What is Stained Glass?

Jane Harmon

Stained glass is an art form in which colored glass is cut into shapes and placed into a mosaic to form a picture. The glass is held in place by metal strips soldered together to gives the window or other object strength and stability.

King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge has a number of medieval stained glass windows.
King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge has a number of medieval stained glass windows.

Church windows often include stained glass, where it typically depicts saints or scenes from the Bible. These windows do not necessarily have to depict a scene at all, however; they can simply be a brightly colored geometric design. The famous Rose Window of Notre Dame is made up of many small pictures that together form a geometric pattern, which creates the overall impression — a person must study the window in detail to see that it is indeed a collection of small pictures. The Rose Window's name refers not to the scenes themselves but to the wooden or stone structure that supports the glass, which is radial and composed of many small, petal-like openings into which the glass is set. Often, fine details of the scene are painted on the colored glass, which is then heated to bond the paint to the glass, and thereby "stained."

Church windows often feature stained glass.
Church windows often feature stained glass.

The glass is colored in the manufacturing process by the addition of salts that cause it to take on particular colors. Then the glass is made into sheets, from which individual pieces can be cut with glass cutting tools. The sheets can be made in a variety of textures, and the uneven or pebbly surface of some glass sheets gives the resultant picture a jeweled look when light passes through it.

Although stained glass windows, whether for church or home, are the most common form of this artwork, it is also used for decorative features. The famous lamps of Louis Tiffany are examples that are much admired and imitated today. Tiffany added opaque or milky glass to the palette, which greatly increased the effects that could be achieved. Today, stained glass art is a popular hobby, and many people enjoy cutting and fitting together pieces of colored glass to form attractive pictures both large and small. When a piece of art is small and meant to be displayed in the window where it catches the sun, it is often called a suncatcher.

The Rose Window in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is a famous example of stained glass.
The Rose Window in the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is a famous example of stained glass.

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Discussion Comments


It's harder than you might think to make stained glass. You have to figure out a stained glass pattern that will work and there are only so many shapes possible when you are working with a flat pane of glass. I would recommend finding a free stained glass pattern online before trying to draw one myself. You also need to learn how to break the glass properly. There's a knack to it, and it takes a lot of practice to get it right.

Once you do, it can be a very lucrative hobby as it would be difficult to make an ugly bit of stained glass. But many people lose confidence in the first few steps of learning, which is a shame.


Stained glass is a really fun and intricate hobby, but you have to be extremely careful and willing to work slowly and patiently in order to keep yourself safe. Little glass shards end up everywhere, but it is not always possible to wear gloves when you are cutting a delicate piece of glass out. It can also be really expensive, as colored glass varies in price, and is often not available in quantities that suit the hobbyist. Still, it is very rewarding and doesn't take long at all to make a small sun catcher. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to do something a little different.

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