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stained glass -
window design

related pages:
stained glass - development and techniques
modern stained glass
gothic cathedral and church construction

Part of a stained glass window at Bourges cathedral

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Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France updated: Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

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cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais

Stone tracery in church and cathedral construction illustrated
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cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
using metal in gothic cathedral construction

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labelling what you’re looking at
reading stained glass
numbering the bays
thirteenth-century design of stained glass windows
glossary/technical definitions

recommended books

  • Dax and church iconography
  • labelling what you’re looking at

    Commonly, specialists, when looking at the western (or any other) facade, refer to the south portal on that facade as the left portal. That is, describing it as viewed from the inside of the church. On the other hand, most people will tend to think of the church or cathedral from the outside and refer to the same south portal of the west front as the right-hand portal.

    Likewise, when viewing two statues alongside each other, people will refer to ‘the statue on the left’ or ‘the statue on the right’. This is also unclear because it is not certain whether what is being referred to is the statue on the viewer’s left hand side, or a statue to the left hand of another statue.

    Hence, I prefer to refer positioning in terms of north, south, east and west. This is greatly simplified because virtually all cathedrals and churches are oriented east-west.

    plan of a gothic cathedral - interior
    [1st chapel: Chapels in the Ambulatory are traditionally numbered from the South,
    while main bays are numbered from the West.]
    sometimes the side aisles are doubled Also named the choir, from its French name, choeur le, found in earlier churches

    reading stained glass

    Before there were printed books, in particular the christianist Bible, and before most people were able to read, the christianist managers spread their propaganda (teachings, moral tales) using what are known as story windows - that is stained glass windows where the images depict stories from the bible. You will find an illustrations of typical story windows on pages for Poitiers cathedral and the St. Julian the hospitaller at Rouen. An increasing number of illustrations will be appearing, as I find time.

    The choir at Troyes cathedral
    The choir at Troyes cathedral

    As you will notice, the story windows tend to be in the lower windows, for they needed to be accessible to those being instructed by the priest. See the round medallions in the lower windows - each one depicting an incident in the bible or in the saint’s story. The higher windows, by contrast, tend to have larger pictures, such as prophets and kings. For more on stained glass layout, look at a history of ugly stained glass.

    These windows come in many designs, of which I will try to provide examples. In general, and unexpectedly for most modern visitors, these windows tend to read from bottom to top, not from top to bottom, though there are exceptions.

    I am developing this area mainly in terms of the stained glass, which has been a constant background for my paintings, though you might find it difficult to see the connection [An art gallery is a part of abelard.org.]

    painting by abelard

    numbering the bays

    There is no standard way of numbering the bays, which often incorporate small chapels. This is hardly surprising since it is often hard to decide from which position to start.

    Building on most of the cathedrals tended to start from the apse, the east end. This was so the cathedral could be brought into use as quickly as possible, for services, for the priests, monks and the people. Naturally, the priests and monks would put priority on their own purposes and comfort.

    The great gothic churches were built on sites with long histories, often stretching back to pagan temples. The great gothic revival was usually replacing an old Romanesque cathedral, now less impressive, fashionable and efficient to purpose. As stated elsewhere, the gothic cathedrals have some parallels with a house of cards, all parts being shored up by counter pressures from previous bays, starting from the stabilising ramparts of the apse and marching all the way to the weight of the stabilising to buttresses at the other end.

    The remains of the previous Romanesque church may well stand for many decades until the advancing gothic structure is joined to it, or engulfs and replaces it with the larger structure.

    Which is the last bay of the apse? Where does the nave start? Is there a full transept? At the other end, do the towers or a narthex count? As a result of all these problems, different writers, and referring to different cathedrals, use different numbering systems. Therefore, in modern works, you will usually find a numbered diagram of the cathedral plan. These problems become even more difficult with the stained glass, where there are often windows at three different levels some of which may be broken into separate lancets, small roses and ogives, or multiple medallions as in story windows. And the the detail of the stained glass extends into borders and, maybe, other subdivisions.

    And it all looks so simple at first. The longer you look, the more you will see.

    Numbering stained glass windows at Chartres cathedral
    Numbering stained glass windows at Chartres cathedral

    Using Chartres cathedral as a complicated example, the cathedral stained glass has acquired several numbering systems, each idiosyncratic in a different way. Here are the main systems we have found.
    • By Canon Yves Delaporte, numbering from 1 and starting with the lower windows from the west portal, going round the cathedral anti-clockwise; then doing similarly for the upper windows, including the transepts, making 176 windows. [see left]
    This system is also used by Etienne Houvet.
    • The French National centre for scientific research (the CNRS or Centre nationale des récherches scientifiques) numbers from 0, from the east end, alternating windows left then right. Thus all windows to the north have odd numbers, while those to the south have even ones. Further, the CRNS include in each upper number the two lancets and rose of each upper window. Thus, the CRNS only labels 142 'windows'. [See right]
    Cowen Painton follows a similar numbering system, but marks the lancets and rosettes as a, b and c.
    • Both systems number the Chapel of St Piat and the Chapel of Notre Dame de Pilar separately, using either Arabic or Roman numbers.
    There can be subsidiary numberings within each window, which may have many illustrations to catalogue and describe.
    Because these systems dodge about from where in the cathedral they start, and which order windows are numbered, it is often more efficient to look for particular side chapels. abelard.org labels chapels of interest in the relevant cathedral plans.

