By Melissa Alvarado Sierra | Published on September 29, 2022
When you set out to find the most famous stained glass in the world, you'll embark on an adventure that involves not only art but also history, sociology and spirituality. There are sixteen types of stained glass out there: antique, cathedral, printed, ribbed, houndstooth, art nouveau, and Tiffany being the most famous for revolutionizing the art form. Each style allows you to meet a corner of the world via its art and learn its history — especially when it is so varied, ancient, and sacred. Walking through stained-glass doors, looking through windows and witnessing the sky through colorful ceilings can be a life-changing experience, and the world is filled with them.
The mystery and beauty of stained glass is nothing we have never seen. In fact, the spectral glass art has been around for so long that it dates back hundreds to thousands of years. Legend has it that a group of shipwrecked sailors from Phoenicia once started a fire at night on the beach using cooking pots on blocks of natron. By morning, the fire had melted the natron and some of the sand below it, creating a large piece of hazy glass. Scientists today do not agree that this was actually the origin of stained glass — rather, they believe it was the Egyptians and Mesopotamians who first invented the effect accidentally when firing pottery. The earliest examples of glass date back to the year 2750 B.C., although these were opaque examples, without the bright colors common today.
The Romans are believed to have used glazed glass for their windows — but again, these were clear or hazy and no colors were used. One of the first examples of purposely stained glass was found in England, in a beautiful rounded window at St. Paul's Monastery, built in 686 A.D. The small window features glass fragments in the colors yellow, blue, green, pink and orange. They don't form any specific image but rather a simple mosaic reflecting the light of day.
Since then, stained glass windows have been used inside holy buildings such as churches and mosques, while only becoming a popular art form for the secular world in the 19th century when the wealthy used stained-glass inside their homes. Back in a time when everyday people could appreciate the art form inside hotels, concert halls, museums, and other cultural buildings. Today, you can find stained glass in many places, even inside shopping malls, such as Galeries Lafayette in Paris, France.
The most famous stained glass is not only used to beautify a space, though — it also tells a story and inspires those who marvel at it with curiosity. Glass transmits light, and this was used in ancient times to signify the divine when inside religious buildings. The colors also held spiritual meaning and represented passages from the scriptures of different religions. Blue was a symbol of hope and heaven, while red signified love and ardor. It's no wonder that color was used in many beautifully complex ways to evoke a message.
The La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, needs no introduction. One of Antoni Gaudí's most impressive buildings is a church with columns resembling tree trunks and branches, with some of the most stunning examples of stained glass. Walking inside this space feels like entering a wonderland, as light and color bounce from wall to wall. Gaudí was a genius of not only architecture but also light positioning. He sought to maximize the benefits of stained glass, especially illumination, by placing the clearest windows at the highest points inside the church to bring in tons of light. Then, he installed the more colorful and dense windows at the bottom, so these could be better enjoyed. The clearer light from the ceiling and high windows now serve as strong beams that enhance everything below. The lower stained-glass windows feature illustrations and texts that visitors can easily appreciate and read thanks to Gaudí's clever idea.
In Mexico City, the Gran Hotel Ciudad de México also plays with light and space. The hotel is famous for its canopy-style Tiffany-glass ceiling — the fourth largest in the world. The ceiling was designed by Jacques Gruber and imported here in 1908. The place was originally a department store designed in an Art Nouveau style with wrought-iron and concrete elevators, arched balconies, and a curving staircase that is an exact replica of the famous Le Bon Marché in Paris. Today, the ceiling stands as a fascinating and iconic feature inside one of Mexico's most beloved hotels. To marvel at this jaw-dropping hotel, just walk in and saunter around. Luckily, you don't have to be a guest to enjoy it.
Stained glass in unexpected places is always a marvelous sight. For example, you might not expect to find an exquisite installation of stained glass in a private home, but that's exactly what the Museo Casa Roig in Puerto Rico boasts. In 1919, the former owner, sugar baron Antonio Roig Torruellas, enlisted Czech architect Antonin Nechodoma to design its stained-glass windows with incredible geometric patterns. As one of the most famous stained-glass museums, it's now on the register of National Historic Places — the first 20th-century building to ever achieve this. The house was eventually abandoned in 1956 and rescued by the University of Puerto Rico in the late 1970s; today, it serves as a museum. During a visit to Puerto Rico, I was able to walk inside and see the stained-glass windows up close. Beautiful pink, yellow and blue panels with geometric details formed the big windows. The room was mostly dark with only a soft pinkish glow showering the antique desk and the tiled floor. I imagined myself living here in the 1920s, sitting at a wooden desk, pondering and staring up at the beautiful glass for a hit of inspiration.
Luckily, the Cosmovitral Botanical Garden in Toluca, Mexico was also rescued to be enjoyed for years to come. Built in the early 1900s as a market, it functioned in this way for over sixty years until its closure in 1975 due to space limitations. Some people wanted to demolish the Art Nouveau building and replace it with a plaza or office building. But thanks to Leopoldo Flores, a local artist, the place was saved and used as a botanical garden. He designed the glass windows and ceiling to mirror the garden and the relationship between humans and nature. He named it Cosmovitral, combining the words cosmos and glass.
The stained-glass ceiling and windows inside are complemented by the more than 500 plant species housed here. Hundreds of native plants with fountains and bridges adorn the surroundings, glistening in the colorful sunbeams from above. The giant glass murals and beautiful ceiling that encases the football-field-sized greenhouse compete with the expanse of flora to capture the attention of visitors. There are over 71 stained-glass artworks, and the windows and ceiling depict several themes relating to duality, such as good and evil and night and day.
If you can, visit the garden during the spring Equinox (end of March) to see how the sun directly aligns with one of the glass windows, known as Hombre Sol (man-sun), splashing brilliant colors all over the floor and flowers.
One of the most modern — and possibly most colorful — examples of stained-glass art can be found at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. It's the result of the merging of three audiovisual archives and a museum with the mission to preserve the Dutch audiovisual heritage. The building that serves as home to this admirable institute is a literal reflection of that mission. From the outside, it almost looks like a Rubik's cube, with a stained-glass facade and atrium that could compete with the colorful ceilings and windows of ancient churches. Jaap Drupsteen and the glass company Saint-Gobain designed this work, comprising 2,244 glass panels — each with a unique design — that create a sort of "second skin" around the building. From the inside, office spaces have both stained and clear glass windows that allow the light to come in. The colorful and playful exterior make this one of the most famous stained-glass exhibits in the world, and one of the most Instagrammable spots in the Netherlands.