Stained glass, as an art form, reached its height in the Middle Ages when it became a major pictorial form and was used to illustrate the narratives of the Bible to a largely illiterate populace. As Gothic architecture developed into a more ornate form, windows grew larger, affording greater illumination to the interiors but were divided into sections by vertical shafts and tracery of stone. The form reached its height of complexity during the 15th century with the Flamboyant style in Europe and windows grew still larger with the development of the Perpendicular style in England, which flourished from the 14th century to the early 16th century.
Integrated with the lofty verticals of Gothic cathedrals and parish churches, the glass designs became more daring. The rose window developed in France from relatively simple windows with pierced openings through slabs of thin stone to wheel windows.
During the English Reformation, large numbers of these windows were smashed and replaced with plain glass. The Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII and the injunctions of Oliver Cromwell against “abused images,” idols that duped the faithful into believing the pictures had power in themselves, resulted in the loss of thousands of windows.
In the rest of Europe during this time, stained glass continued to be produced in the Classical style at the Limoges factory and in Murano, Italy. However, the French Revolution brought about the neglect or destruction of many windows as well.
The Catholic revival in England, gaining force in the early 19th century, with its renewed interest in the medieval church brought a revival of church-building in the Gothic style. Many new churches were planted in large towns and many old churches were restored. This brought about a great demand for the revival of the art of stained-glass window making. Notable practitioners included William Morris, Clayton and Bell, Ward and Hughes and Americans John La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany. America’s oldest continuously run decorative arts firm, J&R Lamb Studios, was founded in 1857, preceding and influencing the studios of both La Farge and Tiffany.
Many 19th-century firms failed early in the 20th century as the Gothic movement had been superseded by newer styles. A revival occurred out of the desire to restore the thousands of church windows throughout Europe, destroyed as a result of bombing during the World War II. The 100-year-old trade organization, the Stained Glass Association of America, is a publicly recognized organization whose purpose is to assure survival of the craft by offering guidelines, instruction and training to craftspersons.