The term stained glass can refer to colored glass as a material or to works produced from it. Throughout its thousand-year history, the term has been applied almost exclusively to the windows of churches and other significant buildings. Stained glass, as an art and a craft, requires the artistic skill to conceive an appropriate and workable design, and the engineering skills to assemble the piece. As a material stained glass is glass that has been coloured by adding metallic salts during its manufacture. The colored glass is crafted into stained glass windows in which small pieces of glass are arranged to form patterns or pictures, held together (traditionally) by strips of lead and supported by a rigid frame. Painted details and yellow stain are often used to enhance the design. The term stained glass is also applied to windows in which the colors have been painted onto the glass and then fused to the glass in a kiln.
Colored glass has been produced since ancient times. Both the Egyptians and the Romans excelled at the manufacture of small colored glass objects. Syria was in important in glass manufacture with its chief centers Sidon, Tyre and Antioch. The British Museum holds two of the finest Roman pieces, the Lycurgus Cup, which is a murky mustard color but glows purple-red to transmitted light, and the Portland vase which is midnight blue, with a carved white overlay. In Early Christian churches of the 4th and 5th centuries, there are many remaining windows which are filled with ornate patterns of thinly-sliced alabaster set into wooden frames, giving a stained-glass like effect. Evidence of stained glass windows in churches and monasteries in Britain can be found as early as the 7th century. 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. Stained glass continued to be produced with the style evolving from the Gothic to the Classical style, which is widely represented in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, despite the rise of Protestantism. In France, much glass of this period was produced at the Limoges factory, and in Italy at Murano, where stained glass and faceted lead crystal are often coupled together in the same window. At the Reformation, in England large numbers of Medieval and Renaissance 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” (the object of veneration) resulted in the loss of thousands of windows. Few remain undamaged; of them the windows in the private chapel at Hengrave Hall in Suffolk are among the finest. With the latter wave of destruction the traditional methods of working with stained glass died and were not to be rediscovered in England until the early 19th century. Stained glass windows in houses were particularly popular in Victorian era and many domestic examples survive. In their simplest form they typically depict birds and flowers in small panels, often surrounded with machine-made cathedral glass, which, despite what the name suggests, is pale-colored and textured. Some large homes have splendid examples of secular pictorial glass. Many small houses of the 19th and early 20th centuries have leadlight windows.
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