We are so often in the presence of windows featuring stained glass nowadays that we rarely ever consider its history, and why it has developed such importance in religious art. Well, although it existed long before, a full appreciation of glass to transmit light and decorate walls came only with 12th century Gothic architecture, which provided large window openings. As the remaining wall spaces were small, the window openings were the most available spaces for coloured decoration.
The earliest windows were mosaics made with small pieces of coloured glass usually held together with strips of lead. When figure subjects were added, painting on the glass with metallic pigments was introduced. As better materials became available, the windows were more brilliant in colour and more skilfully blended, the figures drawn better and the faces more delicate with a natural expression to the eyes.
However, the end of the 14th and the 15th century brought changes. Artists failed to understand the meaning of stained glass windows and the need to make them in keeping with the architecture of the building. Therefore, the rules governing good window art were lost. The French Revolution led to a rejection of religious beliefs which resulted in a lack of appreciation of the significance and beauty of stained glass windows. This led to the destruction of many beautiful windows which were considered old-fashioned. However, the late 18th and the 19th centuries brought a revival of portrayals of the faith in stained glass.
As for its importance in religious art. It is believed that when light comes through stained glass in churches, it draws forth a faith in God whose first act of creation was the marvellous gift of light. As the windows come to life only when illuminated by light, they seem to show forth God's presence most clearly.
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