Church stained glass windows are what made most of us passionate about stained glass. We went inside and saw the coloured light spreading over the walls and floor and felt… uplifted, transported. This delight has never left me.
If you love looking at this amazing work and wonder how you could make your own stained glass different and unique, have a look at my Plating Magic course. It will give you a whole new set of possibilities and skills.
I was lucky enough to tour Germany and see many many church stained glass windows that were rebuilt after WW2. This film explores the work of German stained glass artists and shows their influence across the world. It’s made by Sam Halstead and is a complete gem of a film.
Church Stained Glass Windows
Mark Angus – Paint and Lead
The church stained glass windows by Mark Angus deserve lots of fans.
I love his church work, and not just because he was my teacher back in the 1990’s.
Influenced by the German architectural glass artist Johannes Schreiter, his use of lead in his religious stained glasswork is innovative and expressive.
Rather than the perfunctory use of lead we often see in church windows, Mark Angus’s leads are woven into the fabric of his design like a lively drawn pencil line.
His 1984 nave window at Durham Cathedral shows this perfectly. It depicts the Last Supper as seen from above.
Nothing befits religious stained glasswork more than the dramatic interplay of light and dark – it seems to embody the very forces of good and evil that underpins the Christian faith.
Mark Angus’s 1990’s work exploits this tension, creating a dark mass at the bottom of the window that disperses and changes to light – and by implication, hope – at the top.
If you’re interested in more recent stained glass you might be interested in reading more about it in Stained Glass: Masterpieces of the Modern Era (paid link).
His 1992 Battle of Malden millennium window and 1996 nave window at St John’s church, Cheddon Fitzpaine are very good examples of this.
Note too how his use of colour complements the journey from dark to light.
Moving into the 21stC we see the theme of the spiritual journey more clearly in Angus’s windows.
There’s no angels here, but instead a repeated motif of a ribbon of colour ascending to a higher plane.
Mark Angus’s characteristic leading is still evident, along with his ability to choose handmade sheet glass that captures the essence of his message.
His church stained glass windows at Spinkhill Catholic Church near Sheffield are definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area.
St Mary ’s Church Stained Glass Windows – Fairford
Seeing St Mary’s Church stained glass windows in Fairford is an amazing experience. I’ve always been a huge fan of medieval stained glass painting, but this is something else; a huge scheme of 28 windows that make up the most complete set in the UK. It’s very rare in the history of stained glass to find a church that has been glazed all at the same time, around 1500, in such a coherent manner.
If you’re taken with medieval stained glass you might like “Medieval and Renaissance Stained Glass in the Victoria and Albert Museum (paid link)“. It’s a great book which gives a comprehensive overview of glass at that time.
The windows were made by Barnard Flower, the Master Glazier to King Henry VII. They were designed to read like a book, with the plot craftily adjusted so that an uplifting image was placed above each altar.
That’s why we find the assumption of the Virgin in the Lady Chapel, the Crucifixtion above the high altar, and the transfiguration above the Corpus Christi altar.
From Adam and Eve to probably the most famous medieval depiction of the Last Judgement in the world, this is a fantastically colourful romp through the bible story.
It’s been lovingly restored over the last two decades, and is an absolute must for those interested in stained glass history.
Don’t forget to look at the devils – they’re the best I’ve seen! Some are positively gleeful. The one above is imprisioned behind red hot bars.
Chartres Cathedral – Stunning Medieval Windows
Chartres Cathedral is the home of the most famous medieval stained glass windows in the world. Hardly surprising, when you think of the amazing feat of its construction – every single piece of the window has some painting on it, either forming part of the religious narrative or for decorative purposes.
In fact, there was so much painting to do, that the traditional three tonal procedure of firing the trace lines, followed by two matt applications was largely abandoned.
Instead, basic trace lines were augmented with a simple wash, and sometimes even the wash was left out. This gave the work a freer style, but meant a loss in legibility from below, as the figures weren’t so well defined.
Chartres Cathedral was rebuilt in 1194 after a near-devastating fire, and the church stained glass windows created from between c.1200-1240.