    Thirteenth-century design of stained glass windows

    Jesse tree window at Beauvais thirteen century glass at Beauvais cathedral thirteen century glass at Beauvais cathedral
    Jesse tree window at Beauvais Beauvais Beauvais

    shapes of medallion windows - illus

    grisaille at Beauvais - not just  woven shapes like Islamic art

    glossary/technical definitions

    • Ogive
      A pointed or Gothic arch.
      One of the diagonal groins or ribs of a vault.
    • Vesica
      Literally, a bladder. In stained glass, an void shape with pointed end. This can be constructed from two intersecting circles with the same radius.
      A vesica in a window of Beauvais cathedral
    • Muldenfaltenstil
      Sharp, hairpin-like folds in clothes
    • Lancet
      Pointed, as seen in the arches and windows with a pointed head introduced in the Gothic period of architecture. [From the point of a lance - a spear.]
    • Halation
      Light spilling from one section of glass to another. However, these old craftsmen knew their trade, thus thickening the leading where this is most likely to occur. They even could take foreshortening into account.
    • Medallion
      In stained glass, a medallion refers variously to a circular; oval, square or diamond shaped space, generally one of many within the overall window design, that contains a figure or figures.
      Yoked medallions are two medallions partially joined together.
    • Narthex
      Vestibule, found in earlier churches
    • Grisaille
      Almost monochrome glass, each piece shaped as a square or diamond and painted with black enamel paint. From a distance, grisaille windows have an overall greyish tint; hence the name grisaille, meaning greyness in French.

      Grisaille window, Poitiers cathedral
      Grisaille window, Poitiers cathedral return to the index

    • Telamon
      Colossal male figures used as columns

    • Spolia
      Reused material.

    • Centrapedal rose

    recommended books

    The rose window, splendour and symbol by Painton CowenFive GoldenYak (tm) award

    Thames and Hudson [UK], hbk, 2005
    276 pages, 350 illustrations, 300 in colour
    ISBN-10: 0500511748
    ISBN-13: 978-0500511749
    £29.99 [amazon.co.uk]
    $63.75 [amazon.com]

    Previously, Painton Cowen also wrote
    Rose windows (Art & Imagination)

    pbk, 1990
    ISBN-10: 0500810214
    ISBN-13: 978-0500810217
    amazon.com / amazon.co.uk

    Extremely well illustrated - the paperback version has 59 in colour and 82 black-and-white, while I see that the new hardback version has 300 colour and 50 b/w - I will report further when I have received a copy. Densely packed with facts. An ideal primer to be carried around with you on any visit. Like so many books, written by informed hands, it is very badly organised and laid out. My Thames and Hudson glued paper-cover version started falling apart from early on, but always travels in its own protective plastic cover to keep the pages in one place. I can not resist giving this book five GoldenYaks, if only because I know of nothing better.

    Painton Cowen has also produced a very useful directory of stained glass in Britain -

    A guide to stained glass in Britain by Painton Cowen, # Michael Joseph Ltd (June 10, 1985)
    ISBN-10: 0718125673
    ISBN-13: 978-0718125677

    amazon.com / amazon.co.uk

    marker at abelard.org

    Experiments in gothic structure by Robert Mark Experiments in gothic structure by Robert Mark
    MIT Press Five GoldenYak (tm) award

    pbk 0262630958
    reprint: 1984 amazon.com / amazon.co.uk

    If you want to understand the structure of the great gothic cathedrals, this is the place to go. Some of it gets a bit technical, Mark used polarised light, epoxy plastic models and wind tunnels to work out the the loadings and stresses in some of the great cathedrals. An absolutely fascinating book to read, if you can stand the hard work and the usual technical manual disorganisation.

    As with Painton, I can not resist giving this book five GoldenYaks, if only because I know of nothing better.

    return to the index

    end notes

    marker cathedrals – introduction: reading stained glass
    marker gothic cathedral and church construction
    marker cathedrals, an illustrated glossary
    marker Chartres - wonder of the world
    marker Notre Dame de Paris, Paris
    marker lantern towers of Normandy and elsewhere
    marker history of ugly stained glass: Auch, Bazas, Dreux
    marker Auch cathedral choir and stalls
    marker Rouen and Monet
    marker at France pages Dax and church iconography marker photographs, Dax
    marker Bazas - iconography and architectural styles
    marker Poitiers, neglected masterpiece marker photographs, Poitiers / photos 2
    marker Angers, heart of the Angevin Empire marker photographs, Angers
    marker Laon, the midst of the gothic transition, with added oxen marker photographs, Laon
    marker Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Lyon
    marker Notre Dame of Lausanne
    marker Senlis - how a typical cathedral changes through the ages
    marker Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges - the cathedral of the Pyrenees
    marker Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours

    marker Le Mans and Bourges cathedrals - medieval space technology
    marker Lausanne rose window - photo-analysis
    marker cathedrals in Lorraine - the Three Bishoprics
    marker cathedral giants - Amiens and Beauvais
    marker Clermont-Ferrand and Agde - from volcanoes to cathedrals

    marker Germans in France - Arras cathedral
    marker Germans in France - Reims cathedral
    marker Germans in France - St. Quentin cathedral
    marker Germans in France - Noyon cathedral
    marker Germans in France - Cambrai cathedral
    marker Germans in France - Soissons cathedral

    marker cathedral plans, and facts
    marker stone in church and cathedral construction
    marker using metal in gothic cathedral construction
    marker cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
    marker cathedrals and cloisters of Franceby Elise Whitlock Rose
    marker the perpendicular or English style of cathedral
    marker Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

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