For many Westerners, the first images that spring to mind when the term "stained glass" is mentioned are the religious panels of
the great Gothic cathedrals. Although this association is perfectly natural, it obscures a whole body of work that exists and predates the majesty of the Gothic works.
Stained glass has a history which spans the continents and offers a journey across time and space
imbued with the cultures which through invention and exchange allowed it to evolve. In the Middle East,
the Arabic forms of stained glass include the earliest works of simple roundels arranged in a pattern held
in a matrix of gypsum in Coptic monasteries, cold-painted glass in sculpted frames adorning Umayyad palaces, the Gothic windows of the Crusader castles, the intricate stucco fretwork fit with colored panes in a mosque, or the thoroughly modern works created by contemporary glass artists influenced by global trends and local traditions.
Located off the main road linking Cairo to Alexandria, Deir Abu Maqar is one of the Coptic monasteries
of the Wadi Natron, the most important site for the key ingredients in raw glass production of the first
centuries. In existence since the fourth century, the Abu Maqar monastery was founded by one of the desert fathers, St. Macarius, and according to Coptic tradition, holds the relics of St. John the Baptist. In the monastery’s church, in a worship space which is now closed behind a slatted wooden door, exists what
might be one of the earliest forms of stained glass whose design is said not to have changed since its creation centuries ago. As the monks explain, they are there to preserve traditions, not create new ones.
The windows are made with simple colorless roundels arranged in a decorative pattern in a sculpted
Skipping ahead two or three centuries, one finds the Umayyad palace of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, east of Palmyra in Syria. Legend tells of an Umayyad prince sitting under a walnut tree observing the play of light through the dense shade. Desiring the same sensation of freshness and beauty in his home, he orders his artisans to find a solution. This is how the elaborately carved geometric windows which would later be fitted with small pieces of colored glass were imagined and brought into being.
Researched and written by
Heidi Scheffler and
Stephane Ruault of
Stained glass at the Topkapi Palace.