A mosaic of colour that tells a story, each chapter illuminated at a different point during the day as the sun moves across the sky. Often referred to as ‘the bibles of the poor’, stained glass windows are one of few major pictorial art forms to survive its thousand-year history. Unlike the typical function of a window, these religious works of art are not made to allow us to see the world outside – or even to admit light – but rather to control it.
These illuminated and decorative windows were used to tell stories from the Old and New Testaments with the glow of light and colour intending to reflect the glory of God. As an art form that relies heavily on light, it changes colour depending on the time or season, cleverly created in a way that highlights stories or areas of history at various points.
The term ‘stained glass’ has almost always been applied exclusively to the windows of places of worship and other significant buildings. However, modern artists are expanding the use of this medium to include three-dimensional structures and sculptural pieces.
One artist who began to use stained glass very late in his career is Marc Chagall. Using this medium allowed him to create intense colour with the added benefit of natural light refracting and interacting with each piece of glass, creating an ever-changing piece of art.
One of Chagall’s most famous pieces of stained glass work is his twelve windows at the All Saints Tudeley church in Kent. The east window is a touching tribute to Sarah d’Avigdor-Goldsmid, the daughter of Sir Henry and Lady d’Avigdor-Goldsmid; the family lived in an area nearby. Sarah tragically died aged just twenty-one in a sailing accident. She showed an interest in contemporary art – she and her mother saw some of Chagall’s work at the Louvre in Paris in 1961 and fell in love – and after Sarah’s death, her parents commissioned Chagall to design the beautiful east window.
As a less popular medium for modern artists, the fascination with stained glass windows has seemed to fade over recent years. However, the unveiling of a 12-year-long project completed in 2016 offers a contemporary approach to stained glass artwork. Entitled “Roots of Knowledge”, costing $4.5 million to create and using 60,000 individual pieces of glass, the windows represent years of research on the events and people that have shaped mankind from the days of cavemen to modern technology.
America’s Utah Valley University commissioned stained glass artist Tom Holdman to create the installation that would be set in the university library, reflecting great human achievement into a place of knowledge and discovery. Holdman, who has a severe speech impediment, says he uses his art as an alternative way to “speak to people”. Unlike other more directly religious stained glass windows, ‘Roots of Knowledge’ aims to show that the world is secular but spiritual, and that, despite our differences, we all have the same roots and can celebrate the achievements of others.
At a time when global politics is divided, this body of work embraces the best qualities of humankind.
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