Stained Glass: History & Origin

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we look into the origins and history of stained glass. Highlighted are the obscure, ancient origins, Roman glass production, the Gothic period, the Renaissance, and the Gothic Revival with its resurrection of stained glass production.


We may never know the exact origins of stained glass, but ancient writings and archaeological finds give us a few clues to the art's early origins. Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer in the first century CE, recounts a legend about Phoenician sailors accidentally discovering the art of glass making after a shipwreck. As the story goes, they used a block of natron, a sodium carbonate used in soap making, from their cargo to prop their cooking pots above the fire. As the fire burned, the natron melted into the sand and combined with it under great heat. By the morning, they found hardened glass and later taught others glassmaking after their rescue.

Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame

For actual evidence of early glass making, we turn to pottery craftsman in ancient Egypt. Archaeologists in the early 1900s discovered a variety of colored, glass beads and glass fragments. The earliest dates for colored glass fragments from Egypt places them between 2750 BCE and 2625 BCE. However, this glass was not as transparent as later stained glass.

Romanesque Glass

The first glass windows came from the Romans during the first century CE. Initially, the glass was bulky and cloudy. Sometime, between the first and the seventh century, glass making began including colored glass arranged to make patterns and images. Archaeological discoveries in Jarrow, England date a multi-piece stained glass window to the founding of St. Paul's Monastery there in 686 CE. Many of the early, European works used enamel painted on the glass to produce images. In Ravenna, Italy, archaeologists discovered fragments of enamel painted glass windows from 540 CE while other archaeologists found enamel stained glass.

4th Century Roman Glasswork
Roman Glasswork

Gothic Stained Glass

The Gothic era of architecture and art is really the time when stained glass grew in popularity. Under the medieval Church's patronage, architects built more opulent churches. The growing interest in natural light encouraged some to design stronger glass to allow for larger windows. They also increased the complexity of the images in stained glass windows, moving from simple patterns and figures to complex images with symbolism, animals, figures engaged in various occupations, and heraldry of noble families. The Romanesque dominance of reds and blues gave way to the regular appearance of all colors as the technology for pigment production improved.

13th Century Gothic Glasswork
Gothic Glasswork

The Renaissance

Stained glass of the Renaissance further developed the craftsmanship and artistic quality of the art. Church windows used the perspective line developed in the artwork of the period, figures were clothed in contemporary garb, and artists developed visual representation of abstract themes. Stained glass also appeared in official buildings, like town halls and courts, while small panels of stained glass decorated homes.

Renaissance Glasswork dated 1531 CE
Renaissance Glasswork

Major developments in production accompanied the greater use of stained glass. The diamond glass cutter enabled more intricate image designs and larger windows. Artisans established permanent workshops and guilds of glass makers, enabling extensive equipment, larger production, and the sharing of new techniques. Studios created pattern books for clients to select from while custom creations could still be commissioned.

Sadly, the end of the Renaissance brought a significant decrease in stained glass production. Protestant austerity rejected opulent church decor, and even the Catholic church began to simplify their churches. In England, Parliament ordered the removal of Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity. Puritans and Protestant zealots even smashed the stained glass out of many church windows. Further fueling stained glass decline, the quality of clear glass windows increased and many desired windows they could see through without significant distortion. As workshops closed and those with skills in stained glass production stopped taking new apprentices, it seemed stained glass would become a lost art.

Gothic Revival

As the Gothic Revival in England progressed, nobles began building estates and castles based on pre-Renaissance styles and collecting what original Gothic antiques they could. A significant trade in collecting the few remaining stained glass windows began, while fragments of stain glass were incorporated into new features. Some craftsman experimented in creating replacement panes of significantly inferior quality for partially destroyed windows or cannibalized windows with too much damage in order to restore those in better condition.

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