Early Glass Window Design

Early Glass Window Design

Typical design and pattern in early glass windows and stain glass.

Craftsman Style

Design in glass developed itself on lines almost parallel to the progress of technique. Each, of course, affected the other how and why it is now proposed to show.

It is not intended at present to say more than is absolutely necessary about "Style", in the historic sense that is reserved for a chapter by itself but, as it is convenient to refer to a period of design by its name, it will be as well at this stage briefly to enumerate the historic "Periods".

Glass follows, inevitably, the style of architecture of the period. Accordingly it is divided broadly into Gothic and Renaissance. Gothic, in its turn, is divided by Rickman (who first attempted to discriminate between the styles of architecture in England) into three periods. Winston, who did for English glass what Rickman did for English architecture, adopts his classification as follows :Early Gothic to about 1280. Decorated Gothic to about 1380. Perpendicular Gothic to about 1530.

Renaissance art has been classified in Italy according to the century, and in France has been named after the reigning sovereign Francois Premier, Henri Deux, and so on. In England also we make use of the terms Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean, and the like. No one, however, has attempted to draw subtle distinctions between the periods of Renaissance glass, for the obvious reason that the best of it was done within a comparatively short period, and the rest is not of much account. It is enough, therefore, to mark off two divisions of Renaissance glass. The first (which overlaps the latest Gothic) may be called Sixteenth Century, or by the Italian name Cinque Cento, or simply Renaissance; whilst the second, which includes seventeenth century and later work, is sufficiently described as-Late glass.

The development of style in other countries was not quite parallel with its march on this side of the water. The French were always in advance of us, whether in Gothic or Renaissance; the Germans lagged behind, at all events in Gothic; but the pace is equal enough for us to group windows generally into three Gothic and two Renaissance periods, Early, Middle, and Late Gothic; Early and Late Renaissance. If we do that it will concern us less, that Early German work is more Romanesque than Gothic, that Late French work is not Perpendicular but Flamboyant, and so on.

The accepted classification is determined mainly by the character of the architectural or ornamental detail of the design. Such architectural or other detail that of costume, for example is of the very greatest use as a clue to the date of glass. That is a question of archaeology; but it is not so much the dates that artists or workmen have to do with as with the course of craftsmanship, the development of art. It is convenient for us to mark here and there a point where art or workmanship has clearly reached a new stage; it gives us breathing time, a starting-point on some fresh voyage of discovery; but such points need be few. The less we bother ourselves by arbitrary subdivisions of style the better; and Winston himself allows that his divisions are arbitrary.

The student need not very seriously concern himself about dates or names. People are much too anxious to get a term for everything, and when they can use the term glibly they fancy they know all about the thing. It is no doubt easier to commit to memory a few names and a few dates than to know anything about a craft; but the one accomplishment will not do in place of the other. A very little real knowledge of art or practical workmanship will lead you to suspect, what is the truth, that there is a good deal of fee-fi-fo-fum about the jargon of styles. It is handy to talk of old work as belonging to this or that broadly marked historic period ; and it is well worth the while of any one interested in the course of art to master the characteristics of style. The student should master them as a matter of course; but he must not take the consideration of period for more than it is worth. Really we give far too much attention to these fashions of bygone days, fashions, it must be allowed, on a more or less colossal scale, compared to ours, but still only fashions.

It is proposed then to allude here only so far to the styles as may be necessary to explain the progress of design, and especially the design of stained glass windows.

In dividing Gothic into Early, Middle, and Late Gothic, corresponding roughly with the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries, it is not forgotten that there is an earlier Gothic of the twelfth and perhaps eleventh centuries, more or less reminiscent of the Romanesque period preceding it; but English glass begins, to all intents and purposes, with the thirteenth century, and even in France there is not a very great quantity of characteristically earlier glass. What there is differs from thirteenth century work mainly in the Romanesque character of the figure drawing and ornamental detail, in its deliberately simple composition, and in the spontaneity of its design. The glazier was still feeling his way. Any composition to be found in a Byzantine ivory-carving, enamel, illuminated manuscript, or what not, might just as well occur in glass. The more familiar types of early Gothic window7-design had not yet settled down into orthodoxy. The lines on which the oldest windows extant were set out are in the main those of the thirteenth century also. They were more or less suggested by the shape of the window opening, which, it will be seen, had always had a good deal to say as to the direction glass design should take.

