As the light changes during the course of a day, the colors change as well; reds and yellows get more brilliant at noon, blues become brilliant as the light fades in the afternoon. All the while, the pictures tell important stories or symbolize truths. Light radiating through glass adds life, beauty, is transcendent, and spiritual connections become apparent.
The above rather elaborate description is cited at length in order to provide insight into the way that stained glass windows and ornamentation can evoke a spiritual and 'transcendent' quality that is particularly in keeping with a religious context such as a church. As referred to in the previous section, the use of stained glass is also strongly related to the Christian symbolism of light. As Web ( 2007) states, "A light philosophy ("God is light") was expressed, and it was thought that light reflected on earth is the closest we can get to the divine ."
The connection between the symbolism and connotations of light and religious and spiritual insight, 'illumination' and enlightenment has as long complex history in the traditions of the Christian church, which is reflected in the history of stained glass.
However, while the symbolical and spiritual significance of light is central to Christian theology, it should also be borne in mind the symbolism of light is also found in almost all other religions. A good example comes from the work of Henry Corbin on Iranian and Islamic religious philosophy. He refers to glass and transparency as an essential part of the alchemy of the sacred. This refers to the transformation that is central to all religions from a state of mundane and ordinary existence to insight into the divine and sacred. In the state of transparency "…the outer allows the inner to be seen through it; the hidden spontaneously shows through the apparent."
In other words, glass and transparency has many spiritual and religious connotations. Corbin also refers to the "man of light" in ancient Persian theology as the divine in human nature. The point being made is that although stained glass windows are predominantly found in Christian, European churches, their symbolic import and the spiritual meaning is common to many religions throughout the world.
Another factor that led to the popularity and increased creation of stained glass windows in European churches is that many people who attended church in the Middle Ages were illiterate. This posed a problem for the church. In order to covey the religious and spiritual message of Christianity and the idea of the Light of Christ and salvation, the use of stained glass in churches and cathedrals was an invaluable form of teaching and communication. It not only invoked a certain religious atmosphere but was also a way of imparting the ideology of "divine light." As noted above, in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth centuries more figures and narratives were depicted in the stained glass. This was therefore an aid to convey Christian doctrine to those who could not read the bible.
For example, biblical events, pictures of saints and prophets, as well as symbols were used to spread a message to the society. These windows were usually 2- dimensional with emphasis put on glazing, and usually framed by a border, designed under the direction of clergy, and often used by them to teach gospel stories to the congregation population.
Reference has already been made to the role of stained glass in the Christian Church. What should also be taken into account is that certain technical advances during this period when the Christian Church was growing and expanding also helped to further this art form. For instance, the developments in the area of gold design acted as source of inspiration to the early glass artists. They also took technical inspiration from tradition of tile mosaics.
Other technical advances included the discovery that "…iron filings mixed with powered glass could be formed into a paste that could be painted on glass to depict various images such as, faces, hands and drapery."
All of these techniques and discoveries in stained glass went hand in hand with the advance and growth of the Christian faith and was to form an integral part of the atmosphere and aura of the churches. As a result, "The spread of Christendom throughout Europe, however, would make stained glass the dominant art form of the new millennium."
More importantly, the early church authorities were aware of the special qualities of stained glass as an artistic means of 'illuminating the minds of men'. Throughout this tradition in the church we find the emphasis on light and the aura of beauty and divinity generated by the intricate glass windows. Coupled with this factor was the teaching aspect which functioned through the depiction of scenes and figures from the Bible that could be easily recognized by the congregation.
As noted above, some of the best examples of stained glass as part of the Christian religious tradition occurred during the Middle Ages in Europe. A few prominent examples will be discussed to illustrate the interconnection between religion, spirituality and the art of stained glass.
Some of the best and most spiritual examples of this art form in Europe during this period can be seen in the Cathedrals of Chartres in France and Canterbury in England. What can be gleaned from these surviving examples is the spiritual aura that they exude. The use of stained glass should be understood in terms of the way that religion and spirituality was perceived during this period. As one critic has noted;
In the middle ages, there was an unquestioning belief in a God of ultimate power and judgment. To the artisans, architects and craftsmen, they really were designing and furnishing the true house of God. No expense and no effort were spared, only the greatest and highest levels of quality were accepted. Nothing but the best and most inspirational ideas were accepted.
Therefore, the above view accounts for the almost ostentatious use of an art form such as stained glass in the Chartres cathedral and others. The use of light, color and design were seen as a means of enhancing the spiritual and religious message that the church wished to convey. In this context the art of stained glass cannot be seen as mere decoration but rather as an integral and important aspect of the spiritual dimensions and the religious aspirations of Christianity.
In terms of the background to this cathedral, " Gothic architecture was a bold experiment that jettisoned Europe out of the middle ages and allowed medieval glaziers to produce visions of paradise with their glass."
Chartres cathedral is an excellent example the use of glass as a creative experience of the spiritual during this period.
Figure 4. Canterbury - Stained Glass Showing the Martyrdom of Thomas Becket
Canterbury cathedral has a long religious history and was a famous pilgrimage site during the middle ages. The church is built on a sacred site and reflects a long history of both pagan and Christian spirituality. The cathedral as a center of Christian spirituality was established by St. Augustine in 597 AD.
. The cathedral was to become a center of worship in England and has subsequently been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times.
The extremely impressive stained glass windows of the cathedral have been described as the finest in Europe. It also offers a range of stained glass windows from different periods of history. For example, one of the oldest windows is dated at 1180 AD and depicts Adam digging in the earth.
What the windows in the cathedral provide as well is insight into the way that stained glass has acted as a conduit and expression of religious faith and experience throughout English history.
After the Fifteenth century here was a gradual decline of interest in stained glass. This was partly due to developments in related art forms. The realistic images and painting style of artist like Jan Van Eyck became more popular than stained glass and was one of the reasons for a decline in the impact and significance of traditional stained glass. As a result,
Painters now became glass designers, and their attempts to portray minute details did not translate into the Gothic style with its bold lead lines and strong figures. Glaziers began to imitate fresco and easel painting, which gradually began to obscure the beautiful translucency of the glass, the essence of Gothic windows.
After the Sixteenth Century and coming of the Reformation, stained glass windows were destroyed in many cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. The reaction to the Catholic dominancy of Christianity was severe. After Henry VIII's break from the Church and the various wars of religion "… stained glass was recklessly destroyed throughout Europe because of its "popish" imagery" and in 1644"… the English Parliament…