It isn’t just the windows of Chartres Cathedral that glow. The whole interior is infused with colour. Stained glass achieves this because, unlike other 2D art media, it relies on refracted not reflected light.
Rose window depicting Kings and Prophets surrounding the Virgin Mary and Infant Christ
© French School / Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France / Bridgeman Images
Two factors sparked the medieval flowering of stained glass: light’s central significance in Christian theology, and the large windows made possible by the Gothic pointed arch. In transforming spirit (or light) into substance, stained glass created a theological virtual reality.
Nineteenth-century medievalism spurred a revival, though now with a distinction between artist-designer and craftsman-fabricator. A.W.N. Pugin and William Morris took every chance to incorporate stained-glass into sacred and secular buildings.
Modernist colour theories gave stained glass a new lease of life. Henri Matisse’s collaboration with the fabricator Paul Bony on the Chapel of the Rosary in Vence was, said Matisse, ‘the achievement of an entire life’s work’.
Henri Matisse (1869-1954), general View of the Interior of the Chapel of the Rosary at Vence, 1948-51 / Chapelle du Rosaire, Vence, France / © 2014 Succession H. Matisse/DACS, London / Bridgeman Images © Succession H. Matisse/ DACS 2015
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