New developments in architecture meant bigger windows – and boy, did they capitalise on that! The religious significance of stained glass is largely lost to us today, but it’s worth quoting the Bishop of Durand de Mende here, to underline just how serious a role it had in the early 13th century: ‘stained glass windows, through which the clarity of the sun is transmitted, signify the Holy Scriptures, which banish evil from us and enlighten our being’.
Whether you’re religious or not, I defy anyone to resist the power of stained glass to uplift and enlighten – banishing evil is a slightly more tricky proposition though!
Another important role of medieval stained glass was to impart religious stories to a largely illiterate populace, and here there was some attempt to create a coherent visual scheme.
The upper windows of the apse were devoted to the Glorification of the Virgin Mary – in fact the whole cathedral was dedicated to her – and the western wall of the nave concentrated on the Life and Passion of Christ, with the rose above featuring the Last Judgement.
However, all hopes of a logical scheme went to pot when the tastes and preferences of individual donors kicked in. Here we see fur merchants happily going about their business – it’s like having a full-page advert in a national newspaper, shouting ‘wealth’ and ‘success’. You can’t knock it too much though – without this patronage it’s doubtful that there would have been so many windows or that they would’ve been finished in such an amazingly short space of time.
Jacob’s Ladder Stained Glass, Swansea
There are lots of church stained glass windows in Swansea, Wales. A while ago I went on a tour to look at them.
Back then, cameras and slides were the thing, and I have lots from this trip, all lovingly labelled and notated.
St Mary’s Church has lots of different windows; they have a John Piper, a Catrin Jones and, since 2001, a Martin Donlin.
But who made these windows?! My notes say ‘Lisa Berkle’, but I can’t find any reference to her on the web or in my considerable library; nothing. It’s driving me mad, can you help?
Whoever she is, she uses the lead lines skilfully to suggest a ladder, and the movement inherent in the design propels our eyes upwards until we almost feel that we have climbed it ourselves.
The small areas of yellow in the church windows hint at a heaven at the top of the ladder.
Another intriguing aspect of this window is the use of the gilding technique – here with gold leaf – used for the angels.
From the inside of the church you can partially see some subtle blue figures that look as if they have wings, but if you step outside it’s a different story.
Five golden angels suddenly appear! From this side they are the most dominant feature of the windows, along with the lead ‘ladder’. It’s a good example of an artist who is aware of both surfaces of the transparent canvas; inside and outside.
Thanks to those who wrote to me and told me that Lisa Berkl (without an ‘e’!) works at Swansea Metropolitan University. Much appreciated!
Jochem Poensgen – Pushing The Boundaries
Poensgen’s church stained glass windows are more about the church than the windows.
Contradictory as this may sound, his stated priority is to make windows you can live with, not windows to look at.
Lots of modern religious stained glass windows fight to make a statement and to proclaim the artists’ presence, but Poensgen sees his work as being an integral part of the building rather than an end in themselves.
Having been lucky enough to see the window at Hohnekirche in Soest, I can testify to Poensgen’s success in achieving his aims.
Built in 1220 and decorated with contemporaneous paintings it would’ve been easy to compete, rather than complement the architectural decoration.
By choosing colours from the murals that in turn echo the local sandstone, the windows are appropriately located in place.
This understatement extends to religious iconography; this is the subtlest crucifix I’ve ever seen!
In its own late 20thC way, Poensgen’s work reflects the patterned detail of the early 13thC architectural decoration, proving that modern christian glasswork doesn’t always have to be accompanied by a modern ego!
Church stained glass windows do not look like this. These four enormous pillars of light are more like walls than the traditional windows we know and love.
Surrounding the altar in light, they make up 560 square metres of glass in total.
On a student trip to Germany in the 1990s, we met Jochem Poensgen, who is talking about his church stained glass windows to us in this photograph.
Would you call this religious stained glass? Or is it the location that imbues it with spiritual significance?
Their light and size, combining with the kinetic effect from the three overlapping layers as I walked around the pillars certainly held me in awe.
Rudolf Schwarz built the church of St Andreas in Essen-Ruttenscheid in 1957, originally with glass blocks that proved structurally unsound.
Poensgen developed this triple-glazed solution to the problem in 1993.
