Dictionary of Art
- Part 1,
- Part 1,
- Part 1,
- Part 1,
Although Gothic architecture and sculpture began so
dramatically at St.-Denis and Chartres, Gothic painting developed at a
rather slow pace in its early stages. The new architectural style
sponsored by Abbot Suger gave birth to a new conception of monumental
sculpture almost at once but did not demand any radical change of style
in painting. Suger's account of the rebuilding of his church, to be
sure, places a great deal of emphasis on the miraculous effect of
stained-glass windows, whose "continuous light" flooded the interior.
Stained glass was thus an integral element of Gothic architecture from
the very beginning. Yet the technique of stained-glass painting had
already been perfected in Romanesque times. The "many masters from
different regions" whom Suger assembled to do the choir windows at
St.-Denis may have faced a larger task and a more complex pictorial
program than before, but the style of their designs remained Romanesque.
During the next half-century, as Gothic structures became ever more
skeletal and clerestory windows grew to huge size, stained glass
displaced manuscript illumination as the leading form of painting. Since
the production of stained glass was so intimately linked with the great
cathedral workshops, the designers came to be influenced more and more
by architectural sculpture. The majestic Notre Dame de la Belle
at Chartres Cathedral, the finest early example of this
process, lacks some of the sculptural qualities of its relief
counterpart on the west portal of the church (fig.
485) and still betrays its
Byzantine ancestry. By comparison, however, even the mosaic of the same
subject in Hagia Sophia (fig. 339)
seems remarkably solid.
The stained glass dissolves the group into a weightless mass that hovers
effortlessly in indeterminate space.
The window consists of hundreds of small pieces of tinted glass bound
together by strips of lead. The maximum size of these pieces was
severely limited by the primitive methods of medieval glass manufacture,
so that the design could not simply be "painted on glass." Rather, the
window was painted with glass, by assembling it somewhat the way
one would a mosaic or a jigsaw puzzle, out of odd-shaped fragments cut
to fit the contours of the forms. Only the finer details, such as eyes,
hair, and drapery folds, were added by actually painting—or,
better perhaps, drawing—in
black or gray on the glass surfaces.
This process encourages an abstract, ornamental style, which tends to
resist any attempt to render three-dimensional effects. Only in the
hands of a great master could the maze of lead strips resolve itself
into figures having the looming monumentality of the Iohel
(Joel) at Bourges Cathedral (fig. 510),
which shows the distinctively Gothic style that
stained-glass designers arrived at about the year
1200. One of a series of windows
representing Old Testament prophets, it is the direct kin of the jamb
statues on the Chartres west transept portals and the Annunciation
at Reims (see figs. 486
These works have a common ancestor, the classicizing style of Nicholas
of Verdun (compare fig. 441).
Yet Iohel resembles a statue projected onto a
translucent screen rather than an enlarged figure from the enamel
plaques of the Klosterneuburg Altar by Nicholas of Verdun (fig.
Apart from the peculiar demands of their medium, the stained-glass
workers who filled the windows of the great Gothic cathedrals also had
to face the difficulties arising from the enormous scale of their work.
No Romanesque painter had ever been called upon to cover areas so vast—the
Iohel window is more than 14
so firmly bound into an architectural framework. The task required a
technique of orderly planning for which the medieval painting tradition
could offer no precedent.
509. Notre Dame de la Belle
Verriere. ñ. 1170.
Stained-glass window, height c. 16' (4.8
m). Chartres Cathedral
ñ. 1220. Stained-glass window,
height ñ. 14' (4.3
m). Bourges Cathedral
Stained glass is almost synonymous with Gothic architecture.
No other age produced windows of such rich color and beauty. The art of
making colored glass is, however, very old. Egyptian artists excelled at
fashioning colorful glass vessels and other objects for both home and
tomb. Archaeologists also have uncovered thousands of colored-glass
artifacts at hundreds of sites throughout the classical world.
Although the technology of manufacturing colored glass was ancient,
the way artists used stained glass in the Gothic period was new.
