Stained glass consists of pieces of coloured glass that are used to make images or designs for windows or other objects through which light passes. The glass is “stained,” or coloured, by the addition of various metallic oxides while it is still in a molten state. It was popular in Roman times and is thought to have been rediscovered by German monk Theophilus in the 12th century CE.
The types of stained glass are many, including full-antique glass which is the basic material used for stained-glass windows. It is usually handmade using glass-blowing techniques. The second type resembles antique glass but has a second colour layer on top made by sandblasting or acid etching of the top layer to create designs. There is also the semi-antique or cathedral type of glass that is machine-made.
This type of art is rare in Egypt. However, one Egyptian artist has been attempting to make it better known despite barriers of various kinds.
Fatma Al-Tanani is an architect and artist specialising in stained glass who studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Architecture Department, at Cairo University. “I used to travel a lot abroad and stayed in London for a while to study and work. Then I returned to Egypt and worked in a private architectural company for 10 years, but it was a full-time job and I didn’t have that much free time until one of my friends, Suzan Al-Masri, a jewellery designer, suggested that I work with stained glass,” she said.
“I contacted professor Kamal Hammouda, who introduced me to a professor of applied arts at the faculty who, though he did not teach stained glass at that time, would sit with me on campus and teach me about working with glass. That was in 1981. After I returned from a scholarship in the US, I started working in the field,” she added.
“I started working at home at first, making Tiffany style lampshades like the stained-glass ones familiar from this firm,” Al-Tanani said. She would read books in the field and make her own designs using copper to join the glass together rather than lead.
“Then I started making windows like for the Othman buildings in Maadi for which I used Islamic motifs. They use geometrical pieces, which is typical of the Islamic style that is composed of vegetable motifs or geometrical shapes without the use of human images.”
“I did a lot of work at St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo and the Virgin Mary Church in Maadi as well, which is one of the most ancient churches in the city,” she said, adding that she also renovated the windows of St Joseph’s Church in the downtown area which has glass that dates back to the 1890s.
“In the US, I studied passive solar energy in architecture and wanted to apply my knowledge, and for this and other reasons I left my full-time job in 1987 and set up my own atelier, calling it ‘Atelier 1987’ as this was the year in which I started working for myself,” she said.
“I specialised in fused glass and organised many exhibitions. I also made glass jewellery. I organised an exhibition called Woguh men al-madina (Faces from the City), for example, in which I made faces like masks out of fused glass,” she added.
Al-Tanani explains the steps she takes while working on one of her pieces. “First, I take a look at the place in which I am to display my work, looking at the direction of the sun, where it rises and where it sets, and to get the feel of the place. I must understand the place by studying it thoroughly and seeing what kind of design I will do,” she said.
“I start measuring the place I will do my design in, and then I start making the design, not just one, but two, so that the people commissioning the work can choose which they want,” she said, adding that the designs are enlarged to a ratio of 1:1. “Then, I begin to choose the colours I want and buy the glass. We then start to cut the glass and get the lead and start putting together the glass.”
“The first design I made was for a client who owned a house in Giza that had an Arabic theme and furniture, so I designed stained-glass in an Arabic style as well,” she said.
She specialises in two types of stained glass. The first type uses ready coloured glass, and the second includes human faces which necessitates the use of metal oxides that have to be fired for longer.
“The type of glass I use for churches is ready coloured. But at St Mark’s Cathedral, the window designs were full of human faces, which meant using special oxides that had to be fired to stop the colours from fading.”
She also renovated a three-storey window at the house of the Saudi ambassador to Egypt that dated back to the 1880s using the same technique. It was made in France and featured many human faces and plants, she said.
“I had my own glass kiln at the time, and many people at the beginning of my career helped me with these technical aspects,” Al-Tanani said. Oxides had to be imported, and she remembers scouting around glass makers’ workshops for glass that was very rare.
“In the past, there was only one person working in the field of glassmaking named Haj Othman. He had the lead and the glass we needed to work with. A Jewish glass shop-owner who had everything needed to work in stained-glass, including the machine to produce the lead, left Egypt and sold his workshop to Haj Othman in the 1950s, with the result that the latter started working in the field of glass-making,” she remembered.
In the past, she would also buy recycled glass from the markets in Port Said Street that came from old windows and doors. “We were lucky that in the 1990s two ladies decided to establish a company that also manufactured glass. These two ladies made our lives much easier,” she added.
According to Al-Tanani, the closest pieces of her work to her heart are the Giza Islamic window and her work in St Mark’s Cathedral because she was the first Muslim woman to work in the Cathedral, which was something that was very important to her.
“I had to close my studio in 2012 after the revolution because for a whole year there were no customers. Before that, I used to work with almost all the hotels in Egypt from Alexandria to Nuweiba and with famous businessmen and businesswomen. But after 2011, I was paying salaries and bills without making any profit to pay them from,” she said.
“Glass became expensive as well after the floatation of the Egyptian pound, and even the company that provided us with glass closed down. A metre of glass ranged from about LE5,000 to LE10,000, depending on the type, making a stained-glass window very expensive,” she adds.
“All my customers owned villas or large flats or hotels. I either renovated or designed stained-glass windows for mosques and churches as well, because stained glass is costly,” she said.
Following the temporary disappearance of the market, Al-Tanani started to organise drawing lessons with an NGO for children with special needs for seven years until the Covid-19 pandemic started.
“I worked with the British Council and the Greater Cairo Library in Zamalek, a government-owned library, and the World Health Organisation, to name a few. I helped the nuns at the Mar Girguis Church renovate the church windows even after I stopped working by showing them how to draw human body features in the windows.”
Today, domestic stained-glass designs are in demand and are a trend in Islamic and Coptic styles, according to Al-Tanani. “At first, people would order fused-glass pieces like lamps. I also made statues out of this type of glass,” she said.
“I am currently writing an autobiography about my work and my experience as a person with a disability. I would like my book to become an inspiration to anyone with special needs to help them see that there is hope in life despite their disability,” she said.
“It is important that everyone who has a skill should make it known to people,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.