People normally don’t look at a window so much as through it, but there are windows that catch the eye because of their own beauty: stained glass windows. These works of art are created by infusing glass with metallic salts to create a certain color before attaching small pieces of glass in various colors into a metal frame, which is then installed in a window.
According to legend, stained glass was first developed by accident when ancient sailors from Phoenicia set fires for the cooking pots on blocks of natron; the next morning, the sailors woke to find that their fires had melted the natron and sand, which then cooled and hardened during the night to form a type of stained glass. Despite the romance of the story, however, most experts believe stained glass was invented by potters in ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. In fact, the earliest known examples of stained glass—a set of beads—originated in Egypt between the years of 2750 and 2625 BC.
During the height of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages in Europe, stained glass windows depicting religious scenes were commonly installed in ornate churches or cathedrals, and in the Islamic world, mosques featured stained glass windows with religious imagery as well. This trend continued throughout the Renaissance but slowed for several centuries following the Protestant Reformation.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, stained glass windows enjoyed a resurgence in popularity across Britain, France, and the United States. Many famous artists, including Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagall, experimented with stained glass.
For the most part, stained glass windows today are produced in a very similar fashion to the way in which they were created during the Middle Ages. The glass is produced by mixing together a series of raw materials, including sand, limestone, dolomite, and others, as well as metal sands like alkaline fluxes. The mixes are melted in furnaces at temperatures as high as 2500° F before they are carefully measured, weighed, and rolled into ⅛ inch sheets to achieve the correct color and strength.
A stained glass maker will create several designs and drafts of the window, and once they earn approval, they begin cutting small pieces of glass in various colors; while machines that can do this work are available, much stained glass cutting is done by hand. Artists will draw images on the glass in a special paint, which will then be fired in a kiln at least once to fuse the glass and paint.
The pieces of painted glass will be placed into a metal frame that creates the final image before the frame and glass are soldered together. Lastly, the windows will be waterproofed, inspected, and sent to its destination to be installed.
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