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Gothic Stained Glass: Sainte-Chapelle, Chartres, and York’s Minster


Visiting three great Gothic churches (Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, Chartres’ Cathedral, and the York Minster) we see how 800-year-old stained glass windows were perhaps the artistic highlight of the Middle Ages.

Complete Video Script

[84, Sainte-Chapelle, 1248, Paris] These huge caverns of stone needed to be decorated…and they were filled with the most glorious art of the Gothic world — towering altarpieces, inspiring statues, and the triumph of Gothic: exquisite stained glass.

[85, Sainte-Chapelle, 1248, Paris] Sainte-Chapelle in Paris is a fine example. In typical Gothic style, the church is a skeleton of support with buttressed columns, ribs, and pointed arches supporting the stone roof and freeing the walls to be window frames…in this case, to hold Europe's best original 13th–century glass. In the Bible, it's clear: light is divine. And with Gothic, light pours through stained glass, turning dark stone buildings into colorful lanterns of light.

[86, Chartres Cathedral, early 13th century] Chartres Cathedral is beloved for both its stained glass and statues which, together, weave a unified Christian story. In "The Book of Chartres" — as some nickname the church — the text is the sculpture and windows, and its binding is the architecture. The nave is vast, lit by magnificent 800-year-old stained glass. The light pouring through these windows was mystical and encouraged meditation and prayer.

[87] The stained glass was used to help teach Bible stories to the illiterate faithful and it gave worshippers images to focus on as they prayed. Windows can be read from bottom to top as if from Earth to Heaven. The brilliant color is from minerals mixed into the glass as it's made — such as cobalt for the dazzling blue. The windows lead the reader through a series of dramatic scenes. For example, the Last Supper, Jesus washing his disciples' feet, His betrayal with the kiss of Judas, and the Crucifixion. The amazing thing, in the 21st century, Chartres is perfectly intact and can be read like a book today as it was eight centuries ago.

[88, York Minster, 12th– to early 13th century, England] In England, the York "Minster" brilliantly shows that the Late Middle Ages were far from dark. This window's the size of a tennis court. The intricacy of the stone framing, or tracery, and how the tiny panes of glass are held together by lead is exquisite. The fine details, far too tiny to see from the floor, are said to be "for God's eyes only."