Decades of stained glass artist’s work obliterated in Beirut blast

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“Twenty years of my professional life has been broken and scattered on the ground. A week after the blast, I started getting phone calls about all the stained glass and I had to go and see the damage,” Lebanese glass artist Maya Husseini shared.

The August 4 explosion at the Beirut port destroyed vast swaths of the Lebanese capital, shattering windows in many neighborhoods surrounding the port.

“I first went to Sursock Museum, then to an old house on the same street, to the Evangelist Church… until I reached the St. Louis Cathedral, where I just broke down.”

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For Husseini, who has spent 30 years designing stained glass windows in Beirut and worked on over a dozen sites affected by the blast, the fallout has been especially heartbreaking.

The explosion – caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate kept there under reportedly unsafe conditions – resulted in 181 deaths, 6,000 injuries and left hundreds of thousands of people without homes, as well as an estimated $20 billion in damages.

Many of the city’s heritage buildings, some dating as far back as the Ottoman and French mandate eras, have been absolutely devastated. While support continues to come from the international community, with both foreign governments and NGOs pledging resources and funding to assist in reconstruction efforts, the Lebanese authorities have been slow to respond to this tragedy.

The stained glass windows of the St. Louis Capuchin Cathedral that took Husseini two years to design are now gone.

“It was one of my most important works,” Husseini told Al Arabiya English. “This was where the extent of the catastrophe really got to me.”

First constructed between 1864 and 1868 by Capuchin missionaries, in the Byzantine style, and named in honor of King Louis IX of France, the cathedral is well known for its striking sandstone facades and campanile, as well as its bright, vibrant windows, depicting devotional scenes in exquisite detail.

Husseini said the glass restoration would require a minimum of five years’ work to repair all of the damage across all sites following the blast, although it could be longer, as restoring the stained glass is a painstaking process that cannot be rushed.

Even so, Husseini, aged 60, remains committed to seeing the restoration through, despite having lost almost two decades’ work in a matter of seconds.

She said that she was considering retiring after a two-year project currently underway in Jordan, but now, her plan has changed.

“I have to fix these windows. I only hope my physical strength can keep up, because my morale returned this week,” she said.

“Last week I was lost and listless, but I have some positivity now.”

After Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, many of Beirut’s churches and old houses sought to fix their stained glass windows, both because of their intrinsic value and also due to their importance in the preservation of Lebanon’s cultural heritage.

However, some of the windows have been so severely damaged by the blast that they are beyond saving. The type of glass originally used to create these pieces of art is no longer produced, meaning that every piece of glass pulverized by the explosion is impossible to truly reproduce.

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“There is one 19th century house that I once restored the windows of that can’t be returned to its former value. I can maybe save a few pieces of the original glass,” explained Husseini, “but most of it will have to be replaced with new glass.”

With Lebanon facing its worst economic crisis in its recent history and where the local currency has lost 80 percent of its value, Husseini is concerned restoration will be expensive and difficult to fund.

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The glasswork for the Sursock Museum, another of Husseini’s projects severely damaged by the blast, initially cost around 150,000 euros. Where materials need to be imported from Europe – the hand blown glass, the lead and the glass paints all coming from specialist ateliers in Belgium and France – the price of the new repairs is expected to skyrocket.

This has then been further compounded by Lebanon’s banks restricting access to money due to a shortage of US dollars, making funding – outside of fresh money entering the country from abroad – almost impossible to access.

“We’re hoping that some of the heritage aid from NGOs and such can help us in the imminent stages, or bring in the materials themselves,” said Husseini. “We can’t use local materials because the materials and techniques don’t exist in Lebanon. The workshop I order colored glass from, in France, has been doing this for 400 years.”

Previous reconstruction

The skills necessary for this kind of delicate restoration work are not taught at universities or colleges in Lebanon. Husseini specialized in stained glass restoration in France after she completed her undergraduate art studies in Lebanon. Even before the civil war, none of the stained glass being used was produced locally.

Instead, it would be shipped in, already completed, from abroad, making it relatively uncommon.

It was not until after the war that Husseini realized her skills were needed in her home country, during the ‘90s and the efforts to restore and rebuild the city center damaged by the conflict. Her father, a glass engineer himself, opened a workshop for her, from where she started creating and restoring stained glass.

It is a difficult set of skills to master, requiring both passion and patience. “You can’t worry so much about your hands,” Husseini joked. “I’ve lost count of all the cuts and scratches from the glass.”

Between having to order in materials, cutting the glass, researching and reforming the designs, and making the lead framing, Husseini said it’s too much work for one person to handle alone. Instead, Husseini plans to pass on her techniques and knowledge to others, ensuring that the craft continues into future generations.

“It’s made me think about this profession,” reflected Husseini. “My own children did not go down this path. Even if I retire, I should teach others to carry on this skill and start their own workshops one day. There are always new buildings going up that want these beautiful windows and, with all the destruction in Lebanon’s past, this is not going to be the one catastrophe that eradicates our heritage.”