stained glass windows in the Met

Light, Color, and Craftsmanship: How is Stained Glass Made?

12 min read

Stained glass is an art form that has captivated humanity for centuries, casting vibrant colors and intricate designs across the interiors of some of the world’s most awe-inspiring structures. From the towering cathedrals of medieval Europe to contemporary buildings, stained glass windows have not only illuminated spaces but also told stories, conveyed religious themes, and showcased the craftsmanship of artisans throughout history. Its creation is a meticulous, painstaking process, that combines artistic vision with technical skill, resulting in pieces that are both visually stunning and structurally sound. In this article, we will explore the fascinating history of stained glass, tracing its origins and evolution over time, and provide an in-depth look at the materials and methods used to create these beautiful works of art. By exploring the rich heritage and detailed process of stained glass making, we gain a deeper appreciation for this timeless craft and its enduring legacy in art and architecture.

An Abridged History of Stained Glass

Glass pendant in the form of crescent horns, Glass, Egyptian

The roots of stained glass can be traced back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Rome, where the early use of colored glass served both decorative and practical purposes. In Egypt, colored glass was used to create intricate jewelry, amulets, and small inlays for furniture and architectural elements.

The Romans advanced these techniques, incorporating colored glass into mosaics and windows for public baths and homes of the elite. These early applications laid the groundwork for the later development of stained glass as an art form, utilizing glass materials like sand and potash mixed with metallic oxides to produce various hues.

Medieval Europe

The medieval period marked a significant evolution in making stained glass, particularly with its prominence in Gothic cathedrals. These towering structures, with their vast windows, provided an ideal canvas for stained glass artisans. Notable examples include Chartres Cathedral in France, renowned for its deep blue glass, and Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, famous for its stunningly intricate stained glass windows that narrate biblical stories.

Stained Glass Panel with Queen Kunigunde, Pot-metal glass, colorless glass, and vitreous paint, Austrian
Stained Glass Panel with Queen Kunigunde, Austrian, 1340–50

During this period, stained glass was not only a decorative element but also a medium for storytelling and religious education, with windows depicting scenes from the Bible and the lives of saints, thereby becoming an integral part of the spiritual and cultural experience.

Renaissance and Baroque Periods

The Annunciate Virgin (one of a pair), Colored, stained, and enameled glass, French, Paris
The Annunciate Virgin (one of a pair), French, Paris, 1552

The Renaissance and Baroque periods completely transformed how artists create stained glass. Renaissance art, with its emphasis on realism and perspective, influenced stained glass designs to become more detailed and naturalistic.

Artists began to use painted glass panels extensively, incorporating chiaroscuro (the treatment of light and shade) to enhance the depth and realism of figures. The Baroque period further innovated stained glass, introducing more dynamic and dramatic compositions with elaborate ornamental designs. These changes reflected broader artistic trends of the time and expanded the expressive potential of stained glass.

19th Century Revival

Peonies Blown in the Wind, John La Farge (American, New York 1835–1910 Providence, Rhode Island), Leaded opalescent glass, American
Peonies Blown in the Wind, John La Farge American, ca. 1880

The 19th century witnessed a revival of interest in stained glass, driven by the Gothic Revival movement. This period saw a resurgence in the creation of stained glass windows for churches, public buildings, and private homes. Key figures like John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany played pivotal roles in this revival.

Squash Window with Pebbles, Louis C. Tiffany (American, New York 1848–1933 New York), Glass, beach-worn quartz, lead came, American

La Farge pioneered new techniques in opalescent glass, while Tiffany’s work introduced vibrant colors and intricate patterns, elevating stained glass to new artistic heights. Advances in glassmaking and coloring techniques during this time allowed for greater experimentation and complexity in designs, revitalizing the craft and inspiring future generations of stained glass artists.

Modern Stained Glass

The 20th century brought about significant innovations in stained glass, embracing abstract designs and modernist aesthetics. Prominent artists such as Marc Chagall and Frank Lloyd Wright expanded the boundaries of stained glass art. Chagall’s work incorporated vivid colors and whimsical, dream-like imagery, while Wright integrated geometric patterns and natural motifs into his architectural designs.

