A Ray of Light through the Lebanese Tragedy

Mylène Vigneron

Fig. 1. Stained glass by Maya Husseini destroyed by the blast, Church St Joseph (Santa Terra church Gemmayze) (Image © Maya Husseini).

Stained glass developed in Lebanon in the nineteenth century, mainly in Latin catholic churches, as a result of French influence and connections, reflecting the cultural bond between the two countries. Sadly, many historic stained-glass windows perished during the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990. Worse still, after three decades of restoration and new work, much of the stained glass in the capital has once again been damaged or destroyed. The wider world knew little about stained glass in Lebanon until news spread of the devastating explosion that struck Beirut on the 4th August 2020, leaving the capital wounded. Many people lost everything and some tragically lost their lives. Houses, workplaces, historical monuments, nothing has been spared. Amidst the devastation, master glazier Maya Husseini witnessed the destruction of almost 30 years of her work, including at least twenty projects, within a few seconds. On the 3rd of August, she celebrated her 60th birthday, having decided that within two years she would retire. Fate has decided otherwise. Now, her help is requested more than ever to rebuild what has been lost (Fig. 1).

Maya Husseini: a female master glazier in Lebanon

Maya Husseini started her training in fine arts at the “Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts” (ALBA) in Beirut, specialising in easel painting. She has always been encouraged by her father, who was an architect. In 1985, she undertook a placement in the Ateliers Loire in Chartres, France, where she learnt traditional stained-glass techniques, such as glass cutting and leading up panels. The experience inspired her and in 1990, after the civil war ended, she opened her own studio below her father’s practice. Then, as now, it was difficult to get hold of the necessary materials. Maya obtains all of her supplies from France, apart from lead, which she now purchases from Canada. She only uses French mouth blown glass, which is very expensive, especially due to the current inflation in Lebanon. From Maya’s perspective, glass is “like gems, it is precious, and therefore every offcut is kept” (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Maya selecting glass her studio, Beirut (Image © Maya Husseini).

Fig. 3. Maya painting her recent commission for the church of the Baptism of Jesus Christ (Maghtas Jordan) (Image © Maya Husseini).

Fig. 4. Photograph of the villa Sursock before the war (Image courtesy of Maya Husseini).

Maya remains the only female master glazier in the country. It took her fifteen years to gain the trust of clients and congregations, but she has persisted in her drive to share her knowledge and experience with Lebanese people, in order to pass on the art of stained glass to the next generation. In 2005, she was among the recipients of the UNESCO Crafts Prize for the Arab States. She now has a devoted team of two employees, and is training five female apprentices, drawn from various backgrounds but united by a passion for stained glass. Within the workshop, Maya performs the intricate and delicate steps of the design and creation process, including glass cutting, and undertakes fused work and experiments in different techniques. She also works with another artist for glass painting, particularly for her recent project for the church of the Baptism of Jesus Christ (Maghtas Jordan) (Fig. 3).

Due to the civil war, many stained-glass windows in Lebanon were lost and what remained was in a derelict condition. Throughout her career, as well as creating new work, Maya has restored surviving glass and, in some cases, recreated historic schemes (Fig. 4). When restoring or recreating schemes, Maya undertakes extensive research, in order to base her work on evidence. She also maintains a close relationship with her clients, to ensure she meets their expectations.

After the civil war ended, the Maronite congregation was the first to enquire about stained glass, as they wanted to make a new start. Following this, interest in stained glass within the country increased. Maya had been asked about carrying out restoration work, but her first commission was for a 125 square metre project for new work for the Church of Our Lady of the Mont (Adma), depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The scale of the project was challenging, but Maya’s devotion and passion for stained glass enabled her to negotiate the difficulties and complete it successfully. Since then, Maya has worked on projects at over forty ecclesiastical sites in Lebanon and abroad, as well as countless private commissions.

In 1997, Maya restored the windows from the Church Saint Joseph in Antoura. The windows, dating from 1893, had been commissioned in Nîmes, France. Their condition indicates one of the many challenges faced by glass in Lebanon – due to the location of the church near the sea, the windows were covered in a layer of salt fifteen centimetres thick; they had to be removed for cleaning and re-leading.

