A Stained Glass in Lviv

By Yuliya KomskaMarch 15, 2022

A Stained Glass in Lviv
The bomb must have detonated at some distance, scattering a glass-shard rainbow near the armature that had once held the window together. It used to be an image that made sense: the lion, the woman, and the landscape. In that order, front to back. Almost a C.S. Lewis title. Grozed and cut after the paper sketches known as cartoons, slumped to shape in a hot kiln, painted with metal oxides, pinned down onto the blueprint with long needle-like nails, then leaded, scaled to the golden ratio, mounted. Not anymore.

Dazed, I walked over the kaleidoscopic remains as they crunched under my feet. The greens of the leaves and the grasses, the pinks of the skin, the purples of the toga folds with an embroidered blood-red border, the oranges of the lion’s mane. In my mind’s eye, I pictured how these shards must have rained down with a soft, waterfall-like rustle. Perhaps, I tried to convince myself, there had been no violent eruption of projectiles, small and sharp and multi-colored, but a gentle, slow, cinematic cascade in defiance of time and of war.

At least, I recalled dimly, I still have the original design at home. A faded watercolor artfully dissected and then assembled to look like a large arch-shaped stained-glass window on a piece of charcoal gray cardboard. Yes, its surface does have a cut — an ugly, random, squiggly cut made by a despairing hand with a too-blunt knife — but that is minor damage. And from the fainting lines and the time-bleached colors of the dummy, the whole could still be reborn, somehow, sometime. And that is when I woke up.


The blast was a dream, but the window is real. Every day since the late summer of 1992, it waits to catch just the right light in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Lviv, in the western region of Ukraine known as Galicia. And then it glows. The rays illuminate the subject, Galicia’s allegory in female form. She is one man’s post-Soviet erotic fantasy, a regional femme fatale: strong shoulders, statuesque proportions, a sparse bare breast with a purple-hued areola (the other is tastefully buried under the purple toga), gladiator sandals, luxe hair cascading like Stephanie Seymour’s in that ad for Elsève by L’Oréal, except cinched with a band, like Jane Fonda’s before a workout. A white dove of peace is perched on her right hand’s index finger. Her seat is a scowling half-tamed lion, in reference to the city’s name — “the City of Lion,” after Lev, the son of the founder, Danylo, the 13th-century King of Ruthenia and Prince of Galicia. Lev — my teen son’s namesake.

The fantasizing man was — is — my father. As I write this, I am looking at a picture of him hunched over the vast table on which his Galicia-in-the-making is laid out, still missing some glass panes, some lead, and all of the patina. He stares intensely into the camera while his right hand draws a soft brush over her lips, and his left hand almost touches her chin, as if to caress it. A Pygmalion with his Galatea.


My father belonged to a small group of stained glass restorers and artists that had formed in Lviv in the 1980s. Professional training for stained glass-makers was scarce in the Soviet Union. The most ambitious state commissions largely went to the highly skilled artisans in the Baltics, concentrated in Latvia and Lithuania. In most other places, the old artisanal guild structures of masters and apprentices, once so common, had begun to crumble already by World War II. Lviv, which had become Soviet in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Nazi Germany and the USSR, was no exception. No wonder — stained glass is a difficult medium. It requires constant cleaning and care, it traps heat poorly, it is susceptible to fashion fads, its jewel-box aura hits all the wrong notes during scarcity and privation, and its sacral undertones ring false in godless times.

Lviv’s Institute of Applied and Decorative Arts opened its glass department only in 1964, and for some years, stained glass was hardly a priority. Quietly, my father and his friends as well as nemeses taught themselves, reinvented the forgotten techniques, rigged equipment, paid elaborate bribes to procure and deliver glass and lead, and drank cup after cup of Turkish coffee, strong and sweet, in the tiny cafés around the central Rynok Square. They drank harder stuff, too, a lot of it, in their littered and poorly lit semi-basement studios, where cheap gooseneck lamps spotlighted Caravaggesque Brezhnev-era chiaroscuros. This was how you made light. This was how you made sure that its full spectrum would eventually flow through the windows of cathedrals and sumptuous art nouveau stairwells. This was how the great stained glass-making revival in Ukraine began, radiating from Lviv into Ivano-Frankivsk, Kolomyia, Kalush, Kyiv, and beyond.


My father began with restoration projects, then moved on to independent commissions, large and small, state and private. A small and long clothing store on the Rynok Square. A cafeteria in what was then the Wood Technology Institute. A hall of ceremonies at the regional energy trust. A Roma-owned kolyba — a hut-like eatery — in Bryukhovychi. And in the wild post-Soviet years, short on cash but rich in terrible taste and unbridled dreams, a prestige cosmetics manufacturer’s salon in Kyiv and an elite men’s club in Lviv.

All this glass has not left my thoughts for a second since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Very soon Lviv, though still free, still unscathed and crowded with refugees and volunteers, began wrapping its Rynok Square fountains and its anguished-looking Baroque statues. It began hauling its art into safehouses from the walls and depositories of museums and galleries. And nearly every news report about the rescue of cultural heritage mentioned stained glass from the city’s enumerable and glorious cathedrals and churches.

But it is never possible to safekeep everything. In wars, a lot is left to chance for lack of space, human power, time. Some things endure and others crumble. This is the worst-case scenario of which I would rather not think — and so it appeared in my dream or, rather, in my nightmare.

In war, mourning the loss of art, be it actual or anticipated, is not separate from mourning for the senseless disruption and destruction of human life. To live is to build, to repair, to illuminate, to leave traces in the fabric of time and space. Until an empire’s fist hits it all and smashes it to smithereens. In the face of its onslaught, human life is as fragile as the glass that bears humanity’s loving traces.


When my parents emigrated to Germany in the late 1990s, my father brought along his portfolio of cardboard dummies, their versos covered with the approving bureaucrats’ signatures. But he was never to practice his trade again. In the absence of any formal training, he would have had to start from scratch. His years of experience and resourceful reinvention counted little. In a dark moment, he grabbed the Galicia and lashed out at her with a knife. When I try to reconstruct the scene, it seems incongruously dramatic as well as piercingly melancholy — him trying to dismember the cardboard and shove it into the trash, and my mother, a trained architect and a teacher of color theory herself, ripping it out of his hands in the nick of time. Miraculously, it stayed strong.

Now, in my own dark moments, more plentiful and darker than ever before, I stare at Galicia, my father’s campy erotic fantasy whose purple toga has an embroidered Ukrainian border the color of blood. I whisper, “Stay strong, my girl. Let your lion scowl. Let those fields behind you green.” And then I hug my son, my birth city’s namesake.

LARB Contributor

Yuliya Komska is associate professor of German Studies at Dartmouth College. A native of Ukraine, Komska is the author of The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border (University of Chicago Press, 2015).


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