15th Century Stained Glass Windows

15th Century Stained Glass Windows

Stained glass windows and mosaic patterns in the fifteenth century.

Craftsman Style

By the latter half of the fifteenth century painting plays a very important part in stained-glass windows. We have arrived at a period when it is no longer subsidiary to mosaic; still it has not yet begun to take precedence of it. The artist is now a painter, and he relies for much of his effect upon painting; but he is a glazier, too, and careful to make the most of what glass can do. He designs invariably with a view to the glazing of his design, and with full knowledge of what that means. He knows perfectly well what can be done in glass, and what cannot. He has not yet carried painting to the perfection to which it came eventually to be carried, but neither has he begun to rely upon it for what can best be done in mosaic. He can scarcely be said to prefer one medium to another; he uses both to equally workmanlike purpose. He does not, like the early glazier, design in lead any longer, but neither does he leave the consideration of leading till after he has designed his picture, as painters came subsequently to do.

It amounts, it might be thought, to much the same thing whether the artist begins with his lead lines and works up to - his painting, as at first he did, or begins with his painting and works up to the leads, as became the practice,so long as in either case he has always in mind the after-process, and works with a view to it. But the truth seems to be that few men have ever a thing quite so clearly in their minds as when they have it in concrete form before their eyes. The glazier may reckon upon the paint to come, but he does not rely upon it quite so much as the painter who starts with the idea of painting.

Nativity, Great Malvern
Nativity, Great Malvern.

The later Gothic artists gradually got into the way of thinking more and more of the painting upon their glass. In the end, they thought of it first, and there resulted from their doing so quite a different kind of design, apart from change due to modifications of architectural style ; but so long as the Gothic tradition lasted, and it survived until well into the sixteenth century, in work even which bears the brand of typical Renaissance ornaments, so long the glazing of a window was in no degree an after-thought, something not arranged for, which had to be done as best it might. It is apparent always to the eye at all trained in glass design that the composition even of the most pictorial subjects was very much modified, where it was not actually suggested, by considerations of glazing. As more and more white glass came to be used, it was more and more a tax upon the ingenuity of the designer so to compose his figures that his white should be conveniently broken up, and the patches of colour he wanted should be held in place by leads which in no way interfered with his white glass; for it is clear that, in proportion as the white was delicately painted, there would be brutality in crossing it haphazard by strong lines of lead not forming part of the design; and to the last one of the most interesting things in mediaeval design is to observe the foresight with which the glass-worker plans his colour for the convenience of glazing.

There is very skilful engineering in the subject from Ross on page 339. It is not by accident that the hands of the hooded figure rest upon the shoulders of S. Edward, or that, together with his gold-brocaded surcoat and its ermine trimming, his hands, and the gilt-edged book he holds in them, they fall into a shape so easy to cut in one piece. Scarcely less artful is the arrangement of the head of the bishop with his crosier and the collar of his robe all in one. The glass painter has only to glance at such subjects as the Nativity from Great Malvern (page 54), or the Day of Creation from the same rich abbey church (page 252), or at the figure of S. Gregory from All Souls', Oxford (page 51), to see how the colour is planned from the beginning, and planned with a view to the disposition of the lead lines. In the Nativity, which is reproduced from a faithful tracing of the glass, and is in the nature of a diagram, the actual map of the glazing is very clear, in spite of its disfigurement by leads which merely represent mending, and form no part of the design. There, too, may clearly be seen how the yellow radiance from the Infant Saviour is on the same piece of whitish glass on which the figure is painted. In the Creation and S. Gregory, which are taken from careful water-drawings, the effect of the glass is given, and it is perceived how little the leads obtrude themselves upon the observation in the actual windows.

The Preaching of S. Bernard from S. Mary's, Shrewsbury, opposite, is again disfigured by accidental leads, where the glass has been repaired; but it will serve to show how, even when lead lines are as much as possible avoided, they are always allowed for, and even skilfully schemed. Many of the heads, it will be noticed, are painted upon the same pieces of white which does duty also for architectural background; or white draperies are glazed in one piece with the white-and-yellow flooring; yet the lead lines, as originally designed, seem to fall quite naturally into the outlines of the figures.

St. Bernard Preaching, St Marys, Shrewsbury
St. Bernard Preaching, St Mary's, Shrewsbury.

A very characteristic piece of glazing occurs in the foreground figure, forming in the centre of the composition. The way the man's face is included in the same piece of glass with the yellow groining of the arch, while his coloured cap connects it with his body, bespeaks a designer most expert in glazing, and intent upon it always. The danger in connection with a device of this kind, very common in work of about the beginning of the sixteenth century, as, for example, in the very fine Flemish glass at Lichfield is that, being merely painted upon a white background, and insufficiently supported by leads, the head may seem not to belong to the strongly defined, richly draped figure. It is, of course, very much a question of making the outline strong enough to keep the leads in countenance. The artist of the Shrewsbury glass adopts another expedient at once to support the lead lines, to connect his white and colour, and to get the emphasis of dark touches just where he feels the want of them. He makes occasional use of solid black by way of local colour, as may be seen in the hood of the abbess and the shoes of the men to the right.

St Marys, Shrewsbury
St Mary's, Shrewsbury.

In another subject from Shrewsbury, in the bodice of the harpist, and the head gear of the figures on page 104, effective use is made of these points of black. So long as they remain mere points, the end justifies the means, and there is nothing to be said against their introduction ; they are entirely to the good; but such use of solid pigment is valuable mainly in subjects of quite small size, such as these are. It would be obviously objectionable if any considerable area of white glass were thus obscured.

The glass referred to at Shrewsbury, Malvern, and Oxford is of later date than much work in which painting was carried further; but there is here no question of style or period; that is reserved for future consideration. The fact it is here desired to emphasise is, that there was a time when glazier and painter took something like equal part in a window, or, to speak more precisely, there were for a while windows in which the two took such equal part that each seemed to rely upon the other; when, if the artist was a painter he was a glazier too. Very likely they were two men. If so, they must have worked together on equal terms, and without rivalry, neither attempting to push his cleverness to the front, each regardful of the other, both working to one end - which was not a mosaic, nor a painting, nor a picture, but a window.

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