History of stained glass

History of Stained Glass

Nowadays the term ‘stained glass’ is used to describe any form of coloured or painted glass and could be a church window, Tiffany lamp or small ornament that hangs in your window.

Medieval glass windows were made with a limited choice of coloured glass and heavily painted with faces, draperies, ornaments and patterns, with the intention of changing the light coming in to the church or cathedral, the coloured light showing God’s pure light. Glass was handmade and relatively small and initially there were 5 colours, red, green, blue, murray (purple), yellow (as silver stain). Powdered mineral created a dark paint for drawing lines onto the surface of the glass and to add textured effects such as shading on skin and fabric. Painted glass pieces had to be fired to harden the paint permanently to the surface. Lead cames held the glass in place giving the typical heavy black outlines in the design and this is the same method used today in constructing stained glass. Cement fills the gap between the glass and lead to prevent wind and rain penetration and rattling glass!

Over the centuries, as church builders became more skilled, they were able to create larger window space and stained glass windows filled those spaces so successfully that they became a regular feature. In the UK we can see stained glass windows from as early as 12th century still in situ and a good place to start is Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire.

Apart from the development of stained glass in Medieval times the main era when Stained glass was again promoted was during the Victorian period when it was part of both church and housing development. Today we are familiar with stained glass pieces in front doors and side windows in 19th and 20th century houses and public venues such as pubs, cinemas and theatres.

Today, stained glass artists have a wide variety of glass to choose from. The development of ‘float’ glass and strengthened glass  has allowed large areas of buildings to be completed in glass and so light has become much more dominant than before. Coloured and textured glasses are readily available and other techniques such as, enamelling, fusing, sandblasting, etching etc, can be combined to create unique effects, alongside the more traditional leaded method.


Copperfoil is a relatively recent development where the lead came is replaced by a thin tape of copper with a sticky side. This is applied to all edges of a shaped piece of glass and smoothed to the shape of the surfaces. Placed next to another copperfoiled piece of glass, the two can be soldered together to make a permanent join and this replaces the need for lead cames. The result is of lighter weight and can be manipulated into standing shapes thereby creating 3-D objects as well as windows. The copperfoil method is waterproof and does not require cementing as with lead. The two methods can be combined in the same design as small details can be added with copperfoil where lead might be too clumsy.

We associate the development of copperfoil methods with Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) who designed church windows with intense colours, textures and shapes previously not seen. This method was used more widely for commercial commissions and the Tiffany lamp is still popular today.