The art of glass and its use in our churches

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Sand, which consists of tiny fragments of silica (quartz, SiO2), is the chief raw material used in glass-making.

Little more than 200 years ago, glass was still made with two parts of sand to one of potashes (wood ash) or kelp (seaweed ashes), together with a small quantity of ground limestone.

In ancient times this was put into a fireproof clay pot and heated to 1,500C in a wood-fired kiln.

Glass was known in Egypt and Mesopotamia more than 4,000 years ago for the manufacture of luxury goods for the elite. Vessels made of glass became widespread during the Roman Empire (27BC to 476AD) and were no longer confined to the very rich. Window glass was invented at about the same time.

Our picture shows Roman glass vessels on display at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland. They include both clear and coloured glass, and were probably made somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean.

When the Western Roman Empire petered out, the rulers of the barbarian kingdoms that replaced it took over many aspects of Roman civilisation, including glass-making.

In 674, Benedict Biscop founded St Peter’s Monastery on the north bank of the River Wear. Then, says Bede: “The indefatigable Benedict again crossed the ocean, and traversed the provinces of France for workmen to construct for its use after the Roman manner, which he highly admired, a magnificent church of stone.

“Afterwards, when the building was nearly finished, he sent to France for artificers skilled in making glass, an art to which the inhabitants of Britain were at that time strangers.

“These also arrived, and not only executed their commission (the glazing the windows of the porticos and principal parts of the church), but likewise communicate to the natives the mystery of their trade, by which lamps, windows, cups, and an endless variety of useful and ornamental articles are formed, with wonderful beauty and facility.” (Bede, Lives of the Abbots of Wearmouth, translation by Peter Wilcock, 1818).

Our picture shows several fragments of window glass from St Peter’s, now in the Sunderland Museum, discovered during the excavation led by Professor, now Dame, Rosemary Cramp.

The colours include yellowy-green, greeny-blue, and a white and dark red, which are probably opaque, also a fine dark blue. This was scarce and was most likely made by the Frankish workmen melting down cullet (broken glass) from France.

I ought to mention that although the colours in the picture may appear vibrant, this is due entirely to my digitally enhancing the image. This important exhibit needs to be back-lit. As it is, it’s dull to look at and gives no idea of the wonderful beauty that Bede so admired.

Ten years later, the church and monastery of St Paul’s was founded at Jarrow, again adorned with stained glass. Fragments found during excavation are much better displayed in a small window high up on the south wall of the chancel.

The range of colours is quite limited: green, golden yellow, a vivid pale blue and two fragments of a terracotta colour, but no red, purple, deep blue or clear yellow.

Anglo-Saxon churches were generally small. Windows were often mere slits, as you can see in our picture of the tower of St Andrew’s Church at Bolam.

We have no evidence of coloured glass being made into pictures at that time. This was an art that began in Europe at about the time of the Norman Conquest of England, and was introduced here by the Normans.

We now jump forward to 1904, when Morpeth Methodist Church was built.

It was originally a Primitive Methodist Church. Its use of stained glass is restrained, though whether for economical or liturgical reasons, we are unlikely ever to know.

Squares of clear glass, known as quarries, take up most of the space, and are textured to admit light while obscuring the view inside and out.

There is no East Window, such as you would find in a Church of England. The liturgical east end was occupied originally by a fine array of organ pipes, but now by an illuminated cross.

The main ranges of stained glass are on the side walls. There are smaller windows at the back of the church, and two that are now on internal walls.

The structural features of the glass are the same as in the grandest cathedral. The individual pieces are held together by lead strips (cames) that are H-shaped in cross-section and soldered together at corners.

The fully assembled panels are mounted in iron frames for insertion into the window apertures. Panels are also supported with horizontal iron bars, to which they are attached by twisted wire. They show up as thicker lines in the overall pattern.

As in Islamic religious art, the stained glass in the church avoids human and animal forms. Though based on leaves and flowers, the shapes are mostly abstract.

All the designs are symmetrical and arranged symmetrically within the windows, framed in a margin of purplish-brown glass. No two windows are alike, however, so that the eye is never oppressed with too much repetition.

The stained glass adds enormously to the ‘feel’ of the Sanctuary.

The windows on the west overlook the Rotary Garden so you see a combination of stained glass and waving branches. A visiting organist remarked that this is the only church where he can hear the birds singing as he plays.