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Coincidence and illumination

Gerhard Richter's stained glass window opens a new chapter in the long career of the Cologne Cathedral. By Petra Kipphoff

The South Transept window of the Cologne Cathedral was inaugurated at the end of August and met with an enthusiatic reception from the feuilleton press. But the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Meisner, found Richter's abstract design better suited to a mosque or a prayer house than a cathedral. He told the local Kölner Express: "If we are to have a new window, then it should clearly reflect our beliefs, not just any old beliefs." Saints and martyrs would have been more to his liking.

All grand churches, whether St. Peter's in Rome or the Frauenkirche in Dresden, have a history; Cologne Cathedral has a career. Begun in the Middle Ages, the building stayed unfinished for centuries. Its facade remained without any real relationship to the chancel, and even after the bells were installed in 1437 the South Tower was still just a stump that - augmented by a crooked building crane - formed an eccentric urban landmark right through into the nineteenth century. Not until the Romantic rediscovery of Gothic and the Middle Ages did this torso become a magnet for patriotic yearnings and religious raptures. These - and Kaiser Wilhelm I too - we have to thank for the completion of the Gothic cathedral in its historic style, which was finally brought to an end in 1880. In this simulated perfection the cathedral became the symbol of German unification, and this is where the building's career began. Cologne Cathedral - picture-postcard-perfect World Cultural Heritage - stands beside the Rhine, the German river, and as such it has come, especially for foreigners, to be the object that is identified most with German art and culture, comparable only with Schloss Neuschwanstein.

South Transept, Cologne Cathedral. Photo courtesy Dombauarchiv Köln, Matz und Schenk.

The sharp breaks and changing expectations of the cathedral's history need to be mentioned, because it has now been enriched by a new and unexpected chapter that promises a career of a different kind: Gerhard Richter's new window for the South Transept. The credit for persuading Richter - an artist of great standing and prices to match, but also a loner who only works on his own account - to take on this work must go to the energetic cathedral architect Barbara Schock-Werner. As well as possessing the patience to gain the agreement of both artist and chapter, she also managed to coolly face down the disapproval of Cardinal Meisner, who (praise the Lord) demonstratively stayed away from the inaugural mass.

Gerhard Richter is neither a Roman Catholic nor born in Cologne. Contemporary German history brought him in 1961 from the Dresden of his birth to the Rhineland. At the Düsseldorf Academy he was first a student, from 1971 a teacher too; since 1983 he has lived in Cologne but kept a low public profile. Now he is in the thick of it in his own way, allowing neither Catholic Church nor Cologne carnival to call him their own. True to his principles he took no commission, making the windows without a fee.

Gerhard Richter design for the South Transept window of the Cologne Cathedral. © Gerhard Richter, Courtesy Dombauarchiv Köln, Matz und Schenk.

The cathedral architect's initial request came with the wish for a figurative motif. Not necessarily Joseph or the Virgin Mary, but maybe a modern martyr like Father Kolbe or Edith Stein. After a brief attempt Richter gave up the holy venture. In fact he would have returned the commission had he not accidentally, playfully, placed a template of the window's frame on a reproduction of one of his earlier colour field paintings. "I got a real shock," says Richter, "because it looked good, it was the only honest possibility."

There was more to it than meaning-resistant abstraction. The interplay of light and colour in the stained glass window also attracted Richter for its possibilities of new experience on old terrain. "The main problem of my painting is the light," he wrote back in 1964/65, by which he meant not the light of Impressionist plein-air painting but the instantaneous light of the photography that so often forms the basis for his paintings. From the early photos of family and friends to the sea and landscapes and the Baader-Meinhof cycle, light-generated photographs - preferably blurred and in the shades between grey and white - have provided the inspiration for Gerhard Richter's paintings. Only in the series of monochrome panels and the abstract works does light play no active role (here it is a matter of illumination rather than exposure). A stained-glass window, where the glass changes its coloration with the quality of the daylight, offers a new facet of this old theme that is the central issue.

Detail. Photo courtesy Dombauarchiv Köln, Matz und Schenk.

This discovery, this challenge, came by accident. And Richter responded to the coincidence with an aleatoric computer program. From the colour spectrum of traditional glass-painting he selected hand-blown glass in 72 colours. With a format of 9.7 x 9.7 centimetres this resulted in a total of 11,263 glass squares for the 19-metre-high, 106-square-metre window. For three of the six lancet windows the arrangement was determined by computer; the other three are mirrored versions of these, as is easily seen by comparing the first lancet window with the third, the second with the fifth, and the fourth with the sixth. For Richter, this planning was certainly not hocus-pocus, as is demonstrated by the accompanying exhibition at the Museum Ludwig, where Stephan Diederich has collected the "studies on proportion, on the method of random arrangement, on mirroring, and on colour matching", the early painting "4096 Colours" and the big colour field work "4900 Colours" created in connection with the planning for the cathedral window. The exhibition is important because it underlines Richter's radical refusal of any message, in the kind of neutral atmosphere that is easily lost in the cathedral - not only by virtue of the way the South Transept window itself sparkles in a kaleidoscopic cascade of colours, but also through its medieval stained glass neighbours, the sovereign royal window high up in the chancel and the wonderfully vivacious Biblical windows in St. Stephen's Chapel and the Chapel of the Three Kings.

Of course the Cologne Cathedral window occupies a special place in Richter's artistic biography. As a parallel, he himself mentions - to emphasize the difference from his other, quasi-private work - his rendering of the German black, red and gold flag for the Reichstag in Berlin. He felt that art would be out of place there, and was pleased to have created "a clever design". These windows have been immediately sacralized by representatives of the Church, but the cautious Richter prefers to neutralize here too: "I wanted to achieve what is possible using the craft and resources available and the experience in the space."

Detail. Photo courtesy Dombauarchiv Köln, Matz und Schenk.

With statements like this Richter - exactly like at the beginning of his career and parallel to his "unsharp pictures" - blurs the essence and the contours of his works. But in the case of the stained-glass windows there is a new unknown for him. Even when his paintings no longer belong to him he retains sovereignty over them, at least to the extent that their condition is not a final one. But the cathedral windows are not only taken out of his power for ever materially; through the changing light they are also in a state of permanent change over which he has no influence. That is the other, the meteorological coincidence.

So it is the very place itself, and its changing light, that makes this window into a paradigmatic work of art of the late twentieth century. Unlike the earlier pictorial narratives, figurative representations or decorative patterns, which each fitted into its respective frame, Richter's illuminated abstraction is not determined by lancet and rosette. So, just as he turns his back on narrative, with this design he also transgresses the prescribed frame, where necessary at the edges simply cutting the glass squares. Richter gaily ignores the constrictions of his stained-glass windows. And breaks the bounds once again, by outshining them: "Let there be light" (Genesis 1:3).


This article originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on September 13, 2007.

Petra Kipphoff is a freelance art critic.

Translation: Meredith Dale

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