Stained Glass
The World's Oldest Windows

The Cathedral Age  The Dawn of the Gothic Era

Stained-glass is fragile and man and nature are destructive. Fire, war, revolutions, Puritans, philistines, restorers and vandals have all taken their toll. It is perhaps, therefore, better to be thankful that against all these odds some stained glass has survived from the eleventh and twelfth centuries than to mourn the loss of so much.

German cathedrals, however, have suffered grievously. For example, a Romanesque cathedral was built at Speyer between 1030 and 1061 and it and subsequent rebuildings were destroyed by fire or war in 1137, 1159, 1289, 1689, 1794 and during the Second World War. But Germany has the distinction of having preserved the oldest complete windows in the world – in the cathedral in the ancient town of Augsburg, which was founded by the Romans in the first century AD.

These windows, glazed towards the end of the eleventh century, portray five Old Testament figures – Moses, David, Daniel, Hosea and Jonas – all that remain of a longer series. They are probably in their original position in the clerestory of the nave, but the frames in which they are fitted are later and perhaps smaller, as several of the figures seem to be hemmed in and others seem truncated. They are still being restored and some glass, for example parts of the hats, has been replaced.

Apart from the windows being unique because of their age, the figures, which are Romanesque in style, are monumental in size and impressive in themselves. They are stern Old Testament characters, more than eight feet tall, who gaze piercingly ahead of them in spite of their squints. The impact of their expressions is all the greater because their faces are disproportionately large. Each prophet holds in one hand a scroll with a Latin inscription. On their splayed‑out feet they wear the highly stylized, pointed footwear of medieval knights.

The colours in these windows are very different from the colours of twelfth‑century stained glass in England and France. Instead of luminous blues and rubies, the Augsburg figures are predominantly brown, gold, yellow, green and wine, and what little blue is used is a murky grey. These were the colours that predominated in many German churches, both in the Romanesque period and beyond.

The Augsburg figures are boldly designed and, despite their early date, are certainly not primitive; they are the work of skilled, experienced and inspired stained‑glass artists. This skill can be traced back to the Abbey of Tegernsee, where there was a flourishing stained‑glass workshop. The monks who went from Tegernsee to Augsburg in the eleventh century undoubtedly took their techniques with them. The abbey's influence was widespread throughout Bavaria and farther west. Two other windows still exist which have a style similar to that of the Augsburg windows – a madonna from Flums, in northeast Switzerland, which is now in the Swiss Museum in Zurich, and a Timotheus window from Neuweiler in Alsace, which is now in the Cluny Museum in Paris.

It is difficult to overestimate the contribution made by the abbeys and their monks to the arts of the Romanesque period; the style is largely their creation. Their surge of creativity was the result of the reforming zeal of strong abbots, who were determined to rescue the monks from their secular or Sybaritic activities. The energies they had previously dissipated were now turned to the arts. This was notably so at the Benedictine Abbey of Cluny, whose influence became of primary importance throughout Europe. In Germany it was the Benedictine Abbey of Hirsau, in the Black Forest, which, under the reforming Abbot William, became the leading artist"' c centre of the Cluniac monasteries, and had a decisive influence on the development of Romanesque art in Germany. The Abbey Church of SS Peter and Paul was the prototype of German Romanesque style, and its famous illustrated manuscripts established the Hirsau school of miniatures.

There is a direct relationship of style between the Augsburg figures and those of the Hirsau miniatures. Indeed, all Romanesque architecture and other visual arts arc shaped by common Ro man and Byzantine strands. In this instance, stained glass influenced painting, but curiously the later Hirsau miniatures are more wooden and awkward than the Augsburg figures.

The Hirsau miniatures also provide an example of how painting influenced stained glass. For the education of virgins in ways of pleasing "the Heavenly Bridegroom", the monk Conrad of Hirsau produced a primer called Specultim virginium (Mirror of the virgin).'The frontispiece of this twelfth‑century manuscript is a picture tracing Christ's descent from the royal line of David. This is the Tree of Jesse theme, the subject of innumerable and beautiful stained‑glass windows in later centuries, but first making its appearance in manuscripts inspired by the development of the cult of the Virgin in the twelfth century.

It is perhaps ironic that the artistic skills spread by the monasteries found greatest expression in the cathedrals of the thirteenth century, which soon outdid in splendour the vast abbey churches of the past. For even during their most morally decadent periods the abbeys were powerful and rich, and their churches reflected their status. The cathedrals, by comparison, were often poor and small. But the positions began to be reversed when, during the twelfth century, the major towns‑the cathedral towns‑grew wealthier and more powerful, and became the real political, commercial and religious centres. The rivalry between cathedral and abbey was often fierce, but to this day the genius of the medieval craftsman monk is enshrined in many a cathedral.

Germany stayed wedded to the Romanesque tradition long after France and England had turned to the Gothic style. But in one respect a notable German must be considered an innovator; his Christian name was Gerlachus; his surname is not known. In the bottom panel of his mid-twelfth‑century Moses window (now in the Münster Landesmuseum) he includes the image of himself at work, the first self‑advertisement by a stained‑glass artist.