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The 10 greatest stained-glass windows in the world

About the author

Jason Farago is an art critic and columnist who regularly contributes to the Guardian, the New Yorker, and the New Republic. After many years in London, Jason now lives once again in his hometown of New York.

  • Augsburg Cathedral, late 11th Century

    The practice of staining glass for decorative purposes dates to ancient Rome, but the oldest examples in situ are from this Romanesque church in Augsburg, Germany, in the heart of Bavaria. Portraits of Moses, Daniel and other biblical figures gaze down from the south clerestory – the prophets stand rock-solid in their hats and robes, ringed by marbled borders that have grown more elegant with age. (Hans Bernhard (Schnobby)/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0)

  • Christ of Wissembourg, late 11th Century

    Stained-glass windows served as a ‘poor man’s Bible’ in the Middle Ages, allowing believers who could not read Latin to learn the story of the Gospels. This portrait of Christ, now in a museum in Strasbourg, France, is believed to have come from a Benedictine abbey in the north of Alsace, where its somber expression and harsh frontal gaze would have had a terrific force. (Cancre/Head of Christ from Wissembourg/Wikipedia)

  • Chartres Cathedral, early 13th Century

    Demand for stained glass reached its height in the late Middle Ages. The cathedral at Chartres, France, features sturdy flying buttresses that allowed for huge windows, including the glorious rose window detailing the birth of Christ. The density of the compositions bathes the interior of the cathedral in a deep, colorful glow. (Eusebius/Rosace Nord/Wikipedia)

  • Sainte-Chapelle, mid-13th Century

    To modern viewers stained-glass windows may seem purely decorative, but in the Middle Ages they illustrated not only biblical narratives but also local history and political authority. The 15 tall windows of Sainte-Chapelle, on Paris’s central Ile de la Cité, depict tales from the Old and New Testaments – and also holy relics being brought to Paris by King Louis IX – now known as Saint Louis. (Michael D Hill Jr/Sainte Chapel Stained glass Interior/Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

  • York Minster, 15th Century

    One of the greatest of all European cathedrals, this Gothic masterpiece of northern England incorporates a giant east-facing window that is the largest expanse of stained glass anywhere before the modern era. Designed by John Thornton (the first named artist in British history), it features at its heart an intense depiction of the coming apocalypse. It’s currently undergoing repairs. (Asterion/York Minster West Window/Wikipedia/CC BY 2.5)

  • King Arthur and Sir Lancelot, 1862

    Stained glass went into decline during the Renaissance, when the techniques we now call “Gothic” came to be seen as naive if not barbarous. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that artists began to look afresh at the medium. William Morris, an innovative designer and a radical socialist, executed not only religious scenes but secular commissions like King Arthur and Sir Lancelot for the Gothic Revival buildings of the day. (William Morris/King Arthur and Sir Lancelot/Wikipedia)

  • Frank Lloyd Wright’s stained-glass window, 1912

    America’s first great architect believed in the total unity of the design of a home, and that included not only the building and the furnishings but the windows as well. Directly inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement of Morris and others, Wright’s Prairie style sought to create an organic, seamless architecture through abstract glass compositions. (Frank Lloyd Wright/Richland Center, Wisconsin 1867–1959 Phoenix, Arizona/Metmuseum.org)

  • Brown Memorial Church, 1915

    Louis Comfort Tiffany’s career spanned nearly every medium in the decorative arts, from jewelry design to pottery – but it was stained glass where he made his deepest impact. By blending colours while the glass was still molten, his studio could produce milky or opalescent effects. It permitted greater pictorial sophistication than ever before, and defined the look of the American elite for a generation. (James G Howes, July 26, 2007/Annunciation to the Shepherds/Wikipedia)

  • Vence Chapel, 1949-51

    Amid the stark white expanses of the small Dominican chapel, Henri Matisse’s three sets of stained-glass windows are ablaze with the colours of the south of France: sunny yellow, deep green and a bright Mediterranean blue. While the palette has some liturgical significance (blue is the colour of Mary, yellow stands for the light of God), Matisse opts for abstract compositions; he lets the solid panes of coloured glass do the ecclesiastical heavy lifting. (Hemis/Alamy)

  • Grossmünster Zürich, 2006–2009

    The slippery polymath of postwar German art, currently subject of an outstanding retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, spent years designing new windows for Zurich’s thousand-year-old cathedral, which was stripped of its ornaments during the Reformation. While five of the windows depict biblical scenes, the most breathtaking are Polke’s abstract compositions made of thinly sliced agate, which break up the church’s solid walls with pools of light. (Ikono TV)