Stained Glass: The Art of Light

Stained Glass is an ancient art form that is almost always thought of as church-y, even though there are countless modern examples of stained glass windows and decorations that are secular in nature. It is an artist’s dream because it depends primarily on color and light, the two elements on which a visual artist makes a claim. It can also be a nightmare because glass is fickle and fragile, not to mention the color of glass will look much different at 8:00 in the morning, 3:00 in the afternoon, and 12:00 midnight.

In its earliest forms, stained glass was probably employed in jewelry making. Some forms of jewelry, such as cloisonné, do mimic a stained glass effect (or perhaps stained glass mimics their effects). As far back as the 4th or 5th century, artisans were coloring church windows and walls with colorful pieces of stone. By the 11th century, glassmaking had evolved to the point that colored glass began to replace stone as an ornamentation.

The oldest complete stained glass window still surviving is from the twelfth century and was made for the Augsburg Cathedral in Germany (although the original stained glass is now in a museum and the cathedral itself has copies). As seen in the photo below, the face has the same lack of expression as you would see in paintings and sculptures of the same period. The color palette seems to have no more than seven or eight total colors, with browns being the dominant shade. There is no real landscape or background; the window simply depicts a figure within a frame. The figure is made mostly out of squares and rectangles, with the odd shape thrown in here or there when a square would not have been appropriate. The shape of the window itself is a regular arch top.

The most famous stained glass window is probably the Rose Window in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. That window was made by Jean de Chelles in 1240-1250. The center of the window depicts the Virgin and Child, and the radiating spokes, containing figures of the prophets, surround the central image. The second circle has 32 Old Testament kings, and the outer circle depicts high priests and patriarchs of the Cathedral. In contrast to the Augsburg Cathedral’s stained glass window, made a century earlier, the stained glass in Notre Dame employs a variety of geometric shapes, a wider and more awe-inspiring color palette, and a large number of subjects. While the earlier window in Augsburg might educate an illiterate peasant attending church, the Rose Window in the Notre Dame Cathedral gives people an opportunity to experience the power and awe of God Himself when the sun is shining through it just right. Photos like the ones below can’t do the Rose Window proper justice, as it stands more than 42 feet in diameter.

In Milan, the cathedral builders were more forward-thinking than in some other places. The present building, the Duomo, was erected in the same spot as an earlier basilica that had been destroyed by fire in 1075. Perhaps that is why they looked to make their church’s artistry endure through the ages. The building now standing was begun in 1386, and work has continued through to modern times. In fact, there are still stones in some corners today that are placed but not yet sculpted or carved. The stained glass window shown below was completed in the nineteenth century by the Bertini Brothers. The color palate is bright, and the panels, depicting Biblical scenes, include background settings, figures with more modern stances and expressions, and the feeling that these panels are really paintings set into stained glass forms.

Churches aren’t limited to Biblical scenes. Many cathedrals have stained glass panels depicting donors, statesmen, and anyone else the religious leaders of the day wanted to ally with. Others have nothing more than panels of color to brighten the place up. With that sentiment, Cologne Cathedral recently employed a very interesting artistic idea to replace the stained glass window that was destroyed by a bomb in World War II. In 2007, Gerhard Richter, a German artist, created a piece that reflected an earlier painting he had done, which was simply a 64 X 64 grid of squares with 4096 colors. He had determined the colors through a mathematical formula that mixed gray and the three primary colors. When he was commissioned to do the window in the Cologne Cathedral, he set out to do the same thing. The finished window contains only 72 colors because stained glass is a more limiting artform in terms of color palette than painting. Some of the 4096 colors in the original painting from 1974 would have been too pale, would have been too bright compared to the others when the sun shone through, or could not be duplicated from the pieces of original antique glass he used. The end product looks like a pixilated computer screen in the shape of a gothic window. It’s quite an interesting juxtaposition between the old and the high-tech.

Gerhard Richter, 4096 Farben (1974), enamel on canvas

Gerhard Richter, stained glass window for Cologne Cathedral, 2007

Of course, the most famous American stained glass artist was Louis Comfort Tiffany (1854-1933). From lamps to windows, many stained glass artists of today try to copy his style, and an original Tiffany piece could be sold to make a substantial dent in financing your children’s higher education. Much of his work demonstrates the art nouveau and aesthetic movement in art of his day. He worked with stained glass windows, lamps, jewelry, enamel work, glass mosaics, blown glass, ceramics, and even metalwork. In addition, hundreds of houses of worship contracted with the Tiffany Company, and those buildings surviving today proudly display Tiffany stained glass windows (although Louis Comfort Tiffany wasn’t the only stained glass artist working with the Tiffany Company). Tiffany and his company did so many stained glass works that his name has become synonymous with stained glass art. Tiffany’s life and company existed at a time when religion was experiencing a bit of a renaissance in America, so many churches were adding wings or constructing new buildings. Often, a rich patron of a church would memorialize a loved one by contracting with the Tiffany Company to design and make a stained glass window in that loved one’s name.

To verify a piece as being genuinely from the Tiffany Company, look for a signature on the glass, as some, but not all, windows were signed. Some of his most notable and artistic pieces were actually not signed, whereas some of the less dynamic pieces are signed, so lack of a signature does not necessarily disqualify a piece from possibly originating at Tiffany. Also, look for the use of copper foil and the floating of lead with solder, usually on the interior surface. Tiffany’s style was most evident in the depiction of cloth and clothing in glass. He almost always used drapery glass, which has stripes that resemble draped cloth. The faces on Tiffany’s figures often resembled each other, so compare the figures (if there are any) with other verified Tiffany Company pieces (although the windows are old now and the paint on the faces may have faded).

