For the Toronto Biennial of Art’s second iteration in 2022, “What Water Knows, the Land Remembers,” multidisciplinary artist Nadia Belerique was commissioned for a new version of her installation HOLDINGS (2020–ongoing). In this series, plastic barrels used for shipping cargo were situated within the context of the artist’s familial practice of shipping items to relatives in the Azores. Installed in large stacks, each drum contained a tableau of objects viewed through different stained glass portals. Belerique’s choice of materials, including stained glass, is a means of expanding the tactics of photography, such as framing, depth, and the distance between objects.
Through her material considerations, Belerique’s work addresses the dialectics of private and public, enclosed and vulnerable, industrial and domestic, elevating personal assemblages and histories to the level of reverence. Like many other contemporary artists who work with stained glass, Belerique combines the elegant, artisanal craftsmanship and historical sacredness of the medium with items that are utilitarian or generally unremarkable. As a work that is characterized by the movement of people and goods, it also venerates memory, containing many layers of history and function. In this sense, Belerique’s use of stained glass is apt, and part of something I would not call a resurgence so much as the contemporary period in the long timeline of stained glass’s transformation—a winding tale of ancient apocrypha, religiosity, trade and commerce, industrialization, and artistic innovation.
Pliny the Elder recounted the story of Phoenician sailors discovering glass while shipwrecked and waiting out a storm at the bay of Haifa. As the tale goes, the sailors used the mineral natron from their cargo to build a stove on the beach. Once their fire began to burn, the natron mixed with the beach sand, melting together to produce liquid glass that hardened by morning. It is mostly accepted among historians, both of ancient civilization and of glassmaking, that this likely isn’t a true story, though it’s not without its merits. This very region near the Belus River became home to a flourishing glass industry as early as the sixth century BCE because of the area’s white sand. What is more plausible is that potters in Egypt and Mesopotamia discovered glass while firing their clay vessels. Egyptian glass beads dated to approximately 2650 BCE are the earliest known forms of manufactured glass, which were opaque and made by winding strands of molten glass around a clay rod.
The oldest examples of coloured glass in window panels found to date were uncovered in England at St. Paul’s Monastery in Jarrow, founded in 668 CE. However, those at the Augsburg Cathedral, Germany, are the oldest intact windows we know of, dating to the 1060s and depicting the five prophets Moses, Daniel, David, Jonah, and Hosea. Europe saw increased construction of churches throughout the 10th – 12th centuries, a period wherein new religious orders continued to form and therefore needed their own buildings. With largely illiterate populations at the time, stained glass windows emerged as a narrative form that taught Bible stories to the uneducated masses.
The medieval church was a great art patron, and the Gothic period saw great embellishments of window styles from relatively humble figures into iconographic scenes so complex that only select specialists understand them today. Across European windows, much Christian iconography was cultivated from the pagan/early Christian illustrations in the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome—the peacock and the phoenix came to symbolize resurrection; Christ was flanked by the Alpha and the Omega; the influence of bestiaries and ancient typologies mingled happily with biblical figures. It was also clear, with the travelling of African and Asian glassmakers and craftspeople to Europe as early as the third century CE, that stained glass would never belong entirely to Christianity, to Europe, or to the Gothic period.
Similarities in style in cathedrals and churches from France, England, Germany, Spain, and Italy mean that historians can trace work in certain places to travelling studios of craftspeople. Gothic styles developed across the continent, eventually arriving later in what is now Austria and Hungary. With the ushering in of the Renaissance era, stained glass window scenes transformed again; figures dressed in period clothing, represented abstract concepts, and were increasingly placed in secular scenes. As a result, stained glass windows became a fixture of secular Renaissance architecture. This was also a time where glass workshops were less nomadic and tied to a major patron, allowing for these studios to form into guilds. Artistic designs became more reminiscent of regional styles in oil painting.
Moving into the 16th and 17th centuries, stained glass fell out of favour as Protestant and Counter-Reformation groups called for less elaborate church decoration. Churches, castles, and glass workshops across Europe were razed during the Thirty Years’ War. Those craftspeople that remained were often only able to find work producing small panels for private residences. In America, glassmakers established their industry in Jamestown, Virginia by 1607, and by mid-century in what is now New York City. It was not until the mid-1800s that the first figural stained glass fenestrations were created for churches in New York State, by William Jay Bolton and Samuel F.B. Morse.
