In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Stained Glass

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Collected Papers, Conference Proceedings, and Festschriften
  • Iconography
  • Patronage
  • Architectural Context
  • Methodology, Historiography, and Reassessments

Medieval Studies Stained Glass
Ellen Shortell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0243


While stained glass may have been used in European buildings as early as the 6th century, most surviving stained glass dates from the 12th century and later. It is associated above all with the rise of Gothic architecture, when progressively larger areas of wall were filled with colored glass. As this architectural development radiated outward from northern France, so too have the windows of seminal French buildings been central to the study of stained glass, even as scholars recognize the significance of both earlier and later glass from across western and central Europe. Although the term “stained glass” is commonly used, the medieval technique would be more appropriately referred to as “painted glass,” since it consists of pieces of colored glass, painted with a dark brown or black vitreous paint and joined together with lead cames. Stains, strictly speaking, were not applied until the development in the 14th century of translucent yellow silver stain. Stained glass continued to have a significant role in northern European architecture in the 16th and 17th centuries, its appearance changing with painting styles in other media and with technical innovations including translucent and versatile enamel paints. In its original monumental religious context, stained glass provided luminous walls of glowing color, referencing the Heavenly Jerusalem of Revelation, both in the abstract and with the use of visionary images, saintly figures, and narrative sequences of biblical and saintly figures. It served as part of the setting for the liturgy, and inscribed patrons in eternal prayer. The effect of stained glass was also appreciated in secular settings where one might find mythological and historical subjects or heraldic panels, usually on a smaller scale than in church windows. Unipartite panels, or roundels, were also collected by secular patrons in the later middle ages. The study of stained glass poses unique challenges. Despite its prestige in the middle ages, stained glass was relegated to the derogatory category of “decorative art” in the 19th century, leaving it marginalized in the study of art history. It has not yet been fully integrated. The medium itself is vulnerable not only to breakage but also to the effects of weather and pollution. A great quantity has been lost to natural disaster, iconoclasm, war, and neglect or made illegible by pollution. Further, windows have been moved within buildings, rearranged, or had pieces replaced, presenting additional confusion for anyone wanting to understand its medieval disposition. The international Corpus Vitrearum was founded in 1949 to address these challenges by cataloguing systematically all surviving premodern glass, charting conservation histories, and thus establishing a body of research on original stained glass that would allow researchers to engage in well-informed historical analyses. Corpus Vitrearum publications now number well over one hundred, including in-depth catalogues of regions and monuments and studies of broader art-historical questions. As monumental painting, stained glass occupies a unique place in medieval art, between figural art and architecture. Art historians have studied its relationship to manuscript illumination, wall painting, and sculpture in terms of style, iconography, workshop practice, and, more recently, its role in creating an environment whose message is activated by the participation of a variety of viewers.

General Overviews

The works included here offer a broad, introductory view of the materials, means of creation, stylistic development, iconography, and spiritual and intellectual context of stained glass. Included are two types of surveys: those by modern scholars and antiquarian texts that have been important resources for later scholars.

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