With the advent of Gothic architecture, stained glass flourished as the expansion of immense window spaces in Gothic cathedrals demanded a new approach to the medium. Red and blue remain the predominant color choice and the tendency to fuse white glass in the composition allowing for more light gives way to completely filling up of space with ornate designs consisting of darker glass. A wide variety of geometrical shapes emerge as narrative becomes more important and complex juxtaposition of events are recorded in compartmental sequences.
Decorative borders and foliage become more formalized and intricate while experimentation with more naturalistic and volumetric forms appears in figurative work. The flashed glass technique is introduced, offering glaziers a means to achieve a variety of color gradations in a single piece of colored glass. The emergence of the Rose Window at St. Denis Cathedral and Chartres Cathedral, both in France, greatly influences the field throughout Europe as providing a means to depict more complex ideas as embellishments in Biblical narrative become prevalent.
Toward the end of the thirteenth century a desire for more illumination surfaced with an increase in non-figurative windows and concentric patterning that incorporated more transparent glass. One of the finest examples of this shift in taste is York Minster’s Five Sisters Windows, a remarkable display of grisaille glazing. Grisaille glazing was first favored by the Cistercian Order under St. Bernard, who found that figurative windows distracted monks from religious responsibilities. This labor intensive technique consisting of complex formalized leaf-like forms relying on an intricate pattern of lead and a great deal of painted detail and crosshatching became widespread throughout England and France.
As the palette became increasingly lighter, horizontal layers of colored glass and grisaille, or band windows, were incorporated in the figurative windows. As widespread adoption of elaborate stone window tracery occurred, figurative groupings fall out of favor and the individual figure resurfaces, but now framed by architectural canopies. Stained glass witnessed its greatest diversity in design, style, palette and sentiment during the Gothic period. This diversity in approach combined with the skilled artistry that developed with the formation of regulated guilds and a wide array of technological advances elevated the medium to a position of preeminence that would remain unsurpassed.
The Royal Window in the choir of Évreux Cathedral is outstanding representative of the International (or Soft) Gothic style, developed by 1400. The donation by Charles VI was probably commissioned from a workshop in Paris. The king occupies the centre of the four-panel window. Shown kneeling in a small vaulted space, he turns, with St Denis near by, toward the Virgin. The artistic virtuosity and lavishness of these panels exceed everything that is known elsewhere in France from this period.
Toward the middle of the 15th century, the influence of Flemish panel painting became increasingly noticeable in stained glass. In 1451, the rich and ennobled French merchant Jacques Coeur provided a liberal endowment for expensive stained glass to go in his chapel in Bourges Cathedral. The glass bears the stamp of Jan van Eyck’s style.
The central scene is divided into two panels. One contains the Archangel Gabriel, who is announcing the good news, the other contains the Virgin. Two further panels show the patron saints of the donor and his wife (not shown on the picture). The glass was produced by a workshop in the artistic tradition of the Paris school of stained glass, working to drawings by a Flemish painter.
Lüneburg Town Hall conserves one of the very few examples of monumental stained glass with secular subject matter. The “Nine Worthies,” who include Charlemagne and King Arthur, were considered in the late Middle Ages as models of good government and were therefore often depicted in town halls.
After the mid 14th century, stained glass was increasingly found in urban parish churches. Enticed by commissions from leading citizens, glass painters came to towns where there had hitherto been no tradition of stained glass, for example to Ulm, where the choir of the minster was reglazed between 1390 and 1420. Around 1430-31, stained glass was provided for the chapel of the Besserer family on the south side of the choir.
The picture shows the Annunciation from the Besserer Chapel. Someone who was familiar with the output of the Master of Flémalle (Robert Campin) from Tournai must have worked on the Besserer commission.
These three windows of stained glass are from the Carmelite church of Saint Severinus at Boppard-on-Rhine in Germany. They are part of an ensemble of six that were originally installed three over three to form a single tall window. After Napoleon invaded the Rhineland and secularised its monasteries, the stained glass of the church was removed and dispersed.
The three panels represent St Catherine of Alexandria with the wheel and sword of her martyrdom, St Dorothea receiving a basket of roses from the Christ Child (in the centre), and St Barbara holding the tower in which she was imprisoned.
The first stained glass window in the Gothic choir of the Berne Cathedral was provided by the Ulm workshop in 1441. However, subsequent work, such as the Adoration of the Magi on the north side of the choir, was made by local artists. The design was by a painter who worked in the tradition of the Master of the Upper Rhine, Germany active in 1410s. Another of his works included “The Garden of Eden” in Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt.
This Gothic style window with fined coloured glass is on the end wall of the right transept of the church. The cartoons for St Paul and the upper part are attributed to Bartolomeo Vivarini, those for the Virgin, St John the Baptist and St Peter to Cima da Conegliano, and those for the lower part to Gerolamo Mocetto.
This stained glass panel in the Cathedral Museum in Milan was executed for the apse of the Cathedral. The Cathedral Committee, on account of a competition announcement, selected three glaziers, Franceschino Zavattari, Maffiolo da Cremona, and Stefano da Pandino, and commissioned to execute the three apse windows; but without assigning a precise stained glass to each glazier.
Artists arose from obscurity and began to be patronized by a new wealthy mercantile class. Individual artists were sought out across regional boundaries for specific skills and traits. Glass work was no longer anonymous and begins to be attributed to specific artists and workshops. Additionally, the depiction of artists and glass guilds within windows reflects stained glass’ increasingly elevated status.
Taste for jewel-like color, open space no longer constrained by architectural divisions and an increase in secular usage reflects new riches. Architecture is emphasized less as it takes on a new organic quality, foliage becomes more loose and warmer colors are used while greater attention is given to textile rendering. Images depicting secular activities such as masonry and glazing were juxtaposed next to sacred imagery.
During the sixteenth century a rise in the production of glass panels for private contemplation and personal devotion ensued, thus the narrative stained glass window now served as moralizing images. Beginning in the sixteenth century with the Reformation, the creation of religious imagery had severe penalties and glass makers had to seek secular commissions like moralizing roundels or heraldic panels in order to make a living.
Decline and Destruction
Political upheavals and religious unrest jeopardized the survival of stained glass beginning in the sixteenth century, making decline and destruction eminent. Calvinist iconoclasm ended production in the North, while Reformation attacks on Catholic churches destroyed a tremendous amount of glass, particularly in England. In 1547 the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered the destruction of all decorative glass in churches. In 1633, many of the glass factories in Lorraine, France were devastated by war. From 1642 through 1653 the Commonwealth of England destroyed thousands of stained glass windows.
Concurrent with the widespread destruction, Renaissance styles began to take precedence over Gothic style. Murals and frescoes were in higher demand and Italy was quickly becoming the cultural center of Europe. With the emergence of enamels in the sixteenth century, glaziers began to imitate Renaissance painters and applied thick coats of enamel to the surface, as if painting a canvas. Also, transparent glass gave way to heavily painted opaque glass. The more this was practiced, the more distant old stained glass techniques became.
The artistry and skill, that had reached their zenith during the Gothic period, became a lost art. During the nineteenth century Sir Joshua Reynolds and other luminaries completely disregarded the medium and continued using enamel in this vein. For approximately two hundred years stained glass fell out of favor due to massive destruction, religious iconoclasm, preference for Renaissance styles, the rise in enamels usage, and a lack of knowledge of old techniques. Stained glass was not widely produced and did not again receive critical attention until its revival in the nineteenth century.