The integration of stained glass into modern architecture highlighted its versatility and enduring appeal. Contemporary stained glass artists continue to explore new techniques and materials, ensuring that this ancient art form remains vibrant and relevant in today’s artistic landscape.

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Stained Glass in Contemporary Art

Contemporary artists continue to explore and innovate within the medium of stained glass, blending traditional techniques with modern themes and materials. Some notable contemporary artists using stained glass in their work include the following.

Judith Schaechter

Judith Schaechter is a prominent contemporary stained glass artist. Her work is known for its intricate detail and emotionally charged themes. Schaechter’s panels often explore human suffering, beauty, and the grotesque, using a combination of traditional stained glass techniques and innovative methods. Her work has been widely exhibited, including at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Brian Clarke

Brian Clarke is a highly regarded British artist known for his large-scale stained glass works and architectural projects. His innovative designs often feature bold colors and geometric patterns. Clarke’s works are integrated into buildings around the world, such as the Al Faisaliah Center in Riyadh and Pfizer World Headquarters in New York. He is recognized for pushing the boundaries of stained glass art, combining traditional craftsmanship with contemporary aesthetics.

David Hockney

David Hockney is a well-known British artist who designed the Queen’s Window at Westminster Abbey, installed in 2018. This stained glass window reflects his distinctive style, featuring bright colors and a cheerful landscape. Hockney is primarily known for his paintings, but this stained glass work demonstrates his versatility and ability to adapt his artistic vision to different mediums.

Tomasz Urbanowicz

Tomasz Urbanowicz is a Polish artist recognized for his architectural glass art, including stained glass. His works often feature abstract designs and are incorporated into various buildings, enhancing their architectural appeal. Urbanowicz’s pieces explore the interplay of light, color, and space, contributing to the modern evolution of stained glass art.

Miriam Di Fiore

Miriam Di Fiore is an Italian artist specializing in fused and painted glass. Her works are known for their intricate landscapes and detailed scenes, created through layering techniques that give depth and texture to her pieces. Di Fiore’s work is widely respected in the contemporary glass art community.

Types of Stained Glass

Antique Glass

Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter, Pot-metal glass, vitreous paint, and lead, German

Antique glass, also known as mouth-blown glass, is produced using traditional glassblowing techniques that date back centuries. This type of glass is highly valued for its unique texture, rich colors, and subtle variations in thickness and translucency, which create a vibrant, jewel-like effect when illuminated.

Each piece of antique glass is unique, often containing small bubbles and imperfections that add to its character and beauty. Because of its handcrafted nature, antique glass is often used in restoration projects and high-quality stained glass artworks where an authentic, historical appearance is desired.

Cathedral Glass

Cathedral glass is a type of machine-made glass characterized by its smooth, uniform texture and transparency. Unlike antique glass, cathedral glass is produced in large sheets, making it more affordable and easier to work with for larger projects. It does not have the same uneven surface as the textured glass made in centuries past.

It comes in a wide range of colors and is often used in traditional stained glass windows for churches and other large architectural installations. The even texture and clarity of cathedral glass allow for the precise cutting of intricate designs and the effective transmission of light, making it a popular choice for both historical and contemporary stained glass works.

Opalescent Glass

Vase, Designed by Louis C. Tiffany (American, New York 1848–1933 New York), Favrile glass, American

Opalescent glass, pioneered by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the late 19th century, is known for its distinctive milky, translucent appearance that can range from subtle pastels to vibrant, swirling colors. This glass is created by adding chemical compounds to the glass mixture, resulting in a semi-opaque finish that diffuses light beautifully.

Opalescent glass can be manipulated to have varying degrees of transparency and color blending, making it ideal for creating intricate, layered designs with a soft, glowing effect. This type of glass is widely used in decorative art pieces, including Tiffany-style lamps and modern stained glass projects.

Then and Now: Materials Used in Making Stained Glass

Lead Came

Angels Swinging Censers, Pot-metal glass, vitreous paint, and lead, French

Lead came is a traditional material used in the assembly of stained glass pieces. It consists of long strips of lead with an H-shaped cross-section, which are used to hold individual glass pieces together. The channels of the came fit around the edges of the glass pieces, and the joints are soldered to create a sturdy framework. Lead came is flexible and easy to work with, making it ideal for creating detailed designs and complex patterns. Its dark, matte finish provides a striking contrast to the vibrant glass, enhancing the overall visual impact of the stained glass window.

