HAZMIYEH, Lebanon – Her hands created the gentle smile on the Virgin Mary’s face, the wrinkles in the robes of the four evangelists, and the glow that surrounds the Cherubian Baby Jesus.
In three decades of demanding work, Maya Husseini had established herself as Lebanon’s leading glass painter. Her work made the light of Mediterranean dance visible in many of the most famous churches in the country.
When she celebrated her 60th birthday on August 3, she looked forward to completing a graduation project and retiring. But Lebanon had other plans.
The next day, a huge explosion in the port of Beirut tore apart entire districts, tore up apartment buildings, killed more than 190 people and caused billions in damage. It also ripped through churches that housed Ms. Husseini’s work, reducing a dozen of her delicate tableaus to jagged shards and twisted metal.
“Thirty years of my professional life were over,” she said in an interview after the explosion in her workshop near Beirut. “Dust!”
As a result, Ms. Husseini decided that her retirement had to wait when her phone was filled with pictures sent by distraught priests and pastors who erased her work.
“I wanted to quit, but I don’t have the right to quit,” she said. “It’s inheritance. You have no right not to bring it back to the way it was. “
In a country so prone to violent shock, there has always been a risk of working in such a fragile medium.
Since the end of its 15-year civil war in 1990, Lebanon has seen political assassinations, Israeli air strikes, jihadist car bombs and the influx of more than a million refugees from neighboring Syria. All of this was before new crises ravaged downtown Beirut and fueled the economy last year.
But Ms. Husseini’s life and art had always traversed the chaos that only occasionally got into sacred spaces before the explosion in Beirut.
One of them was a church that was damaged in the 2005 car bomb attack that killed former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Their first major project, extensive stained glass in the Notre Dame du Mont church in the mountain town of Adma, was also damaged when Israel bombed a nearby television antenna during its 2006 war with the militant Hezbollah group.
But last month’s explosion, the largest explosion in Lebanon’s history, far surpassed the other blows, and the toll on their work was evident recently on a visit to their workshop outside of Beirut, where the large metal door smashed in from the impact had been. In the entrance area were the remains of broken stained glass windows from three churches and a house in the hope that they could be repaired.
Inside, an energetic woman watched Husseini as two assistants assembled the paper pattern of a large portrait of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph on the flight to Egypt. She had installed the original in Beirut’s Saint Joseph Church in 1992 and dug up the original pattern after it was destroyed in the explosion to make it all over again.
Ms. Husseini grew up in a Maronite Christian family in Beirut, where she and her four sisters attended church regularly and began drawing at the age of 12. She was 15 years old when the Lebanese Civil War broke out when a line of militias fought over lawns, scarring and dividing the city.
She studied at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts and spent two months in the field of stained glass at Ateliers Loire in Chartres, France, where the cathedral is located, which is considered by many experts to be the most beautiful stained glass in the world.
Although Lebanon has more Christians per capita than any other Arab state, stained glass windows were not common in its churches before the war, Ms. Husseini said. But after the guns fell silent in 1990, some communities wanted to add them when the country was rebuilt.
The first barrier she faced was the reluctance of male church leaders to hire a woman for what was considered physically demanding work.
“It wasn’t often that they trust you,” she said.
Her father, an engineer who built churches, monasteries, and religious schools helped her get started, and she completed her first contract in 1991 – more than 300 square feet of glass in the church in Adma with scenes from the life of Christ. The next year she made saints and a mural of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Egypt for St. Joseph’s Church in Beirut.
As her name spread, she got more jobs, and designed and manufactured stained glass for more than 35 churches and related institutions in Lebanon. She also made facades and murals for residential houses and the red, yellow and blue windows of the Sursock Museum, a private museum for contemporary art in Beirut.
In 2016 she completed one of her most important projects: 39 windows in the 150-year-old St. Louis Cathedral in downtown Beirut with the Annunciation of Mary, the birth of Jesus, the washing of the disciples’ feet, the crucifixion and the resurrection. She placed 10 angel musicians around the dome of the cathedral.
“It was a lot of work,” she said. Some parts were kilned four times for all the details.
Your process has changed little over the years. She only works with hand-blown glass and without a computer. After receiving an assignment and visiting the website to assess the light, she draws the full-size design in pencil and marker.
Each section of the drawing is given two numbers: one for its location, the other for its color. She then cuts them with special scissors and uses the pieces as a pattern to cut the glass.
Panels depicting faces and clothes are hand painted and baked in an oven to bind the color to the glass. The parts are then assembled with strips of lead, welded into a frame, and covered with mastic, a type of sealant, for protection.
Almost all shipments are imported – the glass from France and the lead from Canada – which has made it difficult for Ms. Husseini to get them, as the Lebanese currency has lost about 80 percent of its value since last year.
“Everything is from abroad,” she said. “Only the head and hands are Lebanese.”
Before the explosion, Ms. Husseini’s biggest remaining project was the jar for a new basilica in Jordan, near the site in Jordan where John the Baptist supposedly baptized Jesus. That should take two years, after which she wanted to train young Lebanese craftsmen in the craft.
Ms. Husseini was at her family’s home in the mountains above Beirut when she heard the explosion on August 4, but she did not immediately understand its size.
Her son-in-law’s grandmother was injured and rushed to hospital, and her patrons flooded her phone with heartbreaking messages and photos of her broken work drifting across the church floor. A few days later, she began visiting places where her glass once stood, and it was St. Louis Cathedral that shocked her the most. Of the 39 windows she had worked on for two years, only three remained.
“That’s when I felt the size of the disaster,” she said.
In the past few weeks she has returned to work, hiring new assistants to speed up repairs, and starting the tedious process of sourcing materials from abroad. It could take years to repair everything, and their largest projects are put on hold while communities raise money for restoration.
In Europe, the stained glass trade has traditionally been passed on from father to son, but none of her adult children are interested. Her son is doing his doctorate in Switzerland and her daughter, an interior designer, is planning to emigrate to Canada.
But Ms. Husseini hopes the repair process will teach younger artisans the craft and keep it going when she eventually retires.
“If I stopped, this work in Lebanon would stop completely,” she said. “And it would be a shame if it stopped.”