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What are Stained Glass Windows?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Stained glass windows are windows made from colored glass that has been arranged to create an abstract design or pictorial image. They appear widely in much of the Northern Hemisphere, especially in religious architecture. Many people enjoy the aesthetic of these windows, which flood an interior space with multicolored light and serve an ornamental function, and formal buildings sometimes include stained glass accents. The intent behind them is not concentrated on the admission of light; it is to enhance a space, tell a story, or awe the observer.

The process to create stained glass windows is quite painstaking, and involves soldering together individual panels of stained glass, sometimes in the hundreds for very large or complex windows. The pieces of stained glass are cut into various shapes and arranged, usually on a large work table, and the artisan must have a good idea for how the window will look and feel when it is complete. The pieces are slowly attached to one another and then enclosed in a larger frame which will hold the window rigidly in place once it has been installed.

Designing for stained glass takes training. The windows are often viewed from a great distance, so the pattern must be discernible even when the window is very far away. Most stained glass windows use very simplistic, basic patterns with large blocks of color so that the design will read well, although there is much more flexibility with abstract work, where details like faces and flowers need not be conveyed. Extremely complex designs may only read well up close, and more suitable for entryways and other intimate areas.

When well designed and assembled, stained glass windows can last for centuries, and there are numerous examples in Western Europe of medieval stained glass in cathedrals and smaller churches. In most cases, these stunning translucent pictures depict saints, stories from the Bible, or well-heeled patrons of the cathedral. When the sun strikes these windows, they turn into living jewels of light, and transform the interior of a building.

On a smaller scale, stained glass windows are often used as decorative accents in homes and businesses. Private areas that need some natural light may use colored glass, while stained glass panels are also used to make ornamental signs, such as labels for restrooms and dining areas. In some instances, a primarily clear window may have stained glass accents such as geometric shapes or flowers to add some visual interest while still allowing plenty of natural light into the space.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By truman12 — On May 09, 2012

My grandmother had antique stained glass windows all over her house. She loved the Victorian style and insisted that her home be built to reflect that. She studied images of old stained glass windows for months trying to pick out the designs that she liked the best. Let me tell you, she made the right choices. You can't buy stained glass windows like that any more.

By gravois — On May 08, 2012

A few years ago I took a sightseeing tour of Italian cathedrals and I was amazed at how big and beautiful some of the stained glass images were. I did not think that it was possible to build stained glass windows with that much intricate variation and that spanned such huge spaces.

And what was most amazing is that as beautiful as the windows were, they were usually not the most eye catching feature of the cathedral. Massive domes, amazing frescoes, opulent altars, the Italian's know how to make a temple for God. You almost didn't notice the windows surrounded by so much other beauty.

By nextcorrea — On May 08, 2012

I live in South St. Louis City and one of the defining features of my neighborhood is that every single house is made of brick and includes stained glass windows on both sides of the first floor. I am not sure why it is so consistently like that but it is. Every single house with the exact same feature.

Now, the other features of the houses are different. Some are big, some small, two story, one story, plain or architectural. But no matter how modest the house, they all have little stained glass windows, usually in the shape of art deco flowers.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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