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The Virtual othic Cathedral

Chapter 2. Stained Glass: Painting With Light

abbot sugerIn some respects, we've put the 'cart before the horse' in first spotlighting the stonecutters of the Gothic age in Chapter 1.

Gothic architecture really began in the 12th century with Abbot Suger, who in his description of the ideal church wanted to fill his Abbey Church of St. Denis, near Paris, with "the most radiant windows."

In contrast to the dark and somber Romanesque style that had gone before, Suger believed worshipers would feel uplifted and closer to God when surrounded by light. From this one inspired wish, architects were inspired to provide the means.

Walls of Glass

So with the aid of the pointed arch and the flying buttress, cathedral walls were strengthened to such a degree that spaces could be cut away for larger window casements - and thereby meet the terms of Gothic's prime directive: MORE light. The high reaches of Gothic construction came when the architect, stonecutter, ironworker and glazier pooled their skills to create the luminous rose windows of the era.

chartres rose window
From the outside, the bland stone tracery gave no clue to the shimmering light inside as shown, at left, in the original drawing for the West Rose Window at Chartres. At right, the interior, transformed.

Transformed by Fire

In painting, light is reflected off the surface whereas in stained glass, light is transmitted through the surface. For this reason, the art of making stained glass is known as painting with light. In the hands of medieval glaziers, glass took on a jewel-like quality that was all the more impressive for the ancient simplicity of its technique: sand transformed by fire...

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