Early History of Windows & Glass

Early History of Windows & Glass

The early history of windows & glass from ancient to medieval times including stain glass from ancient Chinese times.

Craftsman Style

The point of view from which the subject of stained glass is approached in these chapters relieves me, happily, from the very difficult task of determining the date or the whereabouts of the remote origin of coloured windows, and the still remoter beginnings of glass itself. The briefest summary of scarcely disputable facts bearing upon the evolution of the art of window making, is here enough. We need not vex our minds with speculation.

White glass (and that of extreme purity) would seem to have been known to the Chinese as long ago as 2300 B.C., for they were then already using astronomical instruments, of which the lenses were presumably of glass. Of coloured glass there is yet earlier record. Egyptologists tell us that at least five if not six thousand years ago the Egyptians made jewels of glass. Indeed, it is more than probable that this was the earliest use to which stained glass was put, and that the very raison d'etre of glass making was a species of forgery. In some of the most ancient tombs have been found scarabs of glass in deliberate imitation of rubies arid emeralds, sapphires and other precious stones. The glass beads found broadcast in three quarters of the globe were quite possibly passed off by Phoenician traders upon the confiding barbarian as jewels of great price. At all S.G.B events, glass beads, according to Sir John Lubbock, were in use in the bronze age; and, if we may trust the evidence of etymology, "bedes" are perhaps as ancient as praying.

Apart from trickery and fraud, to imitate seems to be a foible of humanity. The Greeks and their Roman successors made glass in imitation of agate and onyx and all kinds of precious marbles. They devised also coloured glass coated with white glass, which could be cut cameo fashiona kind of glass much used, though in a different way, in later Mediaeval windows.

The Venetians carried further the pretty Greek invention of embedding vitreous threads of milky white or colour in clear glass, the most beautiful form of which is that known as latticelli, or reticelli (reticulated or lace glass), from the elaborate twisting and interlacing of the threads; but nothing certain seems to be known about Venetian glass until the end of the eleventh century, although by the thirteenth the neighbouring island of Murano was famous for its production. The Venetians found a new stone to imitate, aventurine, and they imitated it marvellously.

So far, however, glass was used in the first instance for jewellery, and in the second for vessels of various kinds. Its use in architecture was confined mainly to mosaic, originally, no doubt, to supply the place of brighter tints not forthcoming in marble.

Of the use of glass in windows there is not very ancient mention. The climate of Greece or Egypt, and the way of life there, gave scant occasion for it. But at Herculaneum and Pompeii, there have been found fair sized slabs of window glass, not of very perfect manufacture, apparently cast, and probably at no time very translucent. Remains also of what was presumably window glass have been found among the ruins of Roman villas in England. In the basilicas of Christian Rome the arched window openings wrere sometimes filled with slabs of marble, in which were piercings to receive glass (which may or may not have been coloured), foreshadowing, so to speak, the plate tracery of Early Gothic builders. According to M. Levy, the windows of Early Mediaeval Flemish churches were often filled in this Roman way with plaques of stone pierced with circular openings to receive glass.

Another Roman practice was to set panes of glass in bronze or copper framing, and even in lead. Here we have the beginning of the practice identified with Mediaeval glaziers.

There is no reason to suppose that the ancients practised glass painting as we understand it. Discs of Greek glass have been found which are indeed painted, but not with colour fused with the material; and certainly these were not used for windows.

The very early Christians were not in a position to indulge in, or even to desire, luxuries such as stained glass windows, but St. Jerome and St. Chrysostom make allusion to them. It is pretty certain that these must have been simple mosaics in stained glass, unpainted : one reads that between the lines of the records that have come down to us.

Stained and painted glass, such as we find in the earliest existing Mediaeval windows, may possibly date back to the reign of Charlemagne (800), but it may safely be said not to occur earlier than the Holy Roman Empire. A couple of hundred years later mention of it begins to occur rather frequently in Church records; and there is one particular account of the furnishing of the chapel of the first Benedictine Monastery at Monte Cassino with a whole series of windows in 1066which fixes the date of the Norman Conquest as a period at which stained glass windows can no longer have been uncommon. The Cistercian interdict, restricting the order to the use of white glass (1134), argues something like ecclesiastical over-indulgence in rich windows before the middle of the next century.

Fragments, more or less plentiful, of the very earliest glass may still remain embedded in windows of a later period (the material was too precious not to have been carefully preserved); but archaeologists appear to be agreed that no complete window of the ninth or tenth century has been preserved, and that even of the eleventh there is nothing that can quite certainly be identified. After that doctors begin to differ. But the general consensus of opinion is, that there is comparatively little that can be incontrovertibly set down even to the twelfth century. The great mass of Early Gothic Glass belongs indubitably to the thirteenth century; and when one speaks of Early Glass it is usually thirteenth century work which is meant.

The remote origin of glass, then, remains for ever lost in the mist of legendary days. There is even a fable to the effect that it dates from the building of the Tower of Babel, when God's fire from heaven vitrified the bricks employed by its too presumptuous builders.

Coloured glass comes to us from the East; that much it is safe to conclude. From ancient Egypt, probably, the art of the glass-worker found its way to Phoenicia, thence to Greece and Rome, and so to Byzantium, Venice, and eventually France, where stained glass windows, as we know them, first occur.

It is probably to the French that Europe owes the introduction of coloured windows, a colony of Venetian glass-workers having, they say, settled at Limoges in the year 979.

Some of the earliest French glass is to be found at Chartres, Le-Mans, Angers, Reims, and Chalons-sur-Marne ; and at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, at Paris, there are some fragments of twelfth century work which may be more conveniently examined than the work in situ. The oldest to which one can assign a definite date is that at St. Denis (1108) but its value is almost nullified by expert restoration.

In Germany the oldest date is ascribed to some small windows at Augsburg, executed, it is said, by the monks of Tegernsee about the year 1000. There is also a certain amount of twelfth century work incorporated in the later windows at Strasbourg. The oldest remains of glass in England are, in all probability, certain fragments in the nave of York Minster. The more important windows at Canterbury, Salisbury, and Lincoln are of the thirteenth century.

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