The use of glass in art has always fascinated me especially in the large windows seen in a thousand corners of Europe during my travels. Huge stained glass windows made with small glass fragments, each chosen for their own specific purpose.
The truth is, however, that I have never been so fascinated by it as to delve into the subject. Until I made an interesting discovery and my approach completely changed.
One Saturday afternoon I was desperately looking for a new book to read that would take me away for a few hours from the demanding college essays and work papers. And so in searching for titles by authors that I had already read and could therefore trust, I decided to take the one that attracted me the most: A Girl at Tiffany ‘s by Susan Vreeland.
One of those books, like many by Vreeland, which tells a different art story and doesn’t let us stop for a moment, not even to catch our breath. In the book, Vreeland tells the story of the designer Clara Wolcott Driscoll who, together with a group of girls called the “Tiffany girls”, revolutionized American Art Nouveau lamps through the cutting and choice of glass.
Among the pages of the book I began to appreciate this magical material that acts through the effects of the light that passes through it. As opposed to other materials that reflect light on the surface. In architecture, colored glass is an element of play. The glass in fact reacts to the conditions of the sky and to external light and the designs that are made in the windows illuminate the interiors and fill the rooms with colour.
The use of glass in ancient art
The history of stained glass is ancient. Several studies attest that the glassmakers of the ancient world knew the technique of making colored glass. However, no one has yet established whether the discovery of introducing metal oxides into the production of glass occurred accidentally or by choice.
One thing is certain: the development of chemically colored, painted or colored glass as an art medium dates back to medieval Europe. There are two main factors responsible for this evolution. The first is the symbolic and mystical meaning attributed to light in Christian theology. And the other is linked to an architectural discovery: the Gothic pointed arch. In fact, with its introduction the construction of religious buildings in Europe changed, leaving room for large areas of non-load-bearing walls that could be “pierced” and filled with large glass windows.
The use of glass in Gothic art
The Gothic period thus became the moment of maximum use of colored glass. And of this material and of the different techniques of making the stained glass we begin to speak in some manuals of the time. The first to provide technical instructions is a German craftsman called Theophilus who De diversis artibus speaks freely about it
And more or less in the same period, the use of the stained glass window also began to spread in France with the abbot Suger who began work on the church of Saint-Denis in Paris. Its purpose is to transform the church into a real prayer book illustrated through the stained glass windows. And the symbolism of the windows of this and many other Gothic churches is expressly linked to the concept of light in the Christian religion. In fact, light is a symbol of Creation and Resurrection and in the New Testament of Jesus himself.
The technique of making Gothic stained glass
The basic material for stained glass is glass made by adding metal oxides or minerals to the paste. The first step consists in the creation of the story and then of the basic design to thus establish the composition of the work and the colors to be used. The glassmaker then creates life-size cartoons of what will be the stained glass window and the metal splicing that will join the glass “panels” begins to be outlined.
Each glass plate is fired in special ovens at very high temperatures and then cut into the desired shape, numbered and spliced (stuck in lead). These glass panels, numbered and edged with lead, are then welded together to form the overall image.
The symbolic meaning of Gothic stained glass
The images that are created through the light that enters through the stained glass windows in the Gothic Middle Ages are symbols. As the light passed through the windows, the colors mix inside, coloring the stone, the faces and the bodies of the people. Thus the atmosphere inside the building is completely transformed. And in transforming spirit in the form of light into substance, the stained glass images create a virtual reality. The stained glass windows therefore become representations exactly like paintings or sculpture. And in some ways even ideologically stronger.
Unfortunately, many medieval stained glass windows have not come down to us for various reasons. being glass such a fragile material even though it is made with great care and to resist over time and bad weather, many windows have been destroyed by wars and bombings throughout Europe. Many but not all. Some stupendous examples have remained both in France such as the Saint-Chapelle in Paris and in England such as Canterbury Cathedral.
The use of glass in modern art
For centuries, glassmaking remained a specialized art and was mostly used in the creation of stained glass. Until something changes at the end of the 19th century: modernism is born. The interest in the art of glass returns very strongly and a distinction begins to be made between the designer artist and the artisan artist.
A very strong attention towards new architectural forms and decoration developed throughout Europe. Buildings, furniture, lamps, subway stops. Everything is reconsidered in a modernist key and we talk about global art. All the arts must be developed and applied simultaneously to make what is functional also beautiful.
Thus glass becomes the protagonist of architectural decorations, furnishings and more. Also in this case the artists enhance its main feature: the ability to filter and shape the light, but the construction technique does not change much compared to the past, it just becomes more industrial.
The images built through pieces of colored glass are used, like paintings to represent not only sacred figures but also to tell new stories.
Tiffany lamps and glass in the Art Nouveau period
And so this art moved from Europe to America thanks to trips to London and visits to the Victoria and Albert of characters such as Louis Comfort Tiffany. The brother of the founder of Tiffany & co. and one of the company’s first designers becomes fascinated by medieval stained glass and their light effects and thus establishes his company. He employs a group of girls in glass making and will be heading up the glass cutting department by Clara Discroll. The one and only female protagonist of the renaissance of stained glass in modern art in America, but also of the book by Vreeland that made me so passionate about this technique.
The use of glass in 20th century art
And the use of colored glass did not stop with the modernism of the late 19th century but also continued in the middle of the 20th century in architecture thanks to collaborations with the most famous artists of the century. And the results of these collaborations are stupendous, such as the glasses of the Chapelle du Saint-Marie du Rosaire designed in the 1950s by Henri Matisse. Or those of Chagall’s stained glass windows, made for both churches and synagogues.
Glass in art therefore remains a material that has always been exploited and whose technique has produced some of the most beautiful masterpieces in our history of art. The light makes it unique and above all allows it to change over time. No glass object will always be seen in the same way and this will make it even more unique.
Cover: stained glass window of Chartres cathedral (detail) ©Schneider Ludwig