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Transparent tapestries; The history of stained glass: the art of light medieval to contemporary.


By Virginia Chieffo Raguin. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003. [pounds sterling]24.95

Stained glass is a unique and remarkable art form. It has a history of 1000 years or more (there are mentions of the use of coloured glass back to 500AD), during which it has literally enlightened the lives of many, whose contact with other forms of art has often been rare or non-existent. Its ability to deliver works of immense size and visual power is unequalled the largest are the size of tennis courts.

For all this, in the canon of art history stained glass hardly gets a mention. Gombrich in his authoritative masterwork The Story of Art, mentions it only once, and it has historically been the Cinderella of the visual arts. The reasons for this are clear. For most of its development, it has relied on buildings to give it physical context, structural support, and to provide the essential difference in illumination level between inside and out to turn an opaque complexity of lines into a shining surface. Perhaps because of its origin in being a decorated window, rather than a deliberately back-lit painting, work in coloured glass has remained for most of its evolution a some what secondary art, and has often kept away the great painters.

Its involvement with the architecture which houses it has often been ambivalent. The genuinely synergetic relationship between the glass of a great Gothic Cathedral and its structure compares tellingly with a phrase used by Ann Warff in a Glass Conference at the Royal College of Art in 1986, where she described her work as being 'guests in architecture, just as, in a way, architecture and buildings are guests on our earth. These personal statements ... wish to be free, and cannot with ease be anchored in any particular architectural work'.

All art requires a site, whether it be the wall of a house, a gallery, or a landscape, Stained glass is different. Despite Warff, its clients usually see it as part of architecture, and often a subordinate part. Raguin's book tries to correct this view of stained glass. Though the book is an authoritative and valuable addition to the subject, there are aspects of its content which are a little trying. The ten chapters that cover from the early Gothic masters to 2002 are so densely inclusive that threads go missing, and contact between image and text is lost. A book like this is difficult to write. The mention of a work in the main text is not generally cross referenced to an image, and the images and their captions are not numbered. Reference to Gombrich provides an interesting comparison, with far fewer images, used carefully and structurally, to tell the story.

The lack of technical explanation is also unfortunate. The chapter contributed by Mary Clerkin Higgins does not explain how glass colours were developed, and interactions between technical possibility and artistic expression. In another edition, the chapter on the twentieth century should be expanded. Work in glass over the last few decades has grown vastly in application, power and potential, as dichroics, laminating techniques, and other advanced technologies have enlarged the palette of the artist, and excited the architects whose collaboration is so essential.

For all the criticism which can be levelled at this book, it stands as a monument to endeavour and research, and is a very worthwhile and beautiful addition to the bibliography it so copiously provides.

Book reviews from this and recent issues of The Architectural Review can now be seen on our website at and the books can be ordered online, many at special discount.
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Title Annotation:Reviews
Author:Wigginton, Michael
Publication:The Architectural Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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