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The Birth, Life and Death of Stained Glass Windows

Words:

Edd Norval
June 11, 2020

Many traditional skills are being lost through time, with diminishing returns in an epoch of mass production. Decorative flourishes are eschewed for utilitarian architecture, where anything that doesn’t have a function is superfluous. In seeking such a lean means of generating capital, the legacy of many buildings are limited to the occupying company’s financial reports and famous billionaire owner.

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These towers that pierce through the clouds are as close to a church for the modern man as anything being constructed at the moment. There is only one master, God or money and we, as a society, worship at the altar of the dollar. Our choice has been made without our say. Without ruminating on the loss of artistry of religious buildings as a whole, one of their most prominent features is now an endangered species amongst the arts. 


Stained glass windows compel visitors to an awestruck silence, their multicoloured rays of light bearing down an aura of calm contemplation where even non-believers can bask in something inexplicable. For the most part, stained glass exists within a religious capacity, usually driven by a Biblical or Quranic narrative or iconographic display of reverence.  


Although they are windows by the nature of their opacity and material, these large and intricate decorations focus on controlling light, allowing its lumination to highlight particular parts of an image as to most accurately communicate it, rather than just letting it through.

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Although its zenith came from gothic and medieval churches around Western Europe, stained glass windows weren’t limited exclusively to them. Architect Oscar Niemeyer’s revered Cathedral of Brasília is an iconic design, but mostly for the incredible stained-glass roof that casts a bright and uplifting glow over the building's interior.


Created by the lesser-known artist Marianne Peretti - who drafted the individual tiles by hand - it’s amorphous form emanates from the crucifix at the back of the church, as if it is in fact this object giving out the light.


Stained-glass as an art form is two-fold. Initially, there’s the design itself, as with most artistic products. Second, and the most limiting factor to its practice, is the construction of it. The glass is heavy and fragile at the same time. Building something that supports its own weight is difficult. Such vast areas like Peretti’s are marvels in both ways.


Another iconic, but more contemporary take on the stained glass window exists in the exquisite Cologne Cathedral as designed by Gerhard Richter in an accidental display of conceptual mastery. Whilst struggling with the commission to replace the huge window that had been destroyed in WWII, Richter placed his window on top of one of his colour grid paintings. The transference that occurred was a revelation.

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Generated by a mathematical formula, the 11,500 pixel squares contain 72 different colours. Reluctant to be too far removed from the past, the German abstract artist used medieval techniques to create them, resulting in a contemporary window that is oddly at home in such ancient surroundings. Not the only artist of renown to turn to stained-glass, Henri Matisse and Sigmar Polke both brought their own unique styles to the archaic form.


It is odd just how well art transfers onto stained-glass. Artwork, ranging from oil paintings to photographic collage and abstract designs seem to find comfort in light too, just as those gazing upon the windows do. Glass and light, from the way colours coalesce in rainbows to the manner in which shapes distort through rounded glass is inherently inspiring. It’s like putting on a new pair of glasses and seeing the world from an entirely new perspective.

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Originating in the Middle East, where coloured glass began life as rudimentary shapes formed in single colours, stained-glass has gone from centre-piece in the most important places of worship all the way back to a rarity found in dusty lampshades in antique shops and small gifts from craft shops. Stained-glass is difficult. It requires both artistic talent and skills in construction. 


As such, it hasn’t endured. Becoming a twee afterthought in art, partly due to the increasing secularisation of Western Europe - there just isn’t a place for it anymore. Construction is now about getting something made quickly and cheaply - even places of worship. Painstaking craftsmanship has no place. Reluctance to create something as magnificent and lasting as these buildings of yesteryear isn’t a reflection on the arts, but on us and how we see ourselves as a society. Functional. Profane. Utilitarian. Nothing, except the accumulation of capital, has any real value. 

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