Medieval Glass Painting

Medieval Glass Painting

History of design elements within medieval era glass painting and window glazing.

Craftsman Style

The end of the fifteenth century brings us to the point at which painting and glazing are most evenly matched, and, in so far, to the perfection of stained-and-painted glass, but not yet to the perfection of glass painting. That was reserved for the sixteenth century, when art was under the influence of the Renaissance. Glass painting followed always the current of more modern thought, and drifted picturewards. Even in fourteenth century Gothic windows it was seen that ;there was a fashion of naturalism in design, in the fifteenth there was an ever-increasing endeavour to realise natural form, and not natural form alone; for, in order to make the figure stand out in its niche, it became necessary to show the vault in perspective. It was obviously easier to get something like pictorial relief by means of painting than in mosaic, which accordingly fell by degrees into subordination, and the reign of the glass painter began. It must be admitted that at the beginning of the sixteenth century there was still room for improvement in painting, and that to the realisation of the then pictorial ideal stronger painting was actually necessary.

Perhaps the ideal was to blame; but even in Gothic glass, still severely architecturesque in design, more painting became, as before said, necessary, as greater use was made of white, and that painting stronger, in proportion as the material used became thinner and clearer. But though the aim of the glass painter was pictorial, the pictorial ideal was not so easily to be attained in glass ; and so, though the painter reigned supreme, his dominion was not absolute. The glazier was in the background, it is true, but he was always there, and his influence is very strongly felt. The pictures of the glass painter are, consequently, still pictures in glass, for the painter was still dependent upon pot-metal for the greater part of his colour ; and he knew it, and wras wise enough to accept the situation, and, if he did not actually paint his own glass, to design only what could, at all events, be translated into glass. He not only continued to use pot-metal for his colour, but he made every possible use of it to his end, finding in it resources which his predecessors had not developed. His range of colours was extended almost indefinitely, and he used his glass with more discretion. He took every advantage of the accidental variety in the glass itself. No sheet of pot-metal was equal in tint from end to end; it deepened towards the selvedge, and was often much darker at one end than the other. It ranged perhaps from ruby to pale pink, from sea-green to smoky-black.

This gradation of tint wisely used was of great service in giving something like shadow without the aid of paint, and it was used with great effect in the dragons, for example, which the mediaeval artist delighted to depict as a means of rendering the lighter tones of the creature's belly. Supposing the beast were red, the glass painter would perhaps assist the natural inequality of the glass by abrading the ruby, by which means he could almost model the form in red. If it were a blue dragon he might adopt the same plan ; or, if it were green, by staining his blue glass at the same time yellow, he could get every variety of shade from yellow to blue-green.

Every casual variety of colour would be employed to equal purpose. Even the glass-blower's flukes came in most usefully, not merely, as before, to break the colour of a background accidentally, but as local colour. Sheets of glass, for example, which came out, instead of blue or ruby, of some indescribable tint, streaked and flecked with brighter and darker colour, until they were like nothing so much as marble, were introduced with magnificent effect into the pillars of the architecture which now formed so prominent a feature in window design. The beauty and fitness of this marble colour is eventually such as to suggest that the glass-blower must in the end deliberately have fired at this kind of fluke.

Beautiful as were the effects of white and stain produced in the middle of the fourteenth century, it was put now to fuller and more gorgeous use. Draperies were diapered in the most elaborate fashion; a bishop's cope would be as rich as the gold brocade it imitated ; patterns were designed in two or even three shades of stain, which, in combination with white and judicious touches of opaque-brown, were really magnificent. Occasionally, as at Montmorency, but this is rarer, the painter did not merely introduce his varied stain in two or three separate shades, nor yet float it on so as to get accidental variety, but he actually painted in it, modelling his armour in it, until it had very much the effect of embossed gold.

In some ornamental arabesque, which does duty for canopy work at Conches, in Normandy, this painting in stain is carried still further, the high lights being scraped out so as to give glittering points of white among the yellow. The result of this is not always very successful; but where it is skilfully and delicately done nothing could be more brilliantly golden in effect. It is curious that this silver came to be used in glass just as gold leaf was used in other decorative painting ; in fact, its appearance is more accurately described as golden than as yellow, just as the white glass of the sixteenth century has a quality which inevitably suggests silver.

It was stated just now that blue glass could be stained green. It is not every kind of glass which takes kindly to the yellow stain. A glass with much soda in its composition, for example, seems to resist the action of the silver; but such resistance is entirely a question of its chemical ingredients, and has only to do with its colour in so far as that may depend upon them.

Apart from glass of such antipathetic constitution, it is quite as easy to stain upon coloured glass as upon white ; and, if the coloured glass be not too dark in colour to be affected by it, precisely the same effect is produced as by a glaze or wash of yellow in oil or water-colour.

Thus we get blue draperies diapered with green, blue-green diapered with yellow-green, and purple with olive, in addition to quite a new development of landscape treatment. A subject was no longer represented on a background of ruby or dense blue, but against a pale grey-blue glass, which stood for sky, and upon it was often a delicately painted landscape, the trees and distant hills stained to green. Stain was no less useful in the foreground. By the use of blue glass stained, instead of pot-metal green, it was easy to sprinkle the green grass with blue flowers, all without lead.

This is Medieval Glass Painting. is Copyright © 2005-12 by International Styles