Although Gothic architecture and sculpture began so
dramatically at St.-Denis and Chartres, Gothic
painting developed at a rather slow pace in its
early stages. The new architectural style sponsored
by Abbot Suger gave birth to a new conception of
monumental sculpture almost at once but did not
demand any radical change of style in painting.
Suger's account of the rebuilding of his church, to
be sure, places a great
of emphasis on the miraculous effect of
whose "continuous light" flooded the interior.
Stained glass was thus an integral element of Gothic
architecture from the very beginning. Yet the
technique of stained-glass painting had already been
perfected in Romanesque times. The "many masters
from different regions" whom Suger assembled to do
the choir windows at St.-Denis may have faced a
larger task and a more complex pictorial program
than before, but the style of their
During the next half-century, as Gothic structures
became ever more skeletal and clerestory windows
grew to huge size, stained glass displaced
as the leading form of painting. Since the
production of stained glass was so intimately linked
with the great cathedral workshops, the designers
came to be influenced more and more by architectural
sculpture. The majestic
la Belle Verriere
at Chartres Cathedral, the
finest early example of this process, lacks some of
the sculptural qualities of its relief counterpart
on the west portal of the church
still betrays its Byzantine
By comparison, however, even the mosaic of the same
subject in Hagia Sophia
remarkably solid. The stained glass dissolves the
group into a weightless mass that hovers
effortlessly in indeterminate space.
The window consists of
hundreds of small pieces of tinted glass
together by strips of lead. The maximum size of
these pieces was severely limited by the primitive
methods of medieval glass manufacture, so that the
could not simply be "painted on glass." Rather, the
window was painted with glass, by assembling
it somewhat the way one would a mosaic or a
out of odd-shaped fragments cut to fit the contours
of the forms. Only the finer details, such as eyes,
hair, and drapery folds, were added by actually
better perhaps, drawing—in
black or gray on the glass surfaces.
This process encourages an
abstract, ornamental style, which tends to resist
any attempt to render three-dimensional effects.
Only in the hands of a great master could the maze
of lead strips resolve itself into figures having
the looming monumentality of the Iohel
which shows the distinctively
Gothic style that stained-glass designers arrived at
about the year 1200.
a series of windows representing Old Testament
prophets, it is the direct kin of the
statues on the Chartres west transept portals and
the Annunciation at Reims.
These works have a common
ancestor, the classicizing style of Nicholas of
resembles a statue projected onto a translucent
screen rather than an enlarged figure from the
enamel plaques of the Klosterneuburg Altar by
Nicholas of Verdun.
Apart from the peculiar
demands of their medium, the stained-glass workers
who filled the windows of the great Gothic
cathedrals also had to face the difficulties arising
from the enormous scale of their work. No Romanesque
painter had ever been called upon to cover areas so
Iohel window is more than
14 feet tall—or
so firmly bound into an architectural framework. The
task required a technique of orderly planning for
which the medieval painting tradition could offer no
Dame de la Belle Verriere.
Stained-glass window, height
c. 16' (4.8
m). Chartres Cathedral
1220. Stained-glass window,
m). Bourges Cathedral
Stained glass is almost
synonymous with Gothic architecture. No other age
produced windows of such rich color and beauty. The
art of making colored glass is, however, very old.
Egyptian artists excelled at fashioning colorful
glass vessels and other objects for both home and
tomb. Archaeologists also have uncovered thousands
of colored-glass artifacts at hundreds of sites
throughout the classical world.
Although the technology of
manufacturing colored glass was ancient, the way
artists used stained glass in the Gothic period was
new. Stained-glass windows were not just installed
to introduce color and religious iconography into
church interiors. That could have been done—and
was done much earlier—with
both mural paintings and mosaics, often with
magnificent effect. But stained-glass windows differ
from those earlier techniques in one all-important
respect. They do not conceal walls; they replace
them. And they transmit rather than reflect light,
filtering and transforming the natural sunlight as
it enters the building. Abbot Suger called this
colored light "lux nova".
