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Stained glass: from the 11th century

The translucency of coloured glass must have been appreciated from early times as a decorative feature. In about 800 the pope, Leo III, instals small windows of coloured glass - long since destroyed - in a church in Rome. In the late 11th century the Romanesque cathedral in Augsburg acquires five narrow windows, each containing a wonderful sturdy image of an Old Testament prophet. These endearing characters are now the world's oldest surviving examples of stained glass.

But the medium will not achieve its glorious potential until the evolution of Gothic churches, with their large windows, in the 12th century.

Stained glass is first installed on a lavish scale in the church of St Denis, built by Abbot Suger in the 1140s. These windows have largely been destroyed. But in the following decade the same workshop provides three windows for the west façade of Chartres cathedral.

These first three windows at Chartres survive the fire of 1194. In the following decades, up to about 1236, the cathedral authorities steadily add to them. The 13th-century windows at Chartres, numbering about 175, make this cathedral the world's most extensive gallery of early stained glass.

In the mid-13th century Paris produces a tiny Gothic masterpiece with stained glass as its glowing gems. The Sainte Chapelle is built (between 1243 and 1248) with the walls consisting almost entirely of windows, reaching high into the roof. These windows contain more than 1000 separate panels depicting, in minute detail, stories from the Old and New Testaments.

Narrative is more easily read in paint than in glass (as will shortly be demonstrated by Giotto in Padua), but the exhilarating effect of coloured light is beyond dispute. Stained glass remains a central theme of Gothic churches. And it enjoys a revival in the 19th century, when all things medieval are back in fashion.

The technique of stained glass remains fairly constant through the Middle Ages. Different colours are produced by mixing metal oxides to the molten glass during smelting. The shapes needed for the design are cut and nipped from the sheet of coloured glass. The linear details of an image are added by painting on an enamel of a greyish brown, to be baked onto the glass.

Each piece of glass in the image is fastened into an outer rim of lead. Once the lead strips have been welded together, each section can be fixed to the iron grid which in its turn is attached to the stone tracery of the window.

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