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What Are the Characteristics of Gothic Stained Glass?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated May 23, 2024
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Evolving from the Romanesque architecture before it, Gothic architecture became popular during the High and Late Middle Ages, mostly from the 13th century to the 16th century. This means Gothic stained glass windows made their debut around the 1200s and stayed until the 1500s. Most often, Gothic stained glass windows showcased religious scenes, though sometimes the brightly colored and translucent glass pieces that made up the windows were arranged in elaborate designs with no person or event in mind.

Although both Gothic architecture and Romanesque architecture were similar in overall shape and size, Gothic architecture presented fancier facades, pointier arches, and longer and wider windows. Architects designed these windows longer and wider for a number of reasons. Aesthetics could have been one of them. Yet, that some Gothic buildings grew much taller than their Romanesque cousins seems to be the most common reason for the bigger windows. Architects used what is referred to today as Gothic stained glass to fill the openings of immense sizes to which the buildings, and the people, weren’t yet accustomed.

Generally, the buildings associated with enough wealth to afford stained glass windows included buildings linked with royalty, nobility, and religion. During this time, religion was an everyday part of life. Thus, royal properties such as castles were just as likely as to be associated with religion as were churches, cathedrals, and other religious houses.

Accordingly, most stained glass depicted religious scenes, or stories in some way related to religion. The translucent, multi-colored mosaic pieces of glass were fitted together to show people scenes from stories in the Bible or images depicting the life of a saint. The stained glass pieces that made up such scenes were richly colored and attached together with lead cames, or divider bars. Sometimes, each individual window was a scene unto itself. Other times, several windows together made an entire scene.

Yet, not all Gothic stained glass showcased religious scenes. Some presented various sizes of vibrantly colored pieces of glasses arranged in complex patterns. These patterns were similar to the religious scenes, in terms of presentation. For example, just as the scenes on Gothic stained glass windows that adorned castles and churches could consist of one or more windows, so could the stained glass patterns. A singular window might present an immaculate pattern of circles, squares, triangles, and other shapes, or the pattern might span several adjacent windows.

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Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Jun 13, 2014

I have heard that churches and their windows were so brightly colored because all the color gave the people something to look at during the services since, in the Gothic era, many of them were illiterate, couldn't understand Latin and were more or less parroting scripture and the litany during the services.

The windows with Bible stories also educated these people about great events in the Bible that they could not read about for themselves. I don't know how accurate that is, but I did run across it as an explanation.

By Pippinwhite — On Jun 13, 2014

Stained glass is so beautiful. Our local newspaper did a story on churches that still have stained glass windows not long ago. It is always a pleasure to go into a church with stained glass windows and look at the designs and scenes, and appreciate the artistic gifts of the people who did the work.

I love looking at photos of Gothic stained glass. The windows in Westminster Abbey, especially, are just gorgeous. I'd love to visit there in person, instead of just looking at pictures. It's on my bucket list.

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