans succeeded in creating beautiful pieces of Catholic religious art on their church windows, most of the work did not compare to the work of the medieval artist.
Often American cathedrals simply have glass painted with religious images, as if they were painting a canvas. Other modern stained glass is simply fit together to form a pattern that represents nothing other than the colors. Even so, the concept of the light being transformed through the colored glass remains effective. Stained glass remains as a part of Catholicism’s artistic and devotional patrimony!
Michael S. Rose is married with five well-mannered children. He is author of several books including Benedict XVI: The Man Who Was Ratzinger, available now from Spence Publishing.
This article has been re-published with written authorization of Catholic Match, LLC.
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