Though the vast majority of the population of Medieval Europe was illiterate, they were nonetheless surrounded by stories. This was nowhere more apparent than in the great cathedrals and houses of worship.
It’s hard for a modern person to truly grasp the depth of feeling that your average medieval person had for the Church. It’s easy for us to assume that the relationship between the people and the Church was one of oppression and politics. But what we either forget or dismiss is the emotional impact of that relationship. The stories of the Bible and the mythos they impart weave rich metaphors for the very human struggles that people back then and people nowadays encounter every day.
Those struggles and the emotions that accompany them are vivid in medieval art. Perhaps the most breathtaking example of the passion of those stories can be seen in stained glass. The colors and vitality of the sun shining through a stained glass window represented the finest that mankind had to offer. You could argue that those windows, some nearly a thousand years old but still as brilliant, still represent all that the human spirit can achieve.
The concept of creating windows full of color was not new to the Middle Ages. As far back as the 4th century churches in Europe were known to have used thin pieces of alabaster to create designs and color. Techniques for coloring glass were known as far back as the ancient empires of Egypt and Rome. But the earliest references to what we think of as stained glass windows come from mentions of colored glazes used on windows in France in 675.
Techniques for fixing pieces of colored glass into iron frames for use in church windows advanced until the use of stained glass windows began to boom around 950. The golden age of stained glass had begun. The effect was so amazing and popular that advances were sought in the technology of constructing churches with window space large enough to hold more and more stained glass. Yes, cathedrals came into being in part as a vehicle for stained glass.
But that’s all technical.
What enthralls me the most about medieval stained glass is the almost transcendental quality of its storytelling.
Have you ever stood in a cathedral at morning or in the evening when the sunlight comes streaming through in glittering beams of color? The pictures within the windows come alive with a brightness that you can’t help but describe as divine. The figures seem alive with inspiration.
But the light extends far beyond the images in the windows. Colored light spills across the floor and the people. It’s almost as if you can reach out and touch that light. You can see the light in your hand as a beam of pure color. It’s as if God is reaching out to touch you physically and emotionally.
Light is something that mankind cannot create. At least not on the level that we see in the full spectrum of the sun on a clear day. You know that feeling that you get when you wake up in the morning and look out the window to greet a perfect, new day.
Now take that feeling and filter it through the mythos of the Middle Ages. The stories of the Bible that were depicted in the stained glass of cathedrals represent the most powerful and emotional tool in the Church’s arsenal. The images may have been created by man, but the illumination with which an ordinary man or woman would see them came straight from God.
We can look at any given stained glass window with the dispassionate eyes of a historian or a scholar and see the craftsmanship, see the narrative, or even see the politics behind the system to whom these stories belong. But if we look with medieval eyes we can see God in all His glory, depicted physically, speaking to us spiritually. That is what a medieval person would see.
It’s no surprise that quite often the image that was at the front and center of a cathedral was that of Jesus or God as our savior or King of Heaven. It’s no surprise that cathedrals were oriented so that these great windows sat in the eastern part of the knave. These images would catch the rising sun. Pure, fresh light would beam down straight through the image of God and onto the congregation. Talk about a display of warmth and might! With that kind of “special effect” it’s no wonder the people of the Middle Ages attributed so much power to the divine!
Although the age of stained glass reached its peak in the High Middle Ages, stained glass has never really gone out of style. It has gone through several resurgences through the centuries and has continued to be a staple of churches since its inception. And really our human reaction to it hasn’t changed all that much. Even in the 21st century we can experience the medieval glory of stories told with light.