The revival of Gothic architecture in America in the early 19th century was largely thanks to Episcopalian and Anglican groups, and ushered in an era of American Gothic stained glass to decorate their churches. The purpose of these stained glass windows was decidedly for architectural rather than artistic or painterly effect. Across the country, glass studios made characteristic elongated figures, and some artists who had travelled to Europe had a real love for medieval stained glass, while others had little understanding of its iconography. Forms and colours were limited to medallion windows or figural clerestories in primary colours, with small additions of secondary colours.
Following the first World’s Fair in London in 1851, stained glass became a mainstay of decorative arts and lent itself nicely to the burgeoning Art Nouveau style, and thus a more commercialized luxury decor. In the 1890s, German art dealer Siegfried Bing was the first to exhibit Tiffany glass in his Maison de l’Art Nouveau, Paris, and became a pioneer in the field of decorative arts. He commissioned ten notable French painters—among them Pierre Bonnard, Félix Vallotton, Édouard Vuillard, and Toulouse-Lautrec—to design stained glass panels to be fabricated by Tiffany Studios. Tiffany experimented with opalescent glass, wherein sections of colour are mixed with multiple pigments—a technique for which Tiffany glass remains very well-known. During this period of overlapping influences, glass artists stood firmly on the side of either opalescent, or more traditional, medieval-style designs.
Stained glass waned again during the Great Depression for obvious reasons, and shortages in building construction, supplies, and craftspeople continued through World War II. By the 1960s, church-building had slowed with postwar social changes, and a renewed interest in stained glass became almost entirely secular. With affluent but disaffected hippies moving westward to California, they began to renovate old houses using bright paint colours, and either repairing or creating stained glass features. In a rapidly growing industrial society, there were not the same opportunities for apprenticeships with expert craftspeople as in the bygone age of workshop guilds. New demand for learning the glass trade meant that newly minted technical masters trained others as stained glass became an increasingly sought after hobby. More literature, including pattern books, opened up even more possibilities to learn, and beginners often made small suncatchers to put in their homes.
This nostalgia set off a widespread resurgence of stained glass panels in churches, homes, and public buildings. Tiffany glass saw a revival. This was largely due to a renewed sense of freedom and plurality allowed by post-modern sensibilities for architecture and design, following the very rationalist, rigid, and uniform International Style through the 1920s to 1970s, and the hyper-modern aesthetic of postwar design. Art school students were now able to begin experimenting with glass making and blowing thanks to the development of smaller furnaces.
Perhaps now it is much clearer how it can be that there is still a keen interest in stained glass from only half a century before. As an artistic medium, stained glass insists on being taken seriously by virtue of both its laborious production and long historical significance. Shira Wolfe wrote in Artland magazine that contemporary artists may indeed be “seduced by the exalted place the medium has had in the spiritual lives of communities for centuries.” The sheer force of will and determination needed to learn the skills and become a practitioner of stained glass is equally seductive in a society even farther in the grips of technologization than the 1960s could even imagine, where opportunities for truly specialized labour seem fewer all the time.
Wolfe lists several well-known artists who have turned to the medium, such as Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, Henry Moore, Signmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and, most recently, Kehinde Wiley. Except for Wiley, all of these artists were commissioned to create stained glass windows by institutions, and at a later point in their careers. In all cases the glass work itself was contracted out to professional craftsmen’s studios. Matisse designed a panel from his découpage, installed at Rockefeller Center two years before his death. Chagall did a number of stained glass projects after his signature painting style for Metz Cathedral (France), the UN building in NYC, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Polke finished abstract windows for Grossmünster Church in Zürich a year before his death. Wiley’s series of stained glass panels show Black people in contemporary clothing using the conventions of European portraiture and church window scenes, establishing them as exalted figures.
