Stained Glass Windows in the Middle Ages: Purpose & Importance

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 a large cathedral and marveled at the stained glass windows? These colorful and beautiful windows are more than just decorations. In this lesson, we explore the purpose and importance of stained glass during the Middle Ages.

When was the Middle Ages?

The story of stained glass windows develops during the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages in Europe, sometimes also called the medieval period, ran from the 5th century until roughly the 14th or 15th century. During this time, the church was one of the most important institutions in the community and often one of its largest structures. Early in the Middle Ages, churches were made with heavy brick walls, often with squat rounded arches and small windows. They looked more like fortifications than religious places. However, as better building and engineering skills developed, the heavy architecture gave way to a style known as Gothic.

Gothic architecture developed in France during the 12th century. Architectural advances like flying buttresses, a type of external wall support, and pointed arches better distributed the weight of walls and allowed churches to be built at great heights with towering banks of windows. The windows, which allowed great amounts of light into the church, were often filled with colorful stained glass. They created an impressive and airy interior atmosphere, much different than what had come before.

Importance of Stained Glass Windows

The widespread use of stained glass windows in Gothic churches is often traced to a French religious leader, Abbot Suger, who led the Abbey Church of Saint Denis near Paris. In the mid-12th century, Abbot Sugar was in charge of the church's remodeling and he wanted to make an architectural and religious statement with the structure. Religious texts had previously referred to light as a manifestation of God. Abbot Suger believed that towering windows of colored glass allowed light to pour through in a way that conveyed God's presence. At the time, there were also ideas that advocated natural light as equivalent to goodness. Even today, think about ideas of light versus darkness and you'll get some idea about the strong symbolism behind it.

Suger was also a royal advisor; so when he wrote about his ideas, his words carried some weight. Saint Denis Cathedral with its strikingly large stained glass windows became the model for other Gothic churches. This is how Suger became known as the 'Father of stained glass'. Impressive stained glass windows became used in Gothic churches throughout France and the style spread throughout Europe.

Church interior with stained glass windows.
interior of a Gothic church with stained glass windows

Purpose of Stained Glass Windows

Stained glass windows also served an important function with respect to the congregation's understanding of religion. During the Middle Ages, most people (other than scholars, religious folks, and political leaders) couldn't read or write well. Imagine, then, their reaction when they walked into a large church and saw the main ideas, stories, and symbols of Christianity towering over them in picture form. These pictures made of colored glass conveyed important religious ideas and stories from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In effect, the stained glass windows were narratives made of pictures rather than words.

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