How (the art of) glass has changed the world

Trenowyn Giles

We needn’t go far to understand the inescapable nature of glass in our society, its omnipresent, all-pervading existence is not only beneficial but necessary to our modern age. Notice how glued we are to our own personal slabs of glass and microprocessors within our pockets, helping us to connect. Or how this essay reaches a computer screen in a jumble of 1s and 0s converted through light moving at almost 300 000 kilometres per second through glass fibre optic cables. Not forgetting to mention the history of glass, its humble beginnings in the tools and art of the past three millennia, and its progression in society. This is the nature of the modern world; our interconnectedness and ingenuity have profoundly depended on glass. 

And yet, our modern society still debates the mere definition of the material, perhaps worldly scientific linguistics failed to evolve in the same way glass did. Glass is innately amorphous, without the scientific merit to explain it away. Being content with a world without glass would be in line with saying you’d be content with a world without colour – to that, we’d say no. We say no, because of the obvious existence of colour in the world and the nature in which we interact with colour would seem silly without it. However, just because we don’t appreciate or fully understand the value of glass within our society, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t play an active role. I would go as far as to say, a role as pertinent as colour. The impervious nature of glass made it the most logical next evolutionary element. Glass is the bulbs that hang from our ceilings, it is the windows that let us peer over landscapes, it is the protective shielding for our tools accessing a world of information. 

Either way, glass helped to propel the lives of humans into a new age of development and production. Geographically, the fundamental volcanic phenomenon of the creation of glass was inevitable. It isn’t surprising that Mesopotamia, the centre of modern civilisation, was identified as the historical beginning of modern glass creations, beginning in 2000BCE with the conception of ceramic-glazed objects. Later, interest in glass objects led to its spread across ancient Egypt, modern Syria, and Iraq. Glassblowing and moulding technique had become a well-learned trade of the ancient Egyptians; by the 1st century, the Roma Empire had learnt the craft from the Syrians, creating luxury vessels, beads, and jewellery. Practically, glass was moulded for containers, goblets, and pitchers – influencing the art of modern factory glass techniques like millefiori, the creation of decorative floral glass patterns we still see in society today. From here, the craft spread all over western Asia, and eastern Europe reaching monopoly-industry levels by the age of the Roman Empire. With such an industry came invention, notably the invention of the modern glass window. There was an evident shift in the nature of trade and industry, it was no longer about the ornamental or the decorative, but the practical and convenient. (HOG, 2022)

Slowly, glass became common, reaching from the edges of modern-day British colonies to the historical centres. The Poor Man’s Bible was used as an educational tool for the illiterate – dreamlike stained glass, and rarely mosaics. Nonetheless, art crept upon the casings of church walls and helped to grow the essence of catechism; biblical narratives would be the starting block of stained glass inventions, and would slowly envelop Europe, educating the unschooled populace and growing continental trade. The Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals of the 12th century in central Europe were elevated with this new incorporation of light, colour, and narrative; with such pertinence, glass of the same standards as these great cathedrals was necessary, and by the end of the Middle Ages, the creation of Venetian glass dominated markets. By the 12th century, the Notre-Dame housed some of the most remarkable stained glass creations, through the 13th century, the Sainte-Chapelle cathedral in Paris, housed the world’s largest collection of stained glass windows, depicting almost 1100 biblical figures on 15m tall windows and helped to school the world of the uneducated. (Molli, 2019)

The Phoenicians, well-known for their glass art, helped to influence the later European carpenters and artists. Italy revolutionized glass creation with their 15th-century Venetian glass, or Cristallo, a state secret if there ever was one. The clarity revealed in Venetian glass drove high society with its clear properties. With the breaking down of European feudal society, the lines between status and sobriety blurred, where the stereotypes of autocracy and absolutism crumbled to allow for the genesis of the everyday person, 18th century-artistic rhetoric prevailed. (WikiWand, 2022) It was beckoned by the artistic minds of the era, the ideals of a bygone and romanticised time faded to reveal the realists – glass was revolutionary, not only a means but as an artistic tool. 

