While in Cologne don’t miss Gerhard Richter’s new window for the Cologne Cathedral, located next door to the Museum Ludwig. Richter’s stained-glass creation replaces the south transept window that was lost when the Cathedral was destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II. Richter’s window comprises 11,500 square panes of glass, each hand blown, giving each an uneven texture that, when the sun streams through, creates a rippling refraction that shimmers and glows across the gloomy space of the cathedral. The power of refracted light to express this extraordinary space represents a transcendence that no religion can even begin to approach.
The random placement of primary colors will be familiar to Richter admirers from the color charts that he has been doing since the 1960s. Indeed, the window is said to be based on his 4096 Colors (1974) in which 1024 sprayed enamel colors appear four times each. Where 4096 Colors captures the rhythms and movements of colors as it they pass through the spectrum in all their different combinations, the window of Cologne’s oldest building is devoted to the beauty and splendor of light as it happens to fall, at times, gracefully, and at others, dramatically, through the south window. This is color as light in its most palpable form. But remember, you must go on a sunny day!
It’s worth sitting in the northern transept for a while to watch the human traffic constantly on the move through the cathedral. The cathedral is apparently Germany’s number one tourist attraction, and this, together with its pride of place adjacent to the train station, the building functions as much as a tourist attraction and thoroughfare for people with suitcases and brief cases alike, as it does as a place of worship. There are those visitors who use it as a short cut from the surrounding old city to the train station, and others who come specifically to see the work of one of Germany’s most revered artists. The abstraction —the absence of a religious narrative — of the window stirred criticism among local officials and, in particular, the Catholic Church when it was installed. But as we know, any publicity creates intrigue. And yet, so often the tour guide needs to point out which window is, in fact, Richter’s. Tour guides, priests and fellow travellers can be seen directing the gaze of the unknowing to the object of their visit. Still other travellers are clearly not aware of the significance of the abstract window, and they walk past it altogether. Such is the subtlety and integrity of the stained-glass panes. They may be abstract and depart from the conventions of church windows, but in true Richter style, their claims are quiet and unassuming.
As I sat watching people’s responses, and reflecting on the significance of a secular window in one of the most famous religious edifices, I began to wonder what it means for Gerhard Richter to have his work in the window of one of the oldest, and Germany’s most symbolic, Gothic cathedrals? Does this identify him with the church? Does it imbue the stained-glass windows with religiosity? Is it a statement of support for the Catholic Church? And how does this window reflect on the status of Richter’s oeuvre as tourist attraction, as a commodity in the leisure industry? In keeping with the contradictions that run through all his work, these questions can’t be definitely answered. But certainly, the glorious window makes for a stirring intellectual as well as spiritual experience.
If you still have time and energy for more Richter, take the train a few stops to the industrial city of Leverkusen and see the exhibition of over painted photographs which are very much companion to the abstract paintings in the Museum Ludwig.
(Images, Cologne Cathedral.)