Stained glass consists of sheets of stained glass used to create images or designs for windows or other objects through which light passes. Glass is “dyed” or colored by adding various metal oxides while the glass is still molten. Popular in Roman times, it is thought to have been rediscovered by the German monk Theophilus in the 12th century AD.
There are many types of stained glass, among which full antique glass is the basic material of stained glass windows. It is usually handcrafted using glass blowing techniques. The second is similar to antique glass but has a second layer of color on top, made by sandblasting or acid etching the top layer to create the design. There is also semi-antique or cathedral type machine-made glass.
This art is rare in Egypt. However, despite all the obstacles, an Egyptian artist has been trying to make it more widely known.
Fatma Al-Tanani is an architect and artist specializing in stained glass and studied architecture at Cairo University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. “I used to travel abroad a lot and spent some time in London to study and work. Then I went back to Egypt and worked for a private construction company for 10 years, but that was a full-time job until one of my friends, a jewelry designer My teacher, Suzan Al-Masri, suggested that I only have so much free time to work with stained glass,” she said.
“I contacted Professor Kamal Hammouda, who introduced me to a professor of applied arts at the college who, although he did not teach stained glass at the time, would sit with me on campus and teach me how to use glass. That was in 1981. I started working in the field after I came back from the US on a scholarship,” she added.
“I started working from home, making Tiffany-style shades, like the company’s familiar stained glass shades,” says Al-Tanani. She would read books on site and use copper instead of lead to join the glass together for her designs.
“Then I started making windows for the Othman building in Maadi, and I used Islamic patterns. They used geometric patterns, which are typical Islamic styles, consisting of plant patterns or geometric shapes, not human images.”
“I also did a lot of work on St. Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo and the Church of the Virgin Mary in Madi, which is one of the oldest churches in the city,” she said, adding that she also renovated the church of St. Joseph’s Windows The glass in the city centre dates back to the 1890s.
“In the US, I was studying passive solar energy in architecture and wanted to apply my knowledge, for this and other reasons, I quit my full-time job in 1987 and set up my own studio, called ‘Atelier 1987 ‘, because it was the year I started working for myself,” she said.
“I specialize in molten glass and have organized many exhibitions. I also do glass jewelry. I organized an exhibition called Woguh men al-madina (Face from the city), for example, I made mask-like faces out of molten glass,” she added.
Al-Tanani explains the steps she took to create one of the pieces. “First, I look at the place where I show my work, see the direction of the sun, where does it rise and where it sets, and get a feel for what the place is like. I have to understand the place by studying it thoroughly, seeing What kind of designs would I do,” she said.
“I started measuring where I was going to design, and then I started making designs, not just one, but two, so that the people who commissioned the work could choose what they wanted,” she said, adding that the designs were zoomed in to 1:1 ratio. “Then, I started picking the color I wanted and buying the glass. Then we started cutting the glass and getting the lead and started assembling the glass.”
“The first design I did was for a client who owned a house in Giza with an Arabic theme and furniture, so I also designed Arabic stained glass,” she said.
She specializes in two types of stained glass. The first uses off-the-shelf stained glass, and the second includes a human face, which requires the use of metal oxides and has to be fired longer.
“The type of glass I use for the church is off-the-shelf. But in St. Mark’s Basilica, the window design is full of human faces, which means using a special oxide that has to be fired to prevent the color from fading.”
She also used the same technique to renovate triple windows in the home of the Saudi ambassador to Egypt dating back to the 1880s. She said it was made in France and had many faces and plants on it.
“I had my own glass furnace at the time, and a lot of people helped me with these technologies early in my career,” says Al-Tanani. Oxides had to be imported, and she remembers looking for very rare glass in a glass maker’s workshop.
“In the past, there was only one guy working in glass making, named Haj Othman. He had the leadership and the glass we needed to work with. In the 1950s, a Jewish glass shop owner who had everything needed to work with stained glass, including machines to produce lead. Leaving Egypt, sold his workshop to Haj Othman, who ended up working in the field of glass making,” she recalls.
In the past, she also bought recycled glass from old windows and doors from the market on Port Said Street. “We were lucky that in the 1990s, two ladies decided to start a company that also made glass. These two ladies made our lives easier,” she added.
According to Al-Tanani, her works closest to her heart are the Islamic windows at Giza and her work at St. Mark’s Basilica, which is very important to her because she was the first Muslim woman to work in the cathedral .
“I had to close my studio after the 2012 revolution because I had no clients for a whole year. Before that, I worked with almost all hotels in Egypt, from Alexandria to Nuweiba, as well as famous businessmen and businesswomen … but after 2011, I’ve been paying wages and bills without making any profit from them,” she said.
“Glass also became expensive after the Egyptian pound surfaced and even the company that supplied us with glass went out of business. A metre of glass can range from around 5,000 to 10,000 euros depending on the type, which makes stained glass windows very Expensive,” she added.
“All my clients own villas, large apartments or hotels. I either renovate or design stained glass windows for mosques and churches, because stained glass is expensive,” she said.
With the market temporarily gone, Al-Tanani started organizing drawing classes with NGOs for children with special needs for seven years until the Covid-19 pandemic began.
“I have worked with the British Council and the Greater Cairo Library in Zamalek, the government-owned library and the World Health Organization, to name a few. Even after I stopped working, I helped the nuns at Mar Girguis Church They renovated the windows of the church and showed them how to draw human features on the windows.”
According to Al-Tanani, domestic stained glass designs are popular these days and are trending in Islamic and Coptic styles. “At first, people would order molten glass pieces like lamps. I also made statues out of this glass,” she said.
“I am currently writing an autobiography about my work and my experiences as a disabled person. I hope my book will inspire anyone with special needs and help them see that despite their disability, there is hope in life, “she says.
“It’s important that everyone with the skill makes it known,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appeared in the July 7, 2022 issue of Al-Ahram Weekly.