Adventures in light and colour

Light of the World depicted in stained glass at the St. John the Evangelist in South Cayuga

Photo: Light of the World depicted in stained glass at the St. John the Evangelist in South Cayuga


John Wilcox

Buildings and architecture, Arts and creativity, Cultural objects

Published Date: Sep 10, 2009

Light is a fundamental aspect of all architecture, especially places of worship. Light has always been considered a manifestation of the spirit, providing guidance, comfort, sustenance and clarity. Of all civilization’s achievements in glazing, there is no more inspiring environment than that created by sunlight streaming through the polychromatic brilliance of stained glass.

The magnificence of stained glass was the response of the medieval artist and glazier to the ever-larger openings created by French Gothic architectural accomplishments of the early 12th century. Stained-glass works of art, which continue to be made today, are the culmination of centuries of experimentation. Yet we still make glass for places of worship much as our forebears did all those years ago, mouth-blown on the end of a pipe. Different metallic oxides react with a melted sand batch to create different colours. Selenium is added to create yellow, gold creates a brilliant ruby red and cobalt is the major ingredient of the famous luminescent blues of Chartres. Manganese and, oddly enough, lead can be added to clarify the batch for the manufacture of clear glass. Iron imparts the greeny-turquoise hue of modern float glass.

Sheets of coloured glass are cut to size and shape before being painted and fired for permanent effect. The paint augments the glass’s colour and shape, modelling the form and creating figurative scenes. The small painted pieces of multi-coloured glass are then assembled within lead cames (strips), soldered and weatherproofed. The entire process has also changed little over several centuries.

The earliest ecclesiastical windows in Ontario are clear – likely English crown glass, such as is found at the Sharon Temple (1825-31) and the Old Stone Church (1840-53) in Thorah, near Beaverton. This glass was safely shipped from England in barrels of molasses, already cut to size. Coloured glass began arriving shortly thereafter. Using materials at hand, early windows were assembled within wood muntins (strips). Examples include the glorious windows in the chapel of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Convent, Ottawa (1887), designed by Georges Bouillon and re-erected in the National Gallery of Canada in 1988.

Most 19th- and early 20th-century ecclesiastical stained-glass windows in Ontario are not original artworks; many are renditions of famous paintings. One of the most repeated glass realizations is the pre-Raphaelite masterpiece Light of the World, by Holman Hunt (1851) – an appropriate theme for a medium so dependant on light. The original painting was recently on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario.