The first real examples of stained glass appeared in the early European churches built around the tenth century. At that time, stained-glass windows became the storytellers of religious history. Artists used paint on glass to tell the stories of the Bible and other holy books. In the 15th century, stained glass changed dramatically — not in the way the glass itself was made but in the way the artists created the finished products. With the rediscovery of silver stain during the Renaissance, glass paint colors went from dull black and gray to rich golden colors. (Silver stain is a paint that’s applied to the surface of the glass and then fired in a kiln. The stain penetrates the surface and becomes a permanent part of the glass.) The Renaissance brought stained glass, with its many brilliant colors, into vogue for the next 300 years.
One of the best-known glass artists of all time, American Louis C. Tiffany, began his artistic career as a painter, but after he experimented with stained glass, he never went back to paint. As a young art student in Europe in 1869, Tiffany visited many of the churches and great buildings there. Inspired by the stained glass he saw, Tiffany embarked on a journey to find a glass that could both perform storytelling for business and glow from within (in other words, a glass that didn’t have to be painted to shine with color). This journey toward colored glass required manufacturers to make glass in an infinite array of opalescent colors. In the late 1800s, Thomas Edison, a good friend of Tiffany’s, invented electric lighting. With this invention came an eagerness to show off the latest techno gadget — the electric lamp. Around the same time, Tiffany developed a stained-glass construction technique called copper foiling. Using this technique, he constructed stained-glass lampshades that surrounded the electric light and acted as a beacon for this new status symbol. Over the next 70 years, Tiffany’s studio — together with dozens of other highly active studios throughout the eastern and midwestern United States — created thousands of beautiful stained-glass windows and lampshades.
As buildings changed over time, so did the art of stained glass. No changes are more obvious than the ones you see in the works of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He designed more than 1,000 stained-glass works. He called his glass works light screens because of their ability to shape the light in any space, much like the way Japanese rice-paper screens shaped light. Many of Wright’s building designs incorporated stained-glass windows, doors, and lighting. The arts and crafts movement embraced stained glass, too, but it made a few changes to the stained glass of Tiffany. In the stained-glass doors and panels that accented homes across the Midwest and California, clear glass replaced much of the heavy, opalescent glass. Designs were clean and geometric in style, fabricated from clear glass with just small touches of color. Many panels featured all-clear-glass designs. Thicker clear-glass pieces were facetted, creating bevel-shaped edges that captured the sunlight and sent a cascade of rainbows onto interior walls. In the 1970s, stained glass made a comeback that incorporated larger-than-life splashes of brightly colored glass depicting such things as flowers and butterflies. With this come-back came the stained-glass hobby movement, which is where we come in.