Copper Foil

The copper foil technique, developed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, involves wrapping the edges of each piece of glass in thin copper foil before soldering them together. This method allows for more intricate and delicate designs compared to lead came, as the foil can follow complex shapes and fine details.

Once the glass pieces are wrapped in foil, they are arranged and soldered along the seams, creating a smooth, continuous line. The copper foil technique is particularly suited for smaller, detailed works such as lampshades and intricate panels, offering greater flexibility and precision in the design process.

Solder

In a stained glass class, you will almost certainly use a soldering iron to make stained glass. Solder is a metal alloy, typically composed of tin and lead, used to join the pieces of stained glass that are wrapped in copper foil or held in place by lead came.

When heated with a soldering iron, the solder (often tinned copper wire) melts and flows into the joints between the glass pieces, solidifying as it cools to create a strong, durable bond. The solder lines are then often treated with a patina to darken them, enhancing the contrast and defining the design. Proper soldering is crucial for the structural integrity and aesthetic quality of the stained glass piece, requiring skill and precision to ensure smooth, even seams.

The Stained Glass Making Process

Design for an armorial stained glass window, Anonymous, British, 19th century, Watercolor and pen and ink over graphite

The process of creating stained glass begins with the design and planning phase, where the artist conceptualizes the overall design of the piece. This involves envisioning the final artwork, considering factors like color, light, and the setting where the stained glass will be installed.

The artist then creates detailed sketches and patterns, known as cartoons, which serve as full-scale blueprints for the project. These cartoons outline the shapes and placement of each piece of glass, ensuring that the final work will fit together perfectly and achieve the desired visual effect.

Selecting and Cutting Glass

Once the design is finalized, the artist selects the appropriate types and colors of glass to bring the design to life. The choice of glass is crucial, as different types of glass have unique properties that affect light transmission and overall appearance.

The glass is then carefully sliced into individual pieces to match the shapes outlined in the cartoon by using a glass cutter. This step requires precision and skill, as the glass must be cut accurately to fit together seamlessly. Grozing pliers are used to score and break the glass along the desired lines.

Assembling the Pieces

Grisaille Panel, Pot-metal glass, colorless glass, silver stain, and vitreous paint, French

With the glass pieces cut, the next step is assembling them using either the lead came or copper foil technique. In the lead came method, strips of lead with an H-shaped cross-section are used to hold the glass pieces together. Alternatively, in the copper foil technique, each piece of glass is wrapped in thin copper foil. To properly fit each piece of coloured glass, you might need to use an electric glass grinder.

Once the pieces are arranged according to the cartoon, they are soldered at the joints to secure them in place. The choice between lead came and copper foil depends on the complexity and detail of the design, as well as the intended aesthetic effect.

Adding Details

Jubal and Miriam, William Jay Bolton (British, 1816–1884), Stained glass window; vitreous glass paint, enamel paint, silver stain, American

After the basic assembly, additional details can be added to enhance the artwork. This often involves painting and firing details onto the glass pieces. Special glass paints and enamels are used to add shading, texture, and intricate designs, such as facial features or decorative patterns.

These painted details are then fired in a kiln to fuse the paint to the glass, making it durable and permanent. Techniques like grisaille (gray shading) and silver staining are commonly used to achieve depth and complexity in the design, bringing the artwork to life.

Final Assembly and Installation

Stained Glass Lunette from the Cornelius Vanderbilt II House, New York, John La Farge (American, New York 1835–1910 Providence, Rhode Island), Leaded opalescent glass, American

In the final assembly stage, all the individual sections of the stained glass are joined together to form the complete panel. The assembled panel is then reinforced with additional soldering or the application of metal support bars to ensure its structural integrity. Once the panel is fully assembled and reinforced, it is ready for installation. The stained glass is typically installed in a frame or directly into the architectural setting, where it is securely anchored. Proper installation is crucial to ensure that the stained glass is stable and safe, and that it will display its full beauty when illuminated by natural or artificial light.

Modern Techniques

Fusing and slumping are modern techniques that have significantly expanded the creative possibilities of stained glass art. Fusing involves stacking or layering pieces of glass together and then heating them in a kiln until they melt and fuse into a single piece. This process allows artists to create intricate patterns and designs that are impossible with traditional stained glass methods.