The window openings in Romanesque or Norman-French churches were single lights, round or pointed arched, rather broad in proportion to their width. Stained glass, it has been explained, has to be held in its place by copper wires, soldered to the lead work, and attached to iron bars let into the masonry for that purpose. In the case of a very narrow lancet, such bars would naturally be placed at convenient intervals across the opening. But for the most part windows were the reverse of narrow, and the horizontal bars had to be supplemented by vertical stanchions, so that the window space was divided into rectangular divisions. As a matter of construction the glass was made in panels, corresponding to these, and attached to them. It is not surprising, therefore, that these divisions should often have been accepted as part of the design, or that the design of the glass should to some extent have followed them. On page 113 is the skeleton of the upper part of a twelfth century window. The strong black lines in the diagram show the bars, the finer ones indicate the main divisions of the design of the glass. It will be seen that the four strips into which the upright bars divide the window are not equal, but that the outer divisions are narrower than the inner, so as to accommodate themselves to the width of the border. Naturally that was determined always by the proportion of the window; such borders measured often one-sixth part, or more, of the entire width. The way in which the central circular shape in the glass breaks across in front of the instance of the spontaneity border is an and unexpectedness of design characteristic of the earliest existing work; later one series of forms would repeat themselves without interruption throughout the length of the window. When, as above, the centre of a window is occupied by a great crucifix, or, as below, other such irregularity occurs, it is safe to conclude that the glass, if not prior to the thirteenth century, belongs to its first years. It is characteristic of the very early date of the glass that the bars in the diagrams given do not go out of their way to follow the outline of the circles, vesicas, quatrefoils, and other shapes, but on occasion cut relentlessly across them.


Poitiers East Window
Poitiers East Window.

The filling out of such a skeleton as those given would in many respects be much the same in the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth century; and in each case it would be in direct pursuance of the traditions of Early Christian design. You may see in Byzantine ivories and enamels precisely the kind of thing that was done in glass; and in the Romanesque Michaelis Kirche at Hildesheim, is a painted roof, the design of which might have been carried out, just as it is, in a giant window.

Poitiers, North Transept
Poitiers, North Transept.

The main divisions of the centre part of such a window would each contain its little "subject" or glass picture; the border and the interstices between the pictures would be occupied with foliated ornament; only, the earlier the work, the more pronounced would be the Romanesque character, alike of the ornament and the figure work. The broad borders from Angers, above, and the narrower one from Le Mans (page 327) differ materially from the accepted thirteenth century type (page 117). Witness how in the Angers glass the stalks of the foliage frame little panels in the border, and how in the Le Mans work the stalks take the form of straps, patterned with painted ornament. This elaboration of the stalks with painted zig-zag, pearlwork, and so on, is precisely the kind of thing one sees in Byzantine carving and inlay. The very early spandril from Angers, below, if not markedly Romanesque in character is yet not of the distinctively Early Gothic type.

Border, Angers
Border, Angers.

The shape of each medallion would be emphasised by a series of coloured lines or fillets framing it. In quite early work the broader of these would be broken up into blocks of alternating colour; they would be patterned probably (which in the thirteenth century they would probably not be), and altogether the effect of the ornament would be more jeweled. One of these broken and patterned margins is shown in the vesica-shaped framing to the figure on page 37-belonging, by the way, to the window given in skeleton on page 114.


The difference between twelfth and thirteenth century pictures is in the lingering of Byzantine traditions of design in the earlier work, and in the strictly simple disposition of the figures en silhouette against the background, as well as in the way the drapery is wrapped closely round them, so that the figure always explains itself. There is an expression and a "go" about some of the earliest figures for which we look in vain later in the thirteenth century. The figures of the Apostles from the Ascension at Le Mans on page 33 are altogether more alive than the thirteenth century bishops, for example, on page 276, who seem by comparison tame and altogether respectable. A certain exaggeration there is, no doubt, about the action of these earliest figures, a certain brutality of rendering, as, there is also a certain barbaric quality in the ornament, and? indeed, in the whole effect; but of its superlative richness there is no manner of doubt. One is even led to speculate, when one compares it with later work, whether a certain barbaric character of design does not go to that unrivalled brilliancy. In the absolute glory of rich colour the very earliest glass has never been equaled. The advance of glass painting was at the cost of this, perhaps barbaric, quality.

In the earliest windows the subjects were not invariably enclosed in medallions; sometimes the square lines of the bars would be accepted as division enough ; these would be framed with lines of colour, and the design of the portion of the window within the border would consist (as occasionally at Chartres) of a series of square subjects, each with its marginal lines, ranged one above the other. For the most part, however, the design of the earliest richly coloured windows extant took the shape of little pictures in panels or medallions. Another favourite scheme was to delineate the Tree of Jesse. The upper portion of such a window is given on page 117 ; but further consideration of Jesse windows is reserved for a separate chapter.

From the earliest period, no doubt, clerestory or other lights were often occupied each with a separate figure standing upright ; but such of these as may remain in their places are not readily distinguishable from thirteenth century work ; and the undoubtedly earlier figures, such, for example, as those in S. Remi at Reimshave been re-set in framework more or less old, but so as not to tell us anything very authentic about the setting out of the original windows. Again at Augsburg, where the figures in the clerestory are said to be the oldest in Germany (to belong, in fact, to about the year 1000), the windows are bordered with modern glazing in white. At Reims we have very rudely drawn figures in rich colour against a deep background, standing with splayed feet upon little rounds or half rings of colour, representing the earth, their names inscribed in bold lettering, which forms a band of yellow behind their heads. At Augsburg the figures, equally rude in drawing, equally splay-footed, are in white and colour upon a white ground. They stand upon little hemispheres of Byzantine ornament, and their names are writ large in black letters upon the white glass around their heads. Presumably they were framed in a border of pattern-work similar to that surrounding the medallion windows. The ornamental work in the windows at S. Remi may not always have formed part of the same window with the figure work it does not go very happily with it now but it is probably of about the same date; and it illustrates, together with some similar work at S. Denis, near Paris (so " thoroughly restored " as to have lost its historic value), a kind of pattern-work peculiar to the earliest glass.