Vancouver-born artist Fin Simonetti is well-known for her sculptural works incorporating stained glass. Following her undergrad, Simonetti approached one of her paternal uncles to teach her what had been her father’s family trade following their immigration to Canada from Italy. An air of the sacred is present in her materials, often using precisely cut marble and alabaster. Titling series of works with Rose Window or Cathedral, as well as show titles like An Appeal to Heaven and My Volition, Simonetti shows a clear consideration for historically determined church spaces. Her 2019 solo show Head Gusset at Cooper Cole in Toronto consisted of two stained glass bear traps and three framed bulbous forms in an opalescent style. The glass in the bear traps is at once a symbol of the perceived sanctuary of the church, as well as a reminder of the fragility and ineffectiveness of the traps made of glass. They could never withstand the force of trapping an intruder. In her Cathedral series (2021), stained glass panels overlay barbershop posters, carefully placed to reveal men’s faces through transparent fragments. The many objects and rituals of next-to-godliness (such as the labour and grooming), as well as their pretenses and contradictions, occur consistently throughout Fin Simonetti’s practice, nodding to a long journey through the established religiosity of stained glass in an updated context.
In the work of Matthew Fischer, specific consideration is shown for medieval techniques of stained glass and cold-working methods. Fischer situates containers as objects of devotion creating illuminated containers for depositing coins as donations in abstract, almost anthropomorphic forms. In a similar vein, Jack Kenna composes sculptural works often using milk crates with a stained glass panel. Both Kenna and Fischer show an interest in creating something of an esteemed repository, beautifying the banality of containment. Having created a studio specifically for creating stained glass, Kenna intends to make the mundane object of the milk crate into something more precious, acted on with great labour and intention. In repurposing something that states clearly how use outside the registered ownership is prohibited by law, Kenna expresses his ironic devotion through tongue-in-cheek rebellion.
Julian Yi-Zhong Hou’s practice is tied less to the traditionally theological as it is to mystical subject matter, incorporating various mediums to tease out themes around tarot, ritual, and Chinese cultural traditions. As such, his use of the stained glass medium adheres to a documented association with spirituality and community even as it moves away from the clerical and the pious. His first public artwork, Crossroads (2021), is a large triptych in stained glass in Burnaby, BC. The imagery shows scenes of people working, playing, and resting among lush florals and ponds. Pursuing a quasi-Art Deco, Tiffany-style effect, Hou designs scenes of a utopia. At his 2021 solo show at Zalucky Contemporary in Toronto, Country Balance, he created a series of suncatcher medallions in motifs of pentacles, animals, spirals, corporate logos, and the tree of life, symbols that come together to reference the union between spirituality and capitalism that we have seen grow exponentially.
Toronto artist Laura Hudspith takes up an environmentalist approach to the spiritual, using stained glass within edifices of copper piping and multimedia installations that incorporate living organisms. Bloom (2021) creates glass forms of algae and human cellular structures standing within a large pond of living filamentous algae. The micro and macro processes of life and death have a central function for Hudspith, who pursues stained glass designs of molecular and geological fissures, as in Wounds are to fissures, an invitation for a joining (2021). Her works are sites of reflection on the intertwining of ancient traditions, microbiomes, and extra-human timescales. Positing the ecological as a divine interlocutor, Hudspith is interested in playing with the “authenticity” of nature and various forms of life.
For Berlin-based artist Rindon Johnson, stained glass makes an appearance within an expanded artistic and poetic practice. In his 2022 solo show, Cuvier, at François Ghebaly, NYC, two free-standing stained glass screens created impressions of moving water, suffusing light as it moved through the gallery. The installation was an homage to Cuvier’s Beaked Whale, long-thought to be extinct but now seen as more of a mysterious creature in the wild. Placed amidst a video game installation and a suspended cowhide, the stained glass sculptures were part of Johnson’s well-thought atmosphere that foregrounds nonhuman life within a largely human-centric world. The creature’s elusiveness also invokes the tendency towards saintly veneration for nature’s uncared-for creations.
The history of stained glass is ancient and global. But given the conceptual demands of contemporary art, stained glass is a supple and compliant medium that can be imbued with almost any concern. What is most interesting about looking at these artists together is that, contrary to what one might expect, the more secular character of stained glass is largely sidestepped in favour of a slight bend towards spirituality and religiosity, often in critical, ironic, or unconventional terms. Materially, stained glass is combined with other quotidian or industrial elements, either in an effort to aggrandize the latter or situate the former as pragmatic and functional.
Stained glass seems to be a fertile ground for exploring seemingly opposing tensions, particularly as they relate to the dense and problematic histories of religious obedience and what constitutes “the sacred.” The embedded legacy and veneration of stained glass provides a basis for artists to explore larger questions around organizing principles—God and creationism, nature and evolution, mysticism and divination, or something else entirely.