A Bit of Window History and Appreciation

Windows help us to connect with the world on the other side of our walls. Windows add light and perspective, balance and beauty to our buildings. This bit of window history and appreciation will obviously be incomplete, since windows are old, diverse, and ubiquitous, but it will include a trip through international window history as well as a few windows portrayed in visual art. Windows exist in the context of buildings, so looking into early windows takes us into early shelters. Early humans are known to have used trees for shelter and to have built huts and enclosures out of wood and stone. To get our imaginations started, here’s a description of a 400,000 year old camp on a French beach by Ian Tattersail of Nautilus:

“one hut was about 30 feet long, and consisted of an oval palisade of saplings stuck in the ground, reinforced with a ring of stones, and presumably brought together to form a roof. Just inside a break in the ring where the doorway was, a campfire had burned in a hearth.”

Çatalhöyük is a 7000 BC Neolithic settlement discovered in southern Anatolia, wherein mud brick houses had open windows near the ceiling.  An image taken during the Çatalhöyük excavation is below.

Early doors and windows were openings in shelters that were left open or were filled with wood, woven matts, stones, marble, glass, mica, or even paper. Early art from Egypt (paintings) and Assyria (relief artworks) depict windows. Below is a 3rd century window from Queen Zenobia’s temple in Syria.

Here are windows from an ancient Cambodian temple, from the Angkorian period which began in the year 802.

With the development of early windows we look for the development of manmade glass, known to be used by the Egyptians for beads around 2700 BC. Early glass vessels from Egypt and Mesopotamia date back to around 1500 BC. Glass melting furnaces were traditionally very slow, but in the 1st century BC, Syrian craftsmen invented glass blowing.

In the first century AD, Romans used casting and blowing methods to produce irregular glass slabs. Windows were not common in earlier Greek homes because light was gained through the doorways in most rooms that opened onto a central courtyard. Archeological sites in Pompeii revealed broken glass in a bronze frame, and a similar material construction is believed to have been used in the windows of the great bath houses of Rome to preserve warmth. Windows were also commonly filled with shells and mica in this era.

Glass windows became commonplace in Early Christian and Byzantine churches, where arched windows and marble frames enclosed panes of glass, such as in the case of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (below), construction of which began in 532 AD.

In 1000 AD, Alexandria was the leading glass manufacturer in the world. In Egypt and Syria, Islamic builders used cement and wood to create intricately shaped frames with colored glass sections—these were the first iterations of stained glass. Islamic craftsmen were prolific in creating colorful and intricate glass vases as well. In the 12th and 13th centuries in Europe the marble and cement used in the colorful glass windows were replaced with lead strips called cames, which were easily moldable, allowing for pictorial designs, like the one below.

The term stained glass, KHAN Academy explains,

“derives from the silver stain that was often applied to the side of the window that would face the outside of the building. When the glass was fired, the silver stain turned a yellow color that could range from lemon to gold.”

In the Middle Ages, rectangular domestic windows which had previously been covered with lattices or grills became more commonly filled with glass. This was due to glass becoming more affordable for home use and to the invention of glass sashes. Small glass sashes could be combined with horizontal supports to create larger windows. Below is an example of a 13th century home that is still standing in France.

During the Renaissance, Italian and French windows became standardized with the familiar single transom (horizontal beam) and single mullion (vertical beam) forming a cross. In the 15th century, casements, or windows that open on hinges like doors, became common as well. Some Renaissance windows were decorated with columns and frames, and were bifora windows–opening in two parts, like these:

The French window, comprised of two large, long sashes, sometimes extending to the floor which swing inward, was developed in the late Renaissance. Here is one of my favorite artworks from 1600 which depicts the power of window light by Michelangelo Mersi da Caravaggio called The Calling of St. Matthew. The chiaroscuro, or strong light and shadow, in the work became characteristic of Caravaggio’s work and in this image is used to convey a tax collector interacting with the divine.

During the elaborate Baroque period, windows became increasingly ornamented (an example from Italy is below).

The vertical sliding sash window and double-hung windows which are still a standard in the US today were developed in England in the 17th century. In 1888 in Shiraz, Iran, the twelve years of construction that would culminate with the creation of the Nasīr al-Mulk Mosque or the “Pink Mosque” began. It is a marvel of colored glass and light.

The increasing use of metal frames that came with the Industrial Revolution brought with it windows with larger areas of glass. Large store windows were thickened to withstand wind, and soon, in the 20th century, skyscrapers used glass to cover almost their entire exterior. German architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe designed an early glass skyscraper in 1921 (below).

Here is a striking 1955 gelatin silver print from Robert Frank capturing an iconic American window scene in New Jersey.

Also in the 20th century, insulated glass called double or triple glazed glass, which contains thick layers of glass separated by air space, was introduced as an energy efficient window solution.

Zola Windows, founded by architect Florian Spencer, offer beautiful examples of contemporary energy efficient and airtight windows.


Below is a traditional domestic American window portrayed in a 1947 painting by Andrew Wyeth called, Wind From the Sea. It is one of my favorite paintings and represents, for me, much of what I love about windows and the sense of possibility and connection across boundaries that they offer.

Julia Travers

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