S. Remi, Reims.

As a rule, early glass divides itself naturally into two classes: work in rich colour, which is what we have hitherto been discussing, and work in " grisaille", as it is called ; that is to say, in which the glass is chiefly white, or whitish, relieved only here and there by a line or a jewel of colour.

Occasionally, as at Auxerre, Reims, and Poitiers, rich figure work is found set in grisaille or framed by it; and in some fragments from Chalons, now at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs at Paris, coloured figures are found on a white ground.

You find also in France rich colour-work surrounded by white glass, the work of a period when the powers that were became possessed of the idea that they must lighten the interior of their churches, and accordingly removed so much of the coloured glass as seemed good to their ignorance/ and replaced it with plain glazing. But, as a rule, and apart from the tinkering of the latter-day ecclesiastic, rich colour and grisaille were kept apart in early mediaeval churches; that is to say, a coloured window has not enough white in it perceptibly to affect the depth and richness of its colour, nor a grisaille window enough colour to disturb the general impression of white light. At Reims and S. Denis, however, you find ornament in which white and colour are so evenly balanced that they belong to neither category. The amount of colour introduced into grisaille was never at any time a fixed quantity; one has to allow something for the predilection of the artist; but here the amount of colour makes itself so distinctly felt that the term grisaille no longer serves to express it.

The design of these patterns was of a rather mechanical type (pages 35, 118, 120) and not in any case very interesting; but it would have been difficult under any circumstances to produce a very satisfactory effect by so equally balancing white and colour. The designer falls between two stools. The well-known gryphon medallions at S. Denis seem at first to promise something rather amusing in design, but there is no variety in them: and no wonder the greater number of them prove to be new, and they have all been rearranged by Viollet le Due. That is as much as to say, some of the gryphons are of Abbot

Suger's time, but the design of the window is Viollet le Due's. White and colour are again too evenly mixed in the heavy looking English glass at Lincoln shown on page 121, but that is of the thirteenth century.

It need hardly be said that the earlier the work, the simpler was the character of the painting, the more deliberately was pigment reserved for painting out the light, the more strictly was the shading in lines. But the painted detail was often small; glass was used in small pieces; subjects themselves were ordinarily small in scale. The largeness of effect was due first to the actual simplicity of the main lines of the design, and then to breadth of colour, a breadth of colour all the more remarkable seeing the small pieces of glass of which the broad surfaces were of necessity made up.

Of course, too, the earlier the work the more the design was influenced by the technique of glazing, the more clearly it can be seen how the glazier designed (as was explained on page 44) in lead-lines, and only made use of paint to fill them out.

S. Remi, Reims.

In twelfth century glass the white was greenish and rather horny in texture; ruby was sometimes streaky, and often tawny or inclined to orange; blue varied from deep indigo to pale grey, occasionally it was of the colour of turquoise; yellow, dark or pale, was usually brassy; green ranged from bluish to pale apple, and from dull to emerald. These colours, with a rich brownish-purple, the lighter shades of which served always as flesh tint, made up the glazier's palette. Happily there was considerable inequality of colour in the material. It deepened, for example, towards the selvage of the sheet where it was thickest; it had streaks and bubbles in it; no two batches ever came out of the pot quite alike; and altogether the rudely made pot-metal was chemically most imperfect and artistically all that glass should be.

It would be rash in the extreme to formulate any theory as to early schemes of colour; probably the glazier's main thought was to get somehow a deep, rich, solemn effect of colour. He secured this very often by not confusing his tints, and by allowing a single colour so to predominate that the window impressed you at once as bluish or greenish or reddish in tone. He was on the whole happiest when he kept his colour cool; but he produced also red windows which are never to be forgotten.


In the cathedral at Poitiers, where many of the beautiful medallion windows belong to the very early part of the thirteenth century, the scheme is usually to adopt a blue background, alike for the medallions and for the spaces between, relying upon a broad band of ruby, edged with white pearling, to mark the medallion shapes, which it effectively does; but these are not the most beautiful windows in the church. One recognises their date rather by the individuality and spontaneity of the design than by any distinctly Romanesque character in the detail. It should be mentioned, also, that at Poitiers, even in windows which seem not so emphatically to belong to the very beginning of the century, the early practice of using only straight upright and cross bars is adhered to. There may be something of local conservatism in that.

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