Religious stained glass has an incredible history in churches, cathedrals, and temples around the world. Over the centuries, different styles of stained glass were popular, partly dependent upon the type of glass that was available and the new developments in how glass was made over the ages.
Religious stained glass rose to immense popularity in European churches in the middle ages. Some of this incredible antique church and cathedral stained glass is still intact today, although it’s likely been restored a time or two.
During the Middle Ages, stained glass church windows gave a pictorial Bible lesson to a population who, at that time, was largely illiterate and could not read their bibles. This type of stained glass was known as The Poor Man’s Bible.
As Gothic architecture grew in prominence for Europe’s cathedrals, the stained glass windows grew larger and more elaborate. These larger windows afforded much more light for the churches’ interiors as well. They were frequently dividing into vertical sections, with the stained glass panels telling a particular story.
Some examples of the stained glass of this period would include Chartres Cathedral in France (Chartres was a city where beautiful high quality glass was manufactured at that time), or the Canterbury Cathedral in England. Both of these were built in what was called the Early Gothic period, approx. 950 AD to 1240 AD.
In the later Gothic period, the development of the Perpendicular style in England allowed windows to grow even larger, and the stained glass more dramatic and elaborate.
Renaissance art took religious stained glass in new directions. One famous example is the sstained glass windows designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the early fifteenth century for the Florence Cathedral in Italy. The actual designs in the stained glass windows were created by the most renowned Italian artists of the period, including Ghiberti, Donatello, and others. Each of the major windows in the Cathedral contains one single picture showing a scene from either the life of Christ or of the Virgin Mary, and each image is surrounded by a wide floral border. They contained colored glass and painted details, to bring the scenes to life.
European architectural styles had evolved during this period from Gothic to the Classical style. Glass continued to be produced in factories that have since become famous for their incredible glass and crystal designs, such as the Limoges factory in France and the Murano studio in Italy. By the time of the Reformation, large amounts of these beautiful stained glass windows has been destroyed in one war or another. Many religious stained glass windows were purposely destroyed and replaced with plain glass under the rule of Henry VIII as well, in his ongoing disputes with the Catholic Church. Thousands of stained glass masterpieces were ultimately destroyed.
To see some of the remaining historic stained glass windows in these magnificent churches and cathedrals, click here.
Fortunately, by the early 19th Century, there was a revival in the interest in religious stained glass in both Britain and France, with many new masterpieces being created that are still intact to this day. In England, renewed interest in the Gothic Style brought a whole new wave of church construction and stained glass windows that paid homage to the original Gothic designs.
In France and Germany, stained glass took a somewhat different turn, with huge panes of glass that were then painted, sometimes with copies of famous oil paintings by master artists.
Religious stained glass has continued to grow and evolve through the centuries, but as an inspirational art form, it has never lost its popularity or its ability to uplift and inspire.