Architectural Wonders

Prisms of Past and Present


Some windows aren’t made to have shades. The proof can be found amongst the dark towering columns and corridors of places like Reims Cathedral. Plan your visit at the right time of day, and gloomy gray corners are illuminated by cascading ripples of light across the achromatic interiors. A spectacle that visitors can not help but notice.

Utilized by artisans for thousands of years, stained glass has been employed to tell stories, inspire awe, and bring sunlight to life. From its popular reign within Medieval buildings, to its resurgence in modern times, this architectural feature has created centuries of color-filled rooms without the stroke of a paintbrush.


Glass is such a common occurrence that we don’t think twice about its origin, but like everything, it had to be discovered. Scholars once pointed to the tale penned by Roman author Pliny the Elder as the origin story. In his story, he describes Phoenician sailors in a sticky situation. Shipwrecked on an island, the crew had nothing better to do than start a fire and cook up a meal to hold them over. Not being able to find rocks to prop their cooking wares, they offloaded blocks in their cargo to assist in the meal making. Falling asleep with the fire still ablaze, the sailors awoke in the morning to a stream of a hardened clear material. It turns out the blocks they used to prop their pots were made of the perfect binding material to fuse with the sand and create the translucent substance we know as glass. 

Though Pliny’s sailors are possibly fictitious, their story correctly points to how stained glass is created. Throw together a mixture of sand, sodium carbonate, and limestone into a burning hot furnace, let it cool, and you’ll get glass. To get different colors, metal powders are melted into the mixture to create stained glass. Historians trace the practice of staining glass to between 2750 and 2625 BC, with the Ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians who used fragments to create jewelry and mosaics.


While used in a variety of civilizations in the ensuing centuries, it was in the European Middle Ages that the material hit its zenith. In cathedrals and castles, stained glass was implemented in multiple shapes and colors to bring images to life. The large imposing windows were possible due to architectural advancements such as flying buttresses and columns which allowed for wider and taller apertures in the structures. 

At a time when literacy rates were low, and books were a luxury, people flocked to churches to hear stories and view images of those biblical tales and noble icons through the twinkling windows. Though it may seem odd, this could have been their lone interaction with images.

High costs made having stained glass in one’s residence a sign of vast wealth. Many kings and nobles fought to outdo each other by creating sumptuous chapels with brilliant decorations. And though many depictions were biblical in nature, every so often a noble would take the chance to mix in some personal images amongst traditional religious figures in the castles and chapels they built.


All popular trends must come and go, and with the birth of the Renaissance came a dismissal of biblical matters being at the center of everyday life. It would not be until the late 19th Century that a renewed interest in Gothic architecture would revitalize popularity in stained glass beyond traditional church buildings. 

Artists also began to find new ways to incorporate colorful glass motifs into everyday items. Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the founder of Tiffany & Company, helped reignite its popularity in the United States. From the glassworks at Tiffany Studios, Louis and his team began to manufacture glass lampshades, glassware, and stained windows. Commissions began to pour in from public and private spaces to get in on the fad. Today many prominent buildings erected in the early 1900s still cherish designs made by the company. One of the most celebrated creations from Tiffany’s studio is The Wade Memorial Chapel in Cleveland. Recently renovated by DLR Group, it includes 9-foot-high windows designed by Tiffany himself. Like their older counterparts, windows by Tiffany nowadays are seen to be priceless pieces of art. 

Designers and artists continue to experiment with light and color through stained glass installments. Some designs have become more geometric, as seen in works from Frank Lloyd Wright and Josef Albers. While others are inspired by motifs from the past and still opt to tell stories through rainbow-stained panes.

Today we also see a fusion of past and present in this form of artistry. Reims Cathedral lost many of its original windows to World War I. Instead of trying to recreate work lost forever to the past, artist Marc Chagall was commissioned to create something new to be nestled alongside the historic pieces. What resulted was a glorious mixture of old and new storytelling and design. While methods and societal tastes have changed with the ages, this storied cathedral is a testament to the enduring sense of awe stained glass inspires. Whether an old or contemporary creation, one who happens upon a stained window can not help but sit down and take in the light.

Written By: Seamus McMahon

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