St. Cecilia is depicted in a stained-glass window at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Denver. (CNS photo/James Baca)

Stained glass highlights gift of light

By  Sr. Louise Zdunich, Catholic Register Special
  • September 7, 2011

Stained glass windows are one of the most interesting phenomena in art. We might wonder why not simply paint pictures as it would be a lot easier than meticulously arranging pieces of coloured glass. However, their translucent beauty has a special characteristic not found in other forms of art.

Glass, it seems, was the earliest product used in ancient times as decoration in temples, tombs, palaces and as personal adornment. Many fragments of these ornaments have been discovered among the ruins of ancient cities.

But although glass has an ancient history, the earliest known glazing of window openings only dates back to 306 BC. And even then the glazing was not done with glass, but with coloured pieces of pot-metal, an easily malleable combination of cheap metals.

A full appreciation of glass as a material to transmit light and decorate walls came only with the large window openings of 12th-century Gothic architecture.  The windows had to be strong enough to keep out the elements and transparent enough to admit light.


The earliest windows were mosaics made with small pieces of coloured glass that were usually held together with strips of lead. Painting on glass with metallic paint was soon introduced.

The oldest surviving painted window, believed to be late 11th century, is found in the Ascension in the Cathedral of Le Mans, France. It is vibrant with rich tones.

The 13th and 14th centuries produced windows even more brilliant in colour and more skilfully executed. Among the most beautiful are France’s Chartres Cathedrals, 143 exquisite jewel-like windows containing 1,350 subjects with more than 3,000 figures.

As better materials were developed, the windows became more brilliant in colour and more skilfully blended. The figures were drawn better and the faces became more delicate with a natural expression to the eyes.

But by the early 15th century artists had lost appreciation for the meaning of stained glass windows and the need to make them in keeping with the architecture of the building. Soon, the rules governing good window art were lost. The French Revolution led to a rejection of religious beliefs and a denigration of the significance and beauty of stained glass windows. Many beautiful windows, considered old-fashioned after the revolution, were destroyed. However, the late 18th and the 19th centuries brought a revival of portrayals of the faith in stained glass.

Why did stained glass windows develop such importance in religious art? When light comes through stained glass in churches, it draws forth a faith in God whose first act of creation was the marvellous gift of light. As the windows come to life only when illuminated by light, they seem to show forth God’s presence most clearly.

At a time when few people could read, stained-glass windows were the basis for catechetical teaching. Bible stories and lives of the saints were brought to life by the light of God’s presence in these windows.

Stained glass windows require artistic skill to design and engineering skill to assemble the pieces and make the window fit well enough to keep out the elements and support its own weight. By shutting out a view of the outside world, they help keep the focus on God.

Today, a number of our churches are adding beautiful stained glass windows. Some of these are symbolic representations that portray the sacraments. Others depict saints and holy people most meaningful to a particular church.

The artists whose skill combine with faith to create these inspiring images are like musicians who create sublime sound which transports us beyond the mundane. These artists’ God-given gifts create beauty which stimulates our faith and draws our minds and hearts to God.

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