Museum of Ancient Inventions: Stained Glass

Stained Glass, Europe, Medieval

Glass making originated in the Near East around 2000 BCE in the form of beads, seals and inlays. The earliest makers pressed glass into molds. Around 1500 BCE, finer vessels were being made in Egypt. The best glass manufacturers and exporters of this time were the Phoenicians who had a great supply of silica rich sands. Glass blowing developed around 1st century BCE in Palestine. Although the art of stained glass did not reach its height until Europe’s Gothic Era, we find written descriptions of it dating as far back as 5th century AD. The earliest dated pieces in existence are from the 9th century (Lorsch Abbey, Darmstadt). The technology of creating stained glass has been changed by improved tools and increased scientific knowledge, but the technique is essentially the same as in medieval times. A full size drawing of the design, called a cartoon, is used as a template for cutting the glass. After being cut, the pieces can be temporarily held together by beeswax or Plasticine, then painted. The paint is then fused to the surface of the glass by firing in a kiln. After the final firing is the glazing process. The pieces of glass are joined by strips of lead which are soldered together.

The production of stained glass has evolved over time. In the Middle Ages, it was created by monastic workshops and later guilds. When the art of stained glass began to decline in the 17th and 18th centuries, production was usually by individuals or families. Workshops were brought back into use in the 19th century, when large studios were created. Today, studios and individual craftsmen coexist. The specialization of labor that exists in the creation of stained glass has given it the classification of “craft” rather than “fine” art. The art of stained glass is the only medium that is observed through refracted light, rather than the reflected light by which we view paintings, sculpture and photographs. This quality of stained glass surely contributes to the medieval belief that it symbolized “divine light”.

Method of Construction

by Jamie Humphrey ’98 and Linda Phelps ‘AC

I scratched a line on the glass with a small tool dipped in kerosene. Theoretically, the glass will break along this line with a few tap taps on the glass. After many tap taps, and much broken glass, I don’t know if I believe this theory. After the glass is cut and the edges are smoothed, there’s a copper tape that is wrapped around the edges. Then I fit the pieces together and put nails around the design to hold it in place. Each joint is primed with flux, then soldered. After all the joints have been soldered, turn the design over and repeat the flux and soldering process. For the outside edges of my design, I soldered a piece of lead around the entire rectangle. Then I had to wash the excess flux from the glass. This is very sticky and time-consuming work. After the piece was washed and dried, it was done! — Jamie Humphrey

My glass was bought at the store and then a cartoon and pattern was made. The glass was cut with a glasscutter and each piece’s edge ground smooth with a diamond grinder and fitted together as evenly as possible. Then each piece was wrapped with copper foil and soldered together with flux and solder made of tin and copper. — Linda Phelps


Brisac, Catherine, A Thousand Years of Stained Glass, New York:Doubleday, 1986.

Isenberg, Anita and Seymour Isenberg, How to Work in Stained Glass, Radner, PA: Chilton Book Co., 1983.

James, Peter and Nick Thorpe, Ancient Inventions, New York: Ballantine Books, 1994.

Le-Duc, Violett. Mediaeval Stained Glass, Atlanta, GA: Lullwater Press, 1946.

Science Topics
Inventions & Scientists
Social Studies Topics
Ancient History
Music, Art, and Language Arts Topics
Visual Art
K-6, Middle School, High School
Kindergarten, 1st Grade, 2nd Grade, 3rd Grade, 4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade, 7th Grade, 8th Grade, 9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade

What are you looking for?


Smith College

Website URL

Type of Resource


Assigned Categories