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Learn the interesting history of how stained glass originated and how it progressed to what we see today.
stained glass, tiffany lamps
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Stained glass, in general, refers to both the colored glass and also the craft or art of making it. The color is obtained by adding metallic salts such as copper, gold, and cobalt to molten glass. The colored glass pieces is then stuck together using lead strips – to form designs, patterns, or pictures and held in place with the aid of a rigid frame. The same principle works for stained glass window panes as well as stained glass lamps.
The most interesting aspect with stained glass making is the engineering skills required to assemble the collage. When assembled, now as a single entity, the stained glass piece has to stand the weight of its own without cracking at any point. In the case of stained glass windows, it also has to withstand the wind pressure continuously. No wonder, even now, stained glass manufacture remains a skilled art that requires training and precision.
Looking back at the history of stained glass making, it becomes evident that historians from world over had failed to register when exactly humans have mastered the art of stained glass manufacture with precision, even though the history of stained glass lamps is known with more certainty. It is believed that in as early as 2nd century BC, Egyptians were already established glass makers. Artifacts unearthed from Herculaneum and Pompeii gives hint that the Romans were also adept in making stained glass materials in 1st century AD. But, the earliest surviving stained glass piece with a picture on it was excavated from Lorsch Abbey, a place in Germany, and it dates back to the 10th century AD. By the 11th and 12th centuries, when the number of churches in Europe had increased dramatically, stained glass manufacture also witnessed a positive surge and soon it were being used in homes also, thus giving the art a non-religious identity as well. Until then, stained glasses were mostly related to cathedrals, and it even had the name – cathedral glass.
In the 16th century, during Reformation, however, stained glass panes in cathedrals were destroyed in large scale and were replaced by plane glass windows. This was a period when stained glass making took a beating, and the art would have slipped over the brink into a possible extinction during the next two centuries, thanks to the renaissance period that followed – the Victorian and Edwardian eras – in the late 1700s and early/mid 1800s.
Stained glass making received a shot in its arm in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s – during the Art Nouveau period – when American glass makers introduced then a recently patented translucent “milky” glass known as opalescent glass in Europe. The patent was owned by John La Farge. This was also the period when Louis Tiffany revolutionized the lamp making industry with his innovative Tiffany decorative lamps or simply, stained glass lamps. He introduced a technique that was more or less confined to window pane decoration for centuries to the making of lamp shades. This was a move that had transformed the lamp making industry forever. The same method, the core principle intact, is used even today in stained glass lamp making worldwide.
Louis Tiffany used copper foils to tape individual glass pieces, which are then soldered together to form the glass pane. It was in fact the same technique used by people in the earlier centuries, but then they used lead as the material to hold together the glass pieces. But, the substitution of lead with copper foil brought in the advantages of lesser weight, and the metals malleability ensured that finer lines and hence complex designs can be weaved in more easily to the stained glass lamps.
Years have gone by, and with changing times, Tiffany stained glass lamps have slowly ceased to be hand made any more. The process has been mechanized and in place of copper foils and colored glass, other costly materials are used instead. The visible fact that there are certain Tiffany lamps that cost hundreds and thousands of dollars will give one an idea as to what all materials can go into the making of fancy Tiffany lamps.
Post World War II, lots of people have taken to stained glass lamp other stained glass craft as well – making as a hobby, and now there are tens and thousands of skilled hands making stained glass lamps and other products worldwide. Fusing, bending, and slumping of glass in modern electric home kilns has in fact made the job a lot easier, as it took away the element of expertise that was required in the early days, and this is the reason why stained glass lamp making, the vocation, has become so common these days. Also, the easy availability of factory made cheap glass in plenty, availability of teaching methods, and demand for stained glass lamps as decorative items in homes and offices, have contributed immensely to the popularity of stained glass craft in such a large scale.
Stained glass lamps and windows have evolved continuously in the last ten centuries, and will continue to do so. As long as we humans enjoy the rainbow of colors that the light passing through a stained glass piece produces, stained glass lamp industry, the craft, will survive the vagaries of time for sure. May be the techniques and methods would undergo sophistication and revolution with time; but, for sure, not the final product.