Stained-glass windows were not just installed to introduce color and
religious iconography into church interiors. That could have been done—and
was done much earlier—with
both mural paintings and mosaics, often with magnificent effect. But
stained-glass windows differ from those earlier techniques in one
all-important respect. They do not conceal walls; they replace them. And
they transmit rather than reflect light, filtering and transforming the
natural sunlight as it enters the building. Abbot Suger called this
colored light "lux nova".
Hugh of Saint-Victor (1096-1142),
a prominent Parisian theologian who died while Suger's
Saint-Denis was under construction, also commented on the special
mystical quality of stained-glass windows. "Stained-glass windows," he
wrote, "are the Holy Scriptures . . .
and since their
brilliance lets the splendor of the True Light pass into the church,
they enlighten those inside.
representation of Abbot Suger
in the Jesse Window of the Basilique St-Denis.
"William Durandus, Bishop of Mende, expressed a similar
sentiment at the end of the 13th century: "The glass windows
in a church are Holy Scriptures, which expel the wind and
the rain, that is, all things hurtful, but transmit the
light of the True Sun, that is, God, into the hearts of the
As early as the fourth century, architects used colored glass for
church windows. Perfection of the technique came gradually. The
stained-glass windows in the Saint-Denis ambulatory
already show a high degree of skill. According to
Suger, they were "painted by the exquisite hands of many masters from
different regions," proving that the art was known widely at that time.
The manufacture of stained-glass windows was costly and
labor-intensive. The full process was recorded around
1100 in a treatise on the arts
written by a Benedictine monk named Theophilus. First, the master
designer drew the exact composition of the planned window on a wooden
panel, indicating all the linear details and noting the colors for each
section. Glassblowers provided flat sheets of glass of different colors
to glaziers (glass-workers), who cut the windowpanes to the
required size and shape with special iron shears. Glaziers produced an
even greater range of colors by flashing (fusing one layer of
colored glass to another). Purple, for example, resulted from the fusing
of red and blue. Next,
painters added details such as faces, hands, hair, and clothing in
enamel by tracing the master design on the wood panel through the
colored glass. Then they heated the painted glass to fuse the enamel to
the surface. The glaziers then leaded the various fragments of
glass; that is, they joined them by strips of lead called cames.
The leading not only held the (usually quite small) pieces together but
also separated the colors to heighten the effect of the design as a
whole. The distinctive character of Gothic stained-glass windows is
largely the result of this combination of fine linear details with broad
flat expanses of color framed by black lead. Finally, the glassworkers
strengthened the completed window with an armature of iron bands, which
in the 12th century formed a grid over the whole design.
In the 13th century, the bands followed the
outlines of the medallions and of the surrounding areas.
The form of the stone window frames into which the glass was set also
evolved throughout the Gothic era. Early rose windows, such as the one
on Chartres Cathedral's west facade,
have stained glass held in place by plate tracery.
The glass fills only the "punched holes" in the heavy ornamental
stonework. Bar tracery,
a later development, is much more slender. The
stained-glass windows fill almost the entire opening, and the stonework
is unobtrusive, more like delicate leading than masonry wall.
Rose window, Notre Dame, Paris.
Notre-Dame de la Belle Verriere.
Stained glass window in the
choir of Chartres cathedral.
The lower part depics the Temptation of
The two following parts relate the Marriage at Cana.
century (parts with the red background)
and 13th century.
Northern rose window of Chartres cathedral.
The rose depicts
the Glorification of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels,
of Juda (David, Solomon, Abijam, Jehoshaphat, Uzziah, Ahaz,
Manasseh, Hezechiah, Jehoiakim, Jehoram, Asa et Rehoboam)
and the twelve lesser
prophets (Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Nahum, Zephaniah,
Haggai, Habakkuk, Micah, Obadiah and Joel).
Below, the arms of France
and Castile (the window was offered by Blanche of Castile).
lancets represent Saint anne, mother of the Virgin, surrounded
kings Melchizedek, David, Solomon and by Aaron, treading the
idolatrous kings: Nebuchadnezzar, Saul, Jeroboam and Pharaoh.
Window of the Vendome Chapel, c.1415
Vitraux de la rosace de la cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg.
Glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris