For a long time it was assumed that only medieval artists and craftsmen were capable of creating great art in stained glass. It was said that though there world was even darker, their faith shone more vividly than ours. Though the technique remains largely traditional, the design of modern stained glass has radically broken with tradition. The medium, with its resolute outlines and barbaric richness of color , invites the bold form of modern expression. Yet, the message can also be spiritual and often as moving as the gothic images.
Stained glass first appeared in the cathedrals of Augsburg and Le Mans some nine hundred plus years ago. It was a sudden birth in full-blown glory. There seems to have been no gradual evolution of the art, no prelude. Glass, of course, and colored glass as well, had been used for centuries before. But a pictorial design of colored glass, a translucent mosaic as it were, seems to have been the instant inspiration of an unknown genius. And it, in turn, helped to inspire new structures that strove to accommodate larger and larger expanses of stained glass.
The decline of the art began when the mystic semi-darkness of the Gothic cathedrals gave way to the Renaissance light of learning and humanism. Though the Renaissance masters still created stain glass windows, they regarded them as huge transparent canvases on which they painted in more elaborate technique and ever lighter hues, but with lessened emotional impact. Fortunately, it was a nineteenth-century change in taste that helped the craft to survive: the Gothic revival.
Stained glass began an revival in earnest after WWII with the need to rebuild the churches destroyed or damaged. There were four thousand in France alone. Behind the drive of Father Couturier, somewhat controversial on theologic and aesthetic grounds, his influence of modern liturgical art was strongly felt throughout the West. One of its fruits was the rejuvenation of stained glass.
Marc Chagall was one of the post-war stained glass artists, known primarily for his blazing windows in Jerusalem. He ingeniously used black cames and heavy bars to denote the semi-abstract design of his animals and objects and to emphasize the brilliance of his colors. To add detail, he followed the medieval practice of painting on the glass with a brownish enamel , called grisaille, before refiring in the kiln. To shade his colors, Chagall borrowed still another technique from the Middle Ages: the use of flashed glass, which consists of thin film fused together. Layer by layer the films are then chipped, ground, or eaten away by acid.
What became the biggest religious building boom ever, caused by the devastation of WWII in Europe gave the most impetus to the revival. That, and the
rn church architecture that arose since its radical break with tradition seemed to demand new forms of artistic expression. Or, was it the artists themselves who insisted on bringing their color and emotion to these cold, monochromatic structures? “Give me walls!” the painter Leger, tired of confining canvases, had cried in the thirties…..