Stained Glass Windows in Gothic Architecture

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Have you ever stood in an old church and marveled at the brilliant colorful windows? When did stained glass first appear in religious buildings? In this lesson, explore the development and use of stained glass windows in Gothic architecture.

Architectural Advances Enabled Stained Glass Windows

If you've ever admired the stained glass windows in an old church, you were enjoying colorful expressions of faith that developed during medieval times in Europe.

Stained glass windows were a prominent feature of towering Gothic churches. Gothic was a style of architecture that developed in France around 1140 and spread throughout Europe. While making colored glass dates to late Roman times, advances in building techniques during the Middle Ages enabled ceilings to grow higher and be supported by elements other than exterior walls. Those solid walls then became large sections of windows.

Example of stained glass windows from the Church of Saint James in St. Kew, Cornwall, ca. 1490. Notice how each long narrow window includes several scenes from a story in the bible. It reads from left to right across the windows.
row of stained glass windows from England

Tracery and Rose Windows

Another construction advance that enabled large stained glass windows was tracery, a series of structural stone supports between sections of glass. Tracery helped support the weight of the wall while still allowing windows to take up increasing amounts of space.

External view of a stained glass window from France, showing how stone tracery supported larger window structures
example of tracery

Tracery allowed windows to become larger and more elaborate. Some, as illustrated by the windows from Cornwall, were long and narrow while others were large and circular. These windows were called rose or wheel windows because their design radiated out from the center, resembling flower petals or wheel spokes.

Gothic stained glass windows conveyed bible stories in a colorful visual form at a time when not everyone in a population could read. They were an important means of getting religious ideas across to members of the church. In the example of the church from Cornwall, each section illustrated one part of a story, almost like a graphic novel or comic book.

Rose window from Chartres Cathedral, ca. 1200. The upper window is a good example of a rose window. You can clearly see the layout of radiating elements from the window
Chartres rose window

Among the oldest surviving stained glass windows in France are the windows in Chartres Cathedral. Here's an image of the Northern Rose Window from Chartres (ca. 1200), portraying the glorification of the Virgin Mary surrounded by prophets and other biblical figures. Mary is in the small circle in the middle of the rose window and the other figures radiate out from her. She's also on the center panel of the long narrow windows below. Churchgoers at the time would have looked up at this image and known the story it was conveying.

What is Stained Glass?

In medieval Europe, craftsmen made glass by combining sand and potash (wood ash) and then melting the mix together at very high temperatures. The term stained glass refers to the fact that powdered minerals were added to the glass as it was being made. Certain substances created certain colors: copper oxides for greens, cobalt for deep blues, gold for reds, manganese for violet, and lead for pale yellow. We know how the glass was made and colored thanks to a German monk named Theophilus, who wrote On Diverse Art, where he described the process. The result was a translucent glass in brilliant colors that seemed to glow when light passed through.

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