The Venetians later invented the Venetian mirror which transformed the new age of the “self”. Mirrors, as a concept, were a stepping stone not only for invention, but for a revolution in the arts, technology, and self-identity. They abstrusely modernised the way humans thought about themselves, it changed the conceptions of beauty. Mortimer suggests the “mirror” was a self-image, a move away from notions, and instead towards the noticeable – one’s projected identity, the meaning in the mirror gave the modern human agency. Once every human could see themselves, there became the ability to think of oneself beyond the collective, and rather as an individual with their own thoughts and opinions. When that changed, the innate human psyche changed too. As our perceptions of ourselves evolved, the way we depicted ourselves also evolved. Portraiture was praised highly during this period and the themes of art in the 15th century evolved into literature, music and completely refurbished their modern architecture. (Sorrel, 2016)

Scientifically, glass has created some of the most useful tools of man, not failing to mention the creation of the physical lens in Italy in the 13th century which still today has the impact of intergalactic contribution. From the taking of The Blue Marble, to 50 years later, the recent deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, which has the unimaginable task of seeking out the first galaxies that formed around the creation of the universe. These are only two of the many great human accomplishments in the history books. Perhaps we should be giving thanks to the great heretic Galileo, who overcame society’s Christian rhetoric, and who threw curiosity to the stars, going as far as to upset the Church with his discoveries. As quickly as glass became a part of our evolution towards the stars, it just as quickly became a voice of heresy. The movement towards the skies was a defining moment in our human history, aided by glass. (Smith, 2020)

The progression of glass through the world culminates in architectural creations, windows were a necessity very soon after their industrial production. With the influence of glass on the arts, and of the glass tools from ancient civilisations, all the way to the intricate stained glass murals of the Middle Ages, glass never failed to display its notoriety. There were cycles of architecture that tempted historians to classify some Modern Period structures as to what was consecrated as a defining volta in modern architecture, however, in this regard, much can be said of the Victorian age Crystal Palace, the biggest structure of its time. Joseph Paxton’s ingenious creation of this nearly full-glass structure was a feat beyond modern standards, in which no other materials were used; the preparation didn’t include bricks or mortar, and it broke the limits of modern construction. Windows had never been so widespread before the erection of the Crystal Palace, it stood as reference of ingenuity to every modern creation that came after it. 

Located in Hyde Park, London, the great structure was built in 1851 to house an exhibition of industrial technology; it unfortunately burned down in 1936 but its creation changed architecture. It was made possible with the production of plate glass, created by French, and allowed for large panes of glass. The great building stood at almost 34 meters tall, about half as wide as the wingspan of a modern Boeing 747, which for 1851 was more than an achievement. A total of 293 655 panes of glass were used, covering 93 000 square metres of total area, and took a total of 35 weeks to finish; comparatively, St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was three times smaller, had taken 35 years. Today, such a feat is laughably easy, but stood the test of human conception; accounts tell of how the structure “flew” in the wind above the quilted landscape and peered above the trees of Hyde Park. Glass has served our buildings with light, and our creative minds with inspiration. (Place, 2020)

In the modern age, with the turn of the technological revolution and the creation of the internet, there was a need for ever-evolving faster data transmission – optical fibre was a no-brainer. From its first major use in 1968, NASA took advantage of its lightning speed properties in assisting the physicists and scientists who worked to televise the Apollo 8 mission around the Moon. Before reaching too far to the stars, we should bring it home, home in the literal sense of the word. In Bill Bryson’s “At Home…”, Bryson looks at the evolution of the modern home, and by extension the evolution of architecture; how life went from the daunting shadowed landscapes to extraordinary bright skyscrapers, from the cold and listlessness nature of luminance to the blazing light of electricity. We simply opened up our homes to the outside world, and by exposing the light, artistic movements grew to capture it through first camera obscuras; light was the innovative concept for the artists of the late 18th and 19th centuries, noticeably the Impressionists, the likes of Claude Monet and Auguste Renoir who took from antiquity to create a radical reimagining of art in nature. In turn, the movement affected all aspects of cultural society, music, literature, Claude Debussy, and Ravel most prominently, creating some of the most memorable music of the recent centuries, all beginning with our want for light, given to us through lenses and glass. (Bryson, 2010) (TATE, 2022)

Glass will undoubtedly continue to influence our lives. We will continue to look to the future, we will continue to find ways to incorporate glass within our lives. We are already integrating glass into the processes of our micro-computers and modern technologies. From biomedical sciences, fashion, and design, the usefulness of glass will not ebb. Without such a material, how could we truly see, how could we imagine beyond our dreams. With such permanence comes a responsibility of creation and inventiveness. We see glass every day, and yet, do we really see it? Do we truly appreciate it for the gratuitous creations it provided for us? Perhaps we should look at glass in a brighter light, in a way that is appreciative to the feats of such a creation of adventurous misadventure. A foundation from the natural world that will survive or die by its creators.

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