Decorative stained glasses in the form of beads had been used as early as 2750 BC to 2625 BC in Egypt. Artisans made these beads by winding a thin string of molten glass around a removable clay core. This glass is opaque and very precious. Later glass became a material for house furniture such as vases and decorative glasses, utensils such as wine cups and also part of house structures such as window panes. In the first century AD, the Romans glazed glass into windows. They cast glass slabs and employed blowing techniques to spin discs and made cylinder glass. The glass was irregular and not very transparent. Its transition from house to church use took only a matter of time since Christian churches were oriented towards the orient to receive the first light of the day. They have special windows to catch the first ray of the sun which they later covered with glass panes inserted in intricate lacework of cement or wood. The light coming from the sun symbolizes Jesus Christ, the Unconquerable Sun of Justice, the true Light of the world.
These primitive glass windows were not very translucent. When colors were later on added to the glass making technique, the wealthy Romans have stained glasses in their homes which found its way also in Christian churches as early as the fourth century. The designs in glass depicted Biblical characters, the saints, martyrs and God. Christian artists borrowed from pagan arts in designing Christian arts thus the beardless Orpheus lord of the underworld became the youthful Christ the Good Shepherd. The pagan symbols of the phoenix and peacock were used as symbols of the resurrection.
This was only possible when glass artists discovered that when certain minerals or metallic compounds are introduced in the glass, a variety of colored glasses can be made. This made possible the depiction of almost any religious subject in glass. With these developments in the field of glass art, stained glass portraits become part of the church’s artistic patrimony. Instead of admitting only the pure light of the sun in its sanctuary as a reminder of Jesus Christ, The Light of the world, it now has a symphony of colors that captivates the senses and conveys a multitude of spiritual meanings by the characters depicted and the use of colors.
This is important especially since in early times, a majority of believers were illiterate. They were able to instruct themselves in the faith by use of visual catechesis. One of that would be the stained glass window. This is the reason why artists came up with a canon or a code that each adheres in the depiction of certain religious subjects. For example, all holy people will have a halo or a nimbus usually colored white or gold. The color blue is always used for the Virgin Mary to depict her spiritual love and consistency. The color white which depicts purity is also a Marian color. Red represents blood and suffering while green signifies hope. Numbers also have special meanings. The number one represents the unity of God, two represents “dualities such as good and evil” and three calls to mind the Trinity. Shapes are also used to convey concepts and people. A circle, made out of a single line, represents God, the only perfect being. As God has neither beginning nor end, so does a circle. It also represents eternity. The triangle represents the concept of the Trinity, that is, three divine Persons in a single Godhead. Unfortunately, the ability to “read” the symbols has been mostly lost to the people in the present time, and the modern designers must use words in the windows to “convey meaning to a more literate and literalist society.”
Although stained glass windows have catechetical function, its aesthetics also draws the faithful to a contemplative prayer. The soothing effect of muted lights in various colors delight the senses and has a soothing effect in mind and body. It does not agitate the mind but focuses it to certain spiritual truths enshrined in the stained glass. It enriches the spirit as slowly the mind peels the layers of meaning hidden in those colored glass. It facilitates the union of the mind, heart and spirit and therefore facilitates the growth of the spiritual life.
It also creates a prayerful ambience. No one has the time to get loud when confronted with such magnificent beauty trapped forever in those colored glasses but goes out free and unhindered every time light passes through them. The mind and senses is overwhelmed so much so that silence is the only appropriate response.
So stained glass windows offer more than simply beauty; they also offer education, growth in the spirit and inspiration. From early Christianity to the present, the Church has used stained glass windows to help educate its members. Stained glass windows have helped thousands of people grow in faith through both their beauty and the images they portray. The calming effect provided by stained glass windows fosters a prayerful atmosphere in churches. Beautifully executed, stained glass windows will continue to tantalize the spirit with its beautiful colored lights and aid worship for thousands of people for many generations to come.