One of the finest collections of Tiffany stained glass church windows is proudly displayed in St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Worcester, MA.

Above: View of Oyster Bay (1908), loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Tiffany Dragonfly lamp, circa 1902

Other notable artists who worked in stained glass include Marc Chagall, Georges Braque, Georges Rouault, Maria Elena Viera de Silva, Norman St. Clair Carter, Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (a.k.a. Le Corbusier), Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Charles Milcendeau, and plenty more. A serious study of the works of these artists would yield quite an interesting and lengthy list of stylistic ideas. Simply Googling the name of the artist and the words “stained glass” should net some results.

San Bernardino and Riverside Counties are home to many stained glass pieces. Several churches in the area have stained glass windows. St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Yucaipa sells note cards and bookmarks of its stained glass windows (below).

Corona United Methodist Church, which is over 117 years old, has a triptych of stained glass windows depicting Jesus Christ as the Good Shepherd over the altar (below).

Churches can have stained glass inside as well. Unified Baptist Church in San Bernardino has stained glass pieces flanking the baptistry, which do not use the sun for illumination but employ electric light bulbs (below).

Although stained glass is most often thought of as a church artwork, it doesn’t have to be. The historic Smiley Library in Redlands has a beautiful collection of stained glass windows. Inside the children’s room, many windows depict scenes from popular children’s books such as Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland. In the main (adult) section of the library, there are two large rose windows on the west and north walls. Other smaller stained glass windows are installed throughout the library. It is always free to enter and use the Smiley Library during normal business hours. Redlands residents who have a verifiable Redlands address may obtain a library card to borrow materials for free, but people who do not live in Redlands must pay $25 for a library card. However, a library card is not necessary to enter and enjoy the artistic windows.

Smiley Library windows depicting Alice in Wonderland (left), Charlotte’s Web, and Winnie the Pooh (right). Other stories immortalized in stained glass in the children’s room of the Smiley Library include The Wizard of Oz, The Secret Garden, and Hey Diddle Diddle.

Above: Other stained glass pieces in the main room of the Smiley Library in Redlands.

Stained glass is an artform that has a definite history, but it can also have a future. While it takes some skill and patience, like all art, it is not as difficult as you might imagine.

Sun catchers are perhaps the easiest way to begin, due to their diminutive size, geometric possibilities, and limited color palette. There are several videos on YouTube that give tutorials on how to design a piece, cut the glass, and put a stained glass piece together. There is also a nice website that contains simplistic diagrams explaining how to put together an easy stained glass piece at This website gives you insight as to where to order the supplies necessary to begin and complete your project.

Arowhead Camur Stained Glass is an incredible resource we have right at our fingertips. The owner, Julie Check, is knowledgeable and helpful for both the serious stained glass professional and the beginner. The store is located at 1160 E. Highland Avenue in San Bernardino, near Perris Hill Park. The phone number is 909-881-0888.

The store offers lessons on Wednesdays (12:00 Noon-3:00 PM) and Thursdays (6:00 PM-9:00PM) for beginners on up. Lessons are reasonably priced at $75 for four 3-hour classes, and then $50 for four more classes if you are a returning student. The basic materials needed to make stained glass will cost an initial investment of about $200, but it is worthwhile to go to the lessons first in order to try out the different brands and styles of equipment before purchasing. If you don’t want to take lessons, the store is open Tuesday-Friday 12:00 PM- 6:00 PM and on Saturdays from 10:00 PM-3:00 PM. You can browse the supplies, and also purchase a piece as a gift or for your own home. Gift prices range from $10 for the smaller sun catchers to hundreds of dollars for the more complicated and larger works such as clocks and fireplace screens.

Examples of work for sale at Arrowhead Camur Stained Glass.

In Olney Parish Church in Buckinghamshire, U.K., there is a series of stained glass windows depicting a ship called ‘The Greyhound.’ (below) Find out why a church would have such a window in our article on John Newton here:


Rodney said...

This is beautiful stuff but the last German one is kind of weird. It doesnt seem really churchlike to me. More like a bunch of pixels on a computer screen. But, I guess it is creative. I didnt know the Notre Dame rose window was so big.

Topher TheTenth said...

Rodney, I know that Richter was extrapolating from a painting he did in 1974 before we all knew what a stalled download of raw pixels failing to resolve into an image looked like on a desktop computer, but I believe nonetheless that it was Richter's intent to create exactly that effect, and often when I view this window online I "wait" for it to finish downloading and "resolve" into an image, finally realizing that it IS already finished, because it's a picture of a picture that got stuck before completing its download.--TopherTheTenth

Topher TheTenth said...

Webmaster, please note, the many fine examples herein have enriched and informed me of things I had not seen and did not know, and I am grateful, but one of the photos you have listed as being Notre Dame's rose-window is in fact Chartres's rose-window. A huge blow-up of Notre Dame's rose is at

and if you zoom up to 100% and use slider-bars or mousing to position it so that the center Madonna and Child is visible, you will see it surrounded by blunted pie-slices. Your photo of the EXTERIOR of Notre Dame's rose-window agrees with these shapes.

But another picture you have posted also shows a Madonna and Child in the center, but surrounded by shapes that look like infants swaddled shoulder-to-toe (some maternity-wards do that for warmth now) or arrowheads pointed to the circle's center but with rounded ends instead of points. Outside of these are squares tilted diamond-wise on circle-radii. Absolutely, that is Chartres,

not Notre-Dame. -- TopherTheTenth