Looking back at the projects she tackled over the years, Maya is particularly proud of her work at the Nicolas Sursock Museum. Nicolas Sursock (1875–1952) was a Lebanese art collector, who built a private villa that he bequeathed to the city of Beirut as a museum. The stained glass in place before the civil war adorned the white façade of this typical Lebanese building making it very distinctive (Fig. 5). Maya was therefore commissioned to recreate the entire glazing scheme.  For this project, Maya based her work on archive materials that she found, as well as evidence provided by the museum. She was also inspired by traditional Lebanese architecture, which led her to pick only four colours for her design: blue, red, orange and yellow. The new windows were made using mouth-blown glass from the glass manufacturer Saint Just-Saint Gobain (Verrerie de Saint Just), with whom she has been working with from the start of her career.

Another of Maya’s favourite projects was her recreation of a nineteenth-century scheme at the Saint Louis Cathedral of the Capuchins (Bab Edris). Maya undertook extensive liturgical and iconographical research to develop a design for approval by the church committee (Figs. 6, 7 8). The theme focused mainly on patron saints of the Franciscans and the Capuchin friars, working in a nineteenth-century style. Tragically, both the Sursock Museum and the Cathedral Saint Louis were all but destroyed by the pressure wave of the explosion on 4th August (Fig. 9).

Fig. 5. The Sursock Museum glowing in the evening lights, before the blast (Image © Maya Husseini).

Fig. 6. Nineteenth-century replicas of lost nineteenth-century windows, Maya Husseini, Saint Louis Cathedral, Beirut (Image © Maya Husseini).

Fig. 7. Cartoons for Saint Louis Cathedral windows, Maya Husseini (Image © Maya Husseini).


Fig. 8. The Annunciation, Maya Husseini, Saint Louis Cathedral, Beirut (Image © Maya Husseini).

Fig. 9. The Sursock Museum after the explosion (Image © Maya Husseini).

The aftermath of the explosion

Fig. 10. Recently conserved nineteenth-century stained glass windows, private house, Beirut (Image © Maya Husseini).

Fig. 11. Nineteenth-century stained glass windows after the explosion, private house, Beirut (Image © Maya Husseini).

Maya received many phone calls after the disaster happened. Her studio had been damaged by the blast and it took her sometime to organise it all again. She traversed Beirut to see what was left and was devastated to see the condition of the houses and historical monuments within the city (Figs. 10 & 11). Almost all of her work, some recently completed, has been reduced to dust, “it was like losing a piece of me” she says (Figs. 12 &13). The damage is much greater than after the civil war. Many people helped to clear out the debris. It was important to prioritise, in order to respond effectively to the situation. In some cases, Maya has recovered some fragments or sections of windows, which she plans to turn into three dimensional monuments that can act as memorial of the tragedy. Once again Maya faces the challenge of recreating what has been lost. She believes that she will succeed, with the help of her team and her commitment, but it will take some time.

Fig. 12. Private commission, Maya Husseini, 2007, private house, Beirut (Image © Maya Husseini).

Fig. 13. Private commission, Maya Husseini, 2007, reduced to shreds after the explosion (Image © Maya Husseini).

Unfortunately, due to the current economic crisis within the country, the government is not able to provide as much financial support as is necessary. Most of the funding that has already been pledged will come from abroad, for instance, from France and from international organisations. Both the Nicolas Sursork Museum and Saint Louis Cathedral are considered priorities and will be among the first of the glazing schemes that Maya will once again work to recreate and restore. Work on the Nicolas Sursork Museum is supported by the French Museums organisation (l’Association des Musées de France). The cartoons and archives that Maya kept will be essential in rebuilding what is now fragments and dust. Now, more than ever, Maya is determined to get Lebanese people involved into rebuilding their heritage.

The latest devastation has come at a time when Lebanon was already facing a massive economic crisis. This explosion is the final straw. Yet, Lebanon will rise again, supported by people like Maya, who are working with tireless devotion. It will take a long time to overcome both crisis and disaster – Maya thinks it may take more than five years “for us to get back to normal”. We can only hope that the Lebanese sun will gleam through Maya’s work again soon.

For more information about Maya’s work and fundraising to support the restoration and recreation of the damaged glass, please visit Maya’s website.

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