Slumping, on the other hand, involves heating a sheet of glass until it becomes pliable and then shaping it over a mold to achieve three-dimensional forms. These techniques enable the creation of complex textures, layered effects, and sculptural elements, adding a new dimension to stained glass art. Artists can experiment with different types of glass and colors, achieving unique and contemporary results that push the boundaries of traditional stained glass.

Laser Cutting and Modern Tooling

Laser cutting and modern tooling represent another wave of innovation in stained glass making, offering unprecedented precision and efficiency. Laser cutting uses high-powered lasers to precisely cut and etch glass, allowing for intricate and complex designs that would be extremely difficult to achieve by hand. This technology enables artists to create highly detailed and uniform pieces with minimal waste.

Additionally, modern tooling, such as computer-aided design (CAD) software and automated cutting machines, streamlines the design and production process. These tools allow for precise control over every aspect of the design, from the initial sketch to the final cut, facilitating the creation of intricate patterns, detailed imagery, and perfectly fitting pieces. The integration of these technologies has revolutionized stained glass art, enabling artists to explore new creative avenues and produce works with unparalleled detail and accuracy.

The Preservation and Restoration of Stained Glass

Welcome: Stained Glass Window from the Mrs. George T. Bliss House, New York, John La Farge (American, New York 1835–1910 Providence, Rhode Island), Leaded opalescent glass, cloisonne glass, copper wire, paint, American

Stained glass windows, like any historical artifact, face various challenges over time, including environmental damage and structural issues. Environmental factors such as pollution, acid rain, and temperature fluctuations can cause the glass to deteriorate, leading to discoloration, staining, and weakened structural integrity.

Additionally, physical damage from wind, hail, or accidental impact can crack or shatter the glass. Structural issues often arise from the lead came or other support materials deteriorating, which can cause the glass pieces to shift or sag. This not only compromises the window’s aesthetic value but also its stability, making preservation and restoration crucial for maintaining the longevity and beauty of stained glass artworks.

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Conservation and Restoration of Stained Glass

Restoration of stained glass involves a combination of cleaning, conservation, and replacing damaged pieces to restore the window to its original condition. Cleaning and conservation require careful removal of dirt, grime, and corrosion using specialized techniques and chemicals that do not harm the glass or its paint.

Conservation efforts also focus on stabilizing the existing materials, such as reinforcing or replacing deteriorated lead came. When glass pieces are too damaged to repair, they are carefully replaced with new glass that matches the original in color, texture, and thickness. The process involves meticulous work to ensure the new pieces fit perfectly into the existing design, preserving the integrity and historical authenticity of the stained glass window.

Notable Restoration Projects

One of the most notable restoration projects in recent history is the restoration of the stained glass windows at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, especially following the devastating fire in 2019. This extensive project involves cleaning and conserving the medieval and 19th-century stained glass, as well as carefully repairing and replacing damaged sections to restore the windows to their former glory.

Another significant example includes the preservation efforts in historic buildings like Chartres Cathedral in France, where ongoing restoration work ensures that the iconic stained glass windows remain vibrant and structurally sound for future generations. These projects highlight the importance and complexity of preserving stained glass, requiring a combination of historical knowledge, artistic skill, and modern technology to protect these cultural treasures.

Final Thoughts on the Enduring Beauty and Storytelling Capabilities of Stained Glass

The Mater Dolorosa, Lautenbach Master (German, active late 15th century), Pot-metal glass and colorless glass, silver stain, and vitreous paint, South German

Stained glass’ intricate designs, vibrant colors, and interplay with light have adorned sacred spaces, public buildings, and private residences for centuries, telling stories and evoking emotions through their luminous brilliance. As we preserve and restore these historical masterpieces, we honor the rich heritage and craftsmanship of past artisans.

Today’s artists and architects are incorporating stained glass into contemporary designs, blending tradition with cutting-edge technology to create stunning new works that redefine the medium. Whether through restoration or innovation, stained glass will continue to shine as a beacon of artistic expression, illuminating the spaces we inhabit and the lives we lead.

Would you like to learn stained glass making? We would love to hear about your journey! Reach out to our EIC with project photos at editor@designdash.com.

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