We are preparing some detailed technical posts on medieval stained glass, but thought that this would be a nice introduction. Stained glass is generally thought of as a Gothic art form, but in researching the history, we found that this glazing was known earlier. The earliest windows with figurative scenes are known from the Basilique Saint Remi in Reims from around the year 1000. These windows no longer exist. The earliest surviving example of pictorial stained glass is a tenth-century head of Christ from the tenth century excavated from Lorsch Abbey in Germany. The oldest surviving in situ stained glass windows are thought to be the five clerestory windows depicting the prophets in Augsburg Cathedral, which date from about 1065.
In France, we still have a few examples of Romanesque windows in Poitiers, Le Mans, and – of course – Notre Dame de Chartres.
In 1194 a fire destroyed the great Romanesque cathedral of Bishop Fulbert of Chartres. This church was filled with stained glass, but of those that survived, only a few were deemed worthy of reuse in the new cathedral – the large windows in the west facade and Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere.
Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere features a crowned Mary a throne dressed in a garment of blue. On her lap is Jesus, with a nimbus surrounding his head. In his left hand he holds an open with the words Omnis vallis implebitur. This is a quotation from Isaiah 40:4,
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
In this closeup we can see the pearled nimbus surrounding the Virgin’s head. In 1906, the glazier Gaudin restored this section of the window. Previously Mary’s gaze was fixed straight ahead, but after the restoration her head inclines slightly to the left.
The Crucifixion window at the Cathédrale Saint Pierre in Poitiers is at the center of the flat chevet, a large (8.45 x 3 meters) stained glass ensemble from Suger’s Saint Denis atelier. It is described by Robert Grinnell as having “an Ascension lunette at the top, a large Crucifixion register in the center, and a smaller quatrefoil in the lowest register containing a Visitation to the Sepulcher, the Martyrdom of SS Peter and Paul, the resurrection of Adam and Eve, and a donor’s lobe with a badly mutilated inscription in the bottom panel.” [Robert Grinnell, Iconography and Philosophy in the Crucifixion Window at Poitiers (The Art Bulletin V. 28 No. 3, September 1946)]
The window is located in the oldest part of the structure and ascribed to the second half of the 12th and the first quarter of the 13th century. The iconography is so compelling and powerful that I find it difficult to describe, and for this reason the image we posted is of higher resolution than normal to allow readers to inspect it closely. But let me draw your attention to one thing beyond the brilliance of the reds and blues – the image of the crucified Christ is not an image of suffering as we would expect. Instead, the saddened Christ seems to be embracing the world with eyes open and arms outstretched, beyond the pain and suffering and already taking on his role as Redeemer. This is an astonishing depiction and gives the window a sublime majesty.
While certainly the art of stained glass reached its apogee in the 13th and 14th centuries, these earlier examples demonstrate that the artists well knew both their craft and how to use it for the depiction of sacred scenes. Both of these masterpieces remind us of the genius of these medieval arts. To be able to look back nine hundred years to gaze at them in their perfection is a gift to all of humanity, not merely Christians or art historians.