Stained-glass windows of the 12th century were carefully designed to fit the single, tall, vertical space formed by a lancet window. Such a window consisted of a vertical central area surrounded by a wide border of floral and geometric ornament. The designs of the central area were of two types-either a large, single figure or a series of small narrative scenes.
Both types of design conformed to the iron bar grid that supported the leaded glass in the stone window frame. Scale and proportion were generally ignored in favor of the bold pattern determined by the ironwork and the leading. A large single figure was designed in several rectangular sections, while each small scene occupied a single section. The scenes were ranged in a vertical row against a background of foliate ornament. They were individually framed, either by a rectangular or circular band of painted ornament (in France and England) or (in Germany and Austria) more elaborately by curling, ribbon-like shapes painted on the edge to resemble pearls.
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Stained glass of the 12th century, of pot metal, was distinguished by its rich and varied color. In France and England a clear sapphire blue predominated, and in Germany and Austria an equally brilliant emerald green. These shades were augmented by ruby red, mauve pink, yellow, and white, creating a richly textured, chromatic effect.
The effect was heightened by lavishly painted detail in grisaille, a technique that continued, with stylistic variations, until the 20th century.
The individual pieces of glass composing the window were relatively small and thick. Their size, combined with the jewel-like color and the intricacy of the painting technique, created a rich, translucent mosaic or a luminous tapestry hung in its frame of architecture.
Since few donors could afford the luxury of colored glass, many churches remained only partly glazed or had side windows of clear glass.
At first these windows had outline designs formed by the lead cames. Later examples had geometric and foliage patterns in grisaille. They were standard in the churches of the Cistercians, who, disapproving of the luxurious appointments of older orders, banned colored figural glass for their order in 1138. Grisaille windows became increasingly important in succeeding centuries.
Though the concept of the stained-glass window was Gothic, the figure style of 12th century windows remained rooted in Romanesque artistic tradition, preserving types employed in earlier manuscripts and wall paintings. Such characteristics as the disproportionately large heads, heavy features, contorted poses, and exaggerated gestures commonly associated with Romanesque art also appeared in the figures of 12th century stained glass windows.
The manufacture of early Gothic stained glass was fostered by monasteries, the builders of many great churches. Highly skilled itinerant craftsmen moved from one monastery to another as their services were required. Thus, designs, styles, and techniques spread from France to the rest of Europe.