Hugh of Saint-Victor
a prominent Parisian theologian who died while
Suger's Saint-Denis was under construction, also
commented on the special mystical quality of
stained-glass windows. "Stained-glass windows," he
wrote, "are the Holy Scriptures
. . .
and since their
brilliance lets the splendor of the True Light pass
into the church, they enlighten those inside.
representation of Abbot Suger
in the Jesse Window of the Basilique St-Denis.
"William Durandus, Bishop of Mende, expressed a
similar sentiment at the end of the 13th century:
"The glass windows in a church are Holy Scriptures,
which expel the wind and the rain, that is, all
things hurtful, but transmit the light of the True
Sun, that is, God, into the hearts of the faithful."
As early as the fourth
century, architects used colored glass for church
windows. Perfection of the technique came gradually.
The stained-glass windows in the Saint-Denis
already show a high degree of skill. According to
Suger, they were "painted by the exquisite hands of
many masters from different regions," proving that
the art was known widely at that time.
The manufacture of
stained-glass windows was costly and
labor-intensive. The full process was recorded
1100 in a
treatise on the arts written by a Benedictine monk
named Theophilus. First, the master designer drew
the exact composition of the planned window on a
wooden panel, indicating all the linear details and
noting the colors for each section. Glassblowers
provided flat sheets of glass of different colors to
glaziers (glass-workers), who cut the
windowpanes to the required size and shape with
special iron shears. Glaziers produced an even
greater range of colors by flashing (fusing
one layer of colored glass to another). Purple, for
example, resulted from the fusing of red and blue.
Next, painters added details
such as faces, hands, hair, and clothing in enamel
by tracing the master design on the wood panel
through the colored glass. Then they heated the
painted glass to fuse the enamel to the surface. The
glaziers then leaded the various fragments of
glass; that is, they joined them by strips of lead
called cames. The leading not only held the
(usually quite small) pieces together but also
separated the colors to heighten the effect of the
design as a whole. The distinctive character of
Gothic stained-glass windows is largely the result
of this combination of fine linear details with
broad flat expanses of color framed by black lead.
Finally, the glassworkers strengthened the completed
window with an armature of iron bands, which in the
12th century formed a grid over the whole design.
In the 13th century, the
bands followed the outlines of the medallions and of
the surrounding areas.
The form of the stone
window frames into which the glass was set also
evolved throughout the Gothic era. Early rose
windows, such as the one on Chartres Cathedral's
have stained glass held in
place by plate tracery. The glass fills only
the "punched holes" in the heavy ornamental
stonework. Bar tracery,
a later development, is much more slender. The
stained-glass windows fill almost the entire
opening, and the stonework is unobtrusive, more like
delicate leading than masonry wall.
Rose window, Notre Dame, Paris.
Notre-Dame de la Belle Verriere. Stained
glass window in the choir of Chartres
The lower part depics the Temptation of
The two following parts relate the Marriage
12th century (parts with the red background)
and 13th century.
Northern rose window of Chartres
The rose depicts the Glorification of the
Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels,
twelve kings of Juda (David, Solomon, Abijam,
Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Ahaz,
Manasseh, Hezechiah, Jehoiakim, Jehoram, Asa
and the twelve lesser prophets (Hosea, Amos,
Jonah, Nahum, Zephaniah,
Zechariah, Malachi, Haggai, Habakkuk, Micah,
Obadiah and Joel).
Below, the arms of France and Castile (the
window was offered by Blanche of Castile).
The five lancets represent Saint anne,
mother of the Virgin, surrounded
by the kings Melchizedek, David, Solomon and
by Aaron, treading the
sinner and idolatrous kings: Nebuchadnezzar,
Saul, Jeroboam and Pharaoh.
Window of the Vendome Chapel, c.1415
Vitraux de la rosace de la cathédrale Notre-Dame
Glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris