Tiffanys Glass and The Stained Glass Windows of The Medieval Era Essay

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The artist Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) is widely known for crafting complex stained glass windows, but also respected for his renowned Tiffany lamps. In addition to such pieces, Tiffany created a wide range of art including vases, jewelry and furniture. He developed as a decorator and architect in his own right, as his work has been commissioned for Mark Twain, the White House and creating stained glass windows for various churches.

     As a young, budding artist, Tiffany traveled oversees where he was exposed to Roman and Byzantine art and architecture. What truly made an impact on him was the bold medieval glass he encountered. Tiffany was also inspired by the early Christian mosaics of the 12th and 13th century Cathedrals of France. [i]

     As described in the book Louis C. Tiffanys Art Glass, he was moved by what he saw: What impressed the young artist and filled his heart with a transport of emotion never felt before, was the sight of the Byzantine basilicas, with their dazzling mosaics, wherein were synthesized all the essential laws and all the imaginable possibilities of the great art of decoration¦Tiffany dreamed a dream of Art for the Future: in the fossilized remains of our ancient patrimony¦Herein Tiffany saw a providential means of realizing his new aesthetic visions of Decorative Art (Koch, p. 13).

     We see parallels with Tiffanys work when we look at stained glass windows from the 12th century at both the Canterbury Cathedral and Dorchester Abbey in England. Stained glass windows from this period contained deep, dynamic colors, and included renderings of religious figures and scenes. Tiffany would later go on to produce many stained glass windows for churches depicting religious scenarios and deities.

     Upon viewing Dorchester Abbeys stained glass window of St. Birinus [Fig., 1], housed in the buildings north chapel, you see the similarities in Tiffanys stained glass work and the medieval artists. It can be compared to the many religious scenes Tiffany was hired to complete such as his stained glass rendering of St. Augustine [Fig. 2], which is now held in the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida. Tiffanys rich blues, bold reds, and gilded-looking golds, are similar to the stained glass in the medieval churches. Although, when compared to the medieval stained glass windows, we see how Tiffany built upon the same stark forms and hues, but created softer and more refined pieces. For example: He softened the boldness of Byzantine pomp into tender harmonies of colour and effect, suitable to the decoration of apartments in which we spend the greater part of time (Koch p. 14).

      The stained glass of medieval times took on an exuberant color palette, where color choice became more dynamic and the primary colors were incorporated with sections of white and melded vividly. [ii]  Similarly, Tiffanys work is reminiscent to how the medieval glass windows were designed incorporated in A World History of Architecture: The small glass pieces¦.are intentionally set on a slight skew to the plane of the wall so that they do not all catch the light in the same way. This enlivens the surface and makes the inanimate material seem to shimmer (Moffett, 2003).

     The artist employed techniques for light and color as the author Herwin Schaefer details in the article Tiffanys Fame in Europe: Tiffany glass in Europe usually meant a particular kind of stained glass window¦The design was achieved entirely by colored pieces of glass, often seeking special effects by superimposing several pieces of different colors, and the metal which held them¦painting glass had entirely been abandoned. This method represented a return to that of the early medieval stained glass windows; Tiffany pointed out that he was even more radically consistent in his rejection of paint and brush than the medieval artists had been (Schaefer, The Art Bulletin, 1962).

     Tiffanys unique methods can be further explored in his wide use of opalescent glass, which is glass where more that one color is present. In Tiffanys famous stained glass window Girl with Cherry Blossoms [Fig. 3], opalescent glass is used for creating the flowers along with several other styles of glass techniques he employed such as iridescent and fracture-streamer glass.

In the book Experiencing Art Around Us we get more insight into his inspiration and the similarities to medieval art: Louis Comfort Tiffany experimented with glass to achieve the translucency and richness of medieval stained glass. Tiffany¦invented an opalescent glass that was only partially translucent and could therefore imitate the imperfection of medieval glass with its supple texture and variegated surface (Buser, p. 264).

      Like the medieval stained glass artisans, Tiffany took on apprentices to help him. He used some of their same methods, but melded them with modern techniques and equipment. Another inspiration derived from the middle ages in Tiffanys work is his Cypriote glass, which is a form of glass made to look like excavated ancient Syrian and Roman glass. To create iridescent effects and contrasting colors, Tiffany recreated the Cypriote look of the ancient glass, which he incorporated in his window designs, as well as vases and jewelry.

          There are other similarities from the medieval period found in Tiffanys work: In medieval times, small cubes of colored glass were used to make mosaic pictures in wealthy homes. And in Roman Byzantine art, the use of contrasting colors was largely employed in decoration of churches with glass mosaics. [iii] Tiffany took the inspiration from the medieval times and forged his own style that he enhanced well into his career; crafting modern as well as historic-inspired windows and creations.

[i] Fahr-Becker, Gabriele. Art Nouveau (Konemann, 1997), p. 314.

[ii] The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Medieval Stained Glass (Columbia University Press, 2007).

[iii] Goodyear, William Henry. Roman and Medieval Art, Rev. and enl. (New York: Grosset & Dunlap Publisher, 1909).




Buser, Thomas, Experiencing Art Around Us, Second Edition, (Publisher: Thomson Learning, 2006), p. 264.

Koch Robert, Louis C. Tiffanys Art Glass, (Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1977).

Fazio, Michael W.; Moffett, Marian; Wodehouse Lawrence; A World History of Architecture (Laurence King Publishing, 2003).

Schaefer, Herwin, Tiffanys Fame in Europe, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 44, No. 4, (College Art Association), Dec., 1962.



Examples of Stained Glass Windows

(Fig.1) St. Birinius, Medieval Stained glass window from Dorchester Abbey; circa 1250.


(Fig. 2) St. Augustine stained glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the Lightner Museum, St. Augustine, Florida.

(Fig. 3) Girl with Cherry Blossoms by Louis Tiffany; example of various types of glass used by Tiffany.

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