It has toughened glass on the outside and reeded on the inside. In between, rectangles of reeded and grey cathedral sheetglass are held in place by small pieces of lead. A construction nightmare!
Luckily for Poensgen he didn’t have to make it himself.
Light is the most important function of the windows to Poensgen.
The 600 separate panels, each arranged in more than 160 configurations, certainly gave him ample opportunity to play with its transmission.
The effect from inside and outside is totally different, exploiting the two surfaces to the limit.
Buschulte’s Colourful Masterpieces
The one thing that strikes me when looking at Buschulte’s church stained glass windows is: ‘How does he get away with it?!’
When I was at art school I was always told that creating a coherent body of work was ‘A Good Thing’, and that being the equivalent of an artistic Jekyll and Hyde was definitely ‘A Bad Thing’.
So, imagine my amazement when I was introduced to Buschulte’s windows! Half of them are a riot of wonderful, celebratory colour, figurative and spontaneous…and the other half?
A meditative, calm, geometric configuration of clear or muted glass, using rods to throw prismatic colours along crypt walls.
The two conflicting styles each have their own power and resonance. The uplifting experience in St Patroklus Cathedral in Soest left me buzzing, but it was the intimacy of the crypt at St Maria im Kapitol in Cologne that stayed with me. Figurative church stained glass windows have never been my thing, but these simple abstract church windows were quietly divine in this contemplative setting.
Schreiter’s Quiet Masterpiece
Church stained glass windows don’t have to be loud. If there were one set windows I’d love to have near me, so that I could visit regularly, these would be it.
In the 1990s, on a bus person’s holiday looking at stained glass windows in Germany, we students clattered into various churches, pushing worshippers aside in our eagerness to put tripods up and take hundreds of photos of any old contemporary windows. A bit of an exaggeration, but you get the picture…
…This one was different. I walked into the chapel at Langen, Germany, and immediately that goose bump feeling came over me.
Once the obligatory photos had been taken I stayed in the quiet empty church, letting the atmosphere created by the window wash over me.
It wasn’t just the quality of the light or the moving sense of community suggested by the imagery, it was the sense of calm and tentative hope emanating from the wall of colour.
It was breathtaking, and even now remembering it, the emotion of the experience is evoked.
It wasn’t until later on in the trip that the symbolism was explained. We were lucky enough to meet Schreiter, who told us that he’d been using the geometric U shape – white in these church stain glass windows – since 1962, and that they represented hands raised in prayer or supplication.
He talked about the U shape carrying a heavy load of human guilt, which has to be exposed and confessed to both God and man before it can be opened to the light and expunged.
The column of light at the top left of the window indicates the optimism of such a message.
Pretty heavy stuff, and I’m glad to have experienced it in ignorance first before learning more about these moving windows.
If you’re interested in Mark Angus and would like to see more of his work, he has his own website with a section on his church stained glass windows.
A guy called Robin Croft has a couple of slideshows on Flickr that give a detailed look at the church windows at Fairford. He was obviously as delighted as I was with the Fairford devils as he’s dedicated a whole set to them!
If you’re interested in finding out about glasswork in Wales, there’s the most amazing database being compiled which documents all the stained glass in the country.
There’s detailed photos of each window with dates and artists/studio names. What a task! Here’s the main search page. Type in “Swansea St Mary’s” and it will take you to all the windows in this particular church.
If you’d like to find out more about Jochem Poensgen, he has his own website, which details his church stained glass windows project by project.
It looks a bit grey, with long lists of commissions, but if you persevere you can find photos of the churches and windows, which helps contextualise his work.
If you’d like to see more of Buschulte’s work, a guy called Aiden McRae Thomson has the most fantastic resource on Flickr. Here’s his photo set on Cologne, where many of his windows can be found. He also annotates the pictures with very helpful notes – and really knows his stuff.
Amazingly, for such a fantastic and influential artist as Schrieter, I couldn’t find that much of interest on the web.
There’s a small Flickr gallery, attributed to Keith Gale , interesting work as always, but not much of his religious work is included.
There’s also an outline of Schreiter’s career by Caroline Swash if you’d like to read more about him.