Stained glass is not just highly decorative, it's a medium which has been used to express important religious messages for centuries. Literacy was not widespread in the medieval and Renaissance periods and the Church used stained glass and other artworks to teach the central beliefs of Christianity. In Gothic churches, the windows were filled with extensive narrative scenes in stained glass – like huge and colourful picture storybooks – in which worshippers could 'read' the stories of Christ and the saints and learn what was required for their religious salvation.
Explore a selection of highlights from our sacred stained glass collection, ranging from the medieval period to the 20th century.
The Adoration of the Magi
The traditional story of the birth of Jesus Christ is one that is regularly told through stained glass images. Generally referred to as the nativity of Christ, this story is recorded in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke in the Bible's New Testament. The part of the story that records wise men (or Magi), guided by a brilliant star to Bethlehem, to present gifts to the baby Jesus, gained huge popularity in the early centuries of the Christian church. The later tradition that there were three wise men depends on the fact that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. By about 750 AD, they were known as Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Gradually, the wise men evolved into kings, based on a similar story of royal gift-giving in the Old Testament (Psalms 72:10). They were said to come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba. Seba was thought to be an ancient name for Ethiopia, and in the 14th century the Ethiopian king began to be portrayed in artworks as a Black man, as we can see in this German stained-glass panel from 1500.
Annunciation to the Shepherds
In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the Annunciation to the Shepherds records the announcement of the birth of the baby Jesus. Luke refers to the angel appearing to the shepherds to tell them of the miraculous birth, the shepherds then pay homage to the infant Christ. The figures on this roundel are drawn on plain glass with a yellow stain, with a 'seaweed' background scratched on to blue glass, together suggesting the roundel dates from around the middle of the 14th century. The design – a shepherd with staff, a seated youth with bagpipes, a sheep, dog, and an angel emerging from clouds – is very similar to that of a manuscript dating from about 1325 – 35 that is now in the Netherlands. The manuscript is by an unknown artist who was making illustrations for a Flemish history of the world entitled Spieghel Historiael. The roundel and the manuscript may share a common image source, the stained-glass artist has used the figures to depict the Annunciation to the Shepherds.
Typically set within a barn and surrounded by animals, the Nativity is the most recognisable scene of the story of the birth of Jesus Christ. This intimate version shows the Christ Child's mother Mary gazing down at her new born baby with her hands together in prayer, signalling his divine role as the son of God. Glazed between 1510 and the 1530s, this panel is one of several that came to the V&A from the cloisters at the Cistercian abbey of Mariawald, in Germany. From the surviving panels we can reconstruct how they were placed in the cloister windows, and determine the theme of the glazing. Each cloister window was composed of two openings, and each opening was fitted with four stained-glass panels. Two panels depicted scenes from the Old Testament and two depicted scenes from the New Testament. This type of narrative arrangement, popular in the Middle Ages, is known as 'typological' – each Old Testament story was a 'type' or a prefigurement of a New Testament story ('antitype'). The Nativity panel was placed in the window just below the Old Testament scene of Moses and the Burning Bush – also in our collection.
Assumption of St Mary Magdelene
St Mary Magdalene was one of the most devoted followers of Jesus Christ. The Gospels record her presence at the Crucifixion, and Christ appeared to her first after his Resurrection. Later legends claim that she, like the Apostles, was instructed to spread the word of Christ. Legends about St Mary Magdalene grew over the centuries. The Golden Legend, a compilation of saints' lives written about 1260, records her living as a hermit in a cave near Marseilles in France. While she was living in the cave angels carried her up to heaven seven times a day for heavenly food. This panel from 1500 shows her rising to heaven on one of these occasions. People have also interpreted it as an image of her rising to heaven after her death.
The Vision of Beatrice
The making of stained-glass picture windows continued in the 16th and 17th centuries, in spite of the political and religious upheavals of the Reformation, but there was a shift in subject matter towards secular, or non-religious themes, accompanied by technical and stylistic developments that changed the nature of stained glass. In the 19th century, however, there was renewed interest in medieval art, especially that of the church. Artists and scientists worked together to revive the techniques of medieval glass production and decoration, and once again many churches were filled with large and colourful story-telling windows.
One of the leading Gothic Revival glass designers, active from the mid-19th century onwards, was Nathaniel Westlake. His famous piece The Vision of Beatrice, was designed specifically for a stained-glass exhibition at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) in 1864. It blends traditional methods with a modern composition, and takes as its subject matter The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, an Italian poet writing about 1300 – 20. In it, Dante is lead through hell and purgatory by the Roman poet Virgil. The panel's composition becomes more dense and abstract as it moves from Purgatory, in which Dante kneels, through to the heavenly sphere in which Beatrice appears surrounded by angels.
Find out more about the Gothic Revival in stained glass
Christ between St Peter and St Paul
Twentieth-century stained-glass artists built on tradition, but also explored new technologies and new forms of artistic expression, including more abstract designs. A particularly striking example is the 1950s and 60s work of designer John Piper and glass-maker Patrick Reyntiens. Piper described his approach – instead of making a stained glass design, he thought like a painter, creating a light-filled architectural unit. Reyntiens, meanwhile, championed modern art in religious spaces, encouraging artists to break away from conservative treatments of windows in churches. Together Piper and Reyntiens revolutionised architectural glass in Britain. Their projects include windows for the Baptistry at Coventry Cathedral (1961) and Liverpool Roman Catholic Cathedral (1965 – 67). Though the subject of Christ between St Peter & St Paul (1958) is traditional, it is not conceived as a simple figurative display. The image of the seated Christ forms the centre of an architectural void. The glass then expands out from this core, and as light radiates through the glass, the architectural interior is bathed with light and colour.