Volume 35, Number 11, November 2000




A Miraculous Birth

The birth of ancient stained glass masterpieces was as amazing as the glaziers who created them

by Dez Farnady

According to Greek mythology, Athena, the goddess of wisdom was miraculously born in full maturity by stepping out of her father Jupiter’s head. The birth of the glazing industry was equally miraculous. It occurred about 1,000 years ago in France.

Stepping out of the shadows of the dark ages, stained glass, rose windows appeared in all of their glory as the centerpieces of the greatest architectural tour de force in history—the Gothic Cathedral.

The first three centuries after the year 1000 saw the rapid rise of the gothic architectural style in France. There was a heretofore unheard of building boom that surpassed the pyramids with the volume of stone used for the construction of churches. From 1050 to 1350, some 80 cathedrals were built in France, along with some 500 large churches and thousands of parish churches.

The internal architectural focal points of the cathedrals were the rose windows, epitomizing the glazier’s art in a manner that has not been exceeded to this day. The mud huts of the countryside or the castles with slits in the walls (that barely provided room for one bowman and some pigeon droppings) did not require any glazing skill. However, in the cathedrals where the ceilings rose from 120 to nearly 200 feet above the floor, there was a dire need for light and there was plenty of space for master craftsmen to glaze windows.

Chartres, the queen of cathedrals, has been in existence as a church since before the year 700. After six fires and reconstructions, it was finally completed and dedicated in 1260. (Some construction schedule!)The gigantic jewel that is Chartres has three huge rose windows, each about 45 feet in diameter. The southern rose window, called Our Lady of the Beautiful Window (Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere), has unequaled blue glass that has been there since the mid-13th century. There is original glass in the church dating back as far as 1150. (I wonder if it is still under warranty?)
There are hundreds of other windows all around the walls of the great church. The main row of windows, 8- to 10-feet wide, reach 30- to 40-feet up the walls to the tips of their pointed arch tops. They fill the cathedral with light in all of the sparkling colors of the rainbow.

The construction of the rose windows began with the handiwork of the stone masons because the structural tracery that holds the glass is carved limestone. In early rose windows the volume of stone to glass is quite high. Chartres’ west rose has so much stone that the window appears to be 12 smaller windows in a wheel, rather than one large glazed circle. By the time the north and south roses were complete, they featured far more glass than stone. The huge circles of glass are engineering marvels even by today’s standards. The skill in execution at Chartres is only surpassed by the rose windows of Notre Dame in Paris. This is true glazing as we would think of it today. Structural iron and lead hold the entire 33-foot diameter glass circle in the hole built by the stone masons.

The cathedral glazier had to brave the archaic scaffolding to build the frame and install the glass. He was not only a master mechanic but he must have been a puzzle expert, too. Every window is a work of hundreds of colored and painted glass pieces assembled to create this marvelous art in living light. The leaded glass illustrates biblical scenes and donors’ portraits done in brilliant colors with all of the elaborate costume finery of the age.

The sudden appearance of the stained glass masterpieces of the cathedrals, after the windowless walls of all the previous architectural styles, was as miraculous as the rapid evolution of the skill and expertise of the master craftsmen glaziers who created them.

wpe15.jpg (3343 bytes)   Dez Farnady is manager of architectural products for ACI Distribution in Santa Clara, CA. His column appears monthly.


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