The art of making stained glass was known to the ancient Egyptians and to the Romans, but in Britain it was not until the middle of the seventh century that Benedict Biscop brought glass workers from Gaul to glaze the windows of the churches at Wearmouth and Jarrow. As church architecture developed, new methods of window glazing were discovered. Coloured glass in a variety of patterns was often used before the eleventh century, and the development of foliage and figure design quickly followed, so that stained glass, more or less as we know it to-day, seems to have been common in ecclesiastical buildings at the beginning of the Norman period. Authorities seem to agree that the art of making stained glass originated in France.
Scotland, unlike the majority of her Western European neighbours, has little or no mediaeval stained glass to show the interested visitor, and what has come down to us is extremely fragmentary. Our turbulent history, with its wars of independence and civil and religious strife, deprived us of much of our heritage of beauty. Of the ancient glass remaining, the most important is in windows at St Bride's Church, Douglas, Lanarkshire. It is not of Scottish origin, but dates to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The principal subject consists of the Blessed Virgin and Holy Child. In the smaller panels are a number of Saints with scrolls which bear Lombardic inscriptions.
Another important discovery was made in 1909 in the Chapel Royal at the Palace of Holyrood House. The fragments then found have been put together as far as possible in their original design and now form a most interesting panel in one of the windows at the East end of the long picture gallery of the Palace. Authorities on the subject consider this glass to have been made in the thirteenth century at York, which was a centre of stained glass making at the time. The religious houses of York had strong connections with the Church in Scotland.
One interesting example of glass made in Scotland comes down to us through the writings of Sir Robert Gordon. In describing the building of Dornoch Cathedral in the thirteenth century by Bishop Gilbert, he tells us that "all the glasse thar served this church when it was built was maid by Sainct Gilbert his appoyntment beside Sideray (modern Cyderhal) two myles by West Dornogh."
Space does not permit the mention of all the sacred places where mediaeval stained-glass has been found in Scotland, but the discoveries are sufficiently widespread to allow us to assume that the great majority of our ancient Churches were this adorned. In more modern times the art seems to have under. gone a period of degeneration all over Europe, during which many of the processes for making coloured glass were lost. Stained-glass windows became opaque or muddy in colour and conventional in design and could scarcely be regarded as works of art. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, however, there was a renaissance in the making of stained glass and there arose in Scotland a school of craftsmen in the art, who acquired European recognition. The most famous of these craftsmen was the late Dr Douglas Strachan who carried out many important commissions, including the stained glass windows in the Shrine of the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle. Saint John's Kirk possesses two examples of his work. In his decorative schemes for Church windows he broke away from the old traditions of crude, opaque colour and conventional design. He initiated a modern technique which ensured the transmission of light by means of sparkling colours, thus giving vivid translucency to the leaded mosaics. He strove for the harmonious grouping of his subjects and insisted that, in colour and effect, the completed window should blend with, and merge into, that part of the building which was to be its permanent background. Dr Strachan had recently re-discovered the the secret of producing certain colours which had been lost for centuries, especially that of gold-ruby. This colour can be seen in all its brilliance and splendour in the two examples of his work in Saint John's.
Another very eminent artist was the late Herbert Hendrie of the Edinburgh College of Art, in whose work Saint John's Kirk is particularly rich. Visitors from the south will doubtless remember the magnificent series of windows which this artist created for the adornment of Liverpool Cathedral. Space does not permit the mention of many names here, but it is heartening to know that the fine tradition of stained glass established by these artists is still being vigorously maintained in Scotland. Saint John's Kirk contains two excellent examples of the work of William Wilson, R.S.A., (1905-1972) who has established a wide reputation. Windows by him are to be seen on both sides of the Atlantic, and not long ago he executed a large window for Canterbury Cathedral.
The stained glass in Saint John's provides the student with a fair cross-section of the evolution of the art in Scotland over the past hundred years.
Naturally the glass is not all of uniformly good quality. It does, however, show the development from the earlier period of conventional design and rather opaque and muddy colour up to the renaissance achieved by the late Dr Douglas Strachan and his fellow workers. The more recent glass shows the work of artists living to-day who are carrying on the new tradition and showing in no uncertain manner that the art is no longer a dead one, but very much alive and deserving of our interest and appreciation. It can, if allowed, re-create for us that glory of the Mediaeval Church the pictorial Bible in stained glass from which many generations were taught the great truths of the Scriptures.
It is suggested that visitors to Saint John's Kirk, making use of this booklet, should begin at the great West Window and walk clockwise round the entire building. This is the order in which the windows are described.
In conclusion my grateful thanks are due to the following :- Rev. Walter E. Lee, D.D., Senior Minister of Saint John's Kirk; Mr J. L. Anderson; Mr. Wm. Wilson, R.S.A.; Mrs Margaret E. C. Stewart, Ph.D., F.S.A.Scot., for much help and information, and finally to my wife for her valued assistance.
From the a publication by the Society of Friends of St John's Kirk
Illustrated Notes on the Stained Glass Windows and the Mediaeval Silver of the Kirk - published in 1956
- with additional photography by Andrew Mitchell -