The Age of Glass

From the 1200s the West, alone among civilizations, began using glazed windows and mirrors on a wide scale as well developing lenses and spectacles.

I have been wondering what implications this unusual state of affairs may have had. (Earlier posts on glass here and here.)

Firstly, glass simply made life more convenient and satisfying. Imagine a dimly-lit interior world without glass windows, or a world in which the middle-aged have no glasses to correct their dimming eyesight. More recently, how different would the world be without glass lightbulbs.

Secondly, glass affected art. Linear perspective was invented, ca. 1425, when Filippo Brunelleschi applied the geometric rules of optical mirror reflection to painting. Mirrors were commonly used by artists to develop the skill of realistic painting.

Western art after about 1250 diverged from other art traditions. Most art was flat, lacking perspective, lacking realism. Western art moved towards realism, depth, perspective, and accuracy. Alan Macfarlane points to glass. On the demand side, Macfarlane suggests that experience of windows, mirrors, and spectacles made the patrons and customers of art want realism. On the supply side, mirrors, glass panes, and knowledge of optics enabled artists to develop techniques of realism. (Realism declined in the 20th century—but those centuries of realism stand out.)

Thirdly, glass influenced the scientific revolution. The key instruments of science were made of glass: telescope (called a “perspective tube” showing the links between optics in art and science), microscope, vacuum chamber, thermometer, barometer, and the most iconic scientific instrument of all—the test tube. For science, it was essential to see what was going on. This helps explain why the scientific revolution occurred in the West, and why it began in the age of glass.

Thanks to these major effects, I think it reasonable to say the West led the world into a new age, an age of glass.


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