Many travellers are very interested in history and enjoy visiting castles and cathedrals as well as other historic buildings when on holiday. You can learn so much about a place through its history and its buildings – after all who would miss a visit to the Tower of London when in the UK or Notre Dame when in Paris? In many of these impportant structures you will find fabulous treasures such as artworks, jewels and often stained glass windows. These windows are often incredibly beautiful and of national importance.
Today, there are countless ways to decorate our windows. The more adventurous homeowners might also opt for colourful windows to make for unique residential facades. Meanwhile, savvy store owners place window decals for eye-catching window displays, guaranteed to grab the attention of passers-by.
Before people had access to these convenient decorations, however, fancy windows were labor-intensive and come at a princely sum. The result, nevertheless, was breathtaking stained-glass windows that adorned cathedrals and important buildings.
How Stained Glass Changed Architecture
It’s believed that ancient Egyptians first developed stained glass, but they didn’t use it for windows. Instead, archeologists discovered man-made colored glass in the form of beads—the Egyptians used it for jewelry.
Wealthy Romans were among the first to use stained glass as windows in their homes. Royal palaces and mosques in the Middle East were also adorned with these beautiful, translucent materials.
Stained Glass Production
It is no surprise that only the homes of the well-to-do and places of worship used stained glass. A few hundred years ago, production was expensive and laborious. Workers had to combine sand and potash and heat the mixture to upwards of 3000°F in specially made furnaces. Then, they mixed in different metallic oxide powders to create various colors.
The artisans then flattened the glass while it’s still hot and pliable and conform it into the intended shape. They finished the glass window by grozing — removing unwanted glass flares through gentle, upward rolling scrapes. If the windows needed details, the artisans painted designs using paint made of iron filings and ground glass.
Each glass panel was then placed in frames, which in turn will be installed in the palace of an aristocrat or a place of worship.
The Story of Stained Glass Rose Windows
When people think of stained glass, they think of the beautiful rose windows in Gothic cathedrals, like the famous North Rose Window of Notre Dame.
It was in the 10th century when people began to use stained glass in circular windows in cathedrals. People believed that light was the manifestation of God, so people who enter churches must bathe in sunlight.
As such, people installed beautifully decorated rose windows, also known as wheel windows, in cathedrals and abbeys.
The Design of Rose Windows
Most rose windows consist of radiating panels, each tipped by a pointed arc outside of the wheel. These panels are joined in a circular piece of stone in the center. Each panel was richly decorated with various colors of glass.
As time passed, the rose windows became more ornate. The most famous example—the one in Notre Dame—consists of several radially symmetrical panels decorated with various characters.
The Rose Window of Notre Dame
When Notre Dame’s Rose Window was installed, many of the church-goers were illiterate. As such, religious authorities used symbols to represent the lessons of the church easily. This was why the cathedral’s windows and the windows of the churches of that period depicted biblical figures and objects.
At the center of the Rose window, for instance, is Mary carrying the baby Jesus. The entire circle is divided into 12 sections, with 12 being a holy number, representing the bond between God and men.
The Rose Window depicts 12 major prophets, alongside 12 fleur-de-lis, a national symbol for France.
Stained Glass Windows around the World
Apart from the Notre Dame, many other historic monuments have gorgeous wheel windows.
The Chartres Cathedral boasts the most complete group of stained glass windows from the Middle Ages. The church was built finished in 1220 CE, but it still has 167 intact stained-glass windows — several of which date back to the mid-12th century.
Just like the Notre Dame’s window, the wheel windows of the Chartres Cathedral depicted religious scenes, as well as the conquests of kings and queens and acts of famous priests. Some scenes show several medieval professions because wealthy merchants donated many windows.
Reims Cathedral is largely known for its statues. Over 2,000 angels, saints, prophets, and even animals adorn the church. However, it also boasts dazzling stained-glass windows. Unfortunately, a series of events damaged the cathedral and its windows, which is why they underwent heavy restoration. For instance, artists were commissioned to install contemporary glass windows in 1974.
Today, many houses and commercial spaces use circular stained-glass windows to add character to their façade. Most are not as ornate as the rose windows of Gothic cathedrals, but the fact that they are still a popular choice is a testament to the beauty and versatility of stained glass.