Intelligent Design

Hannah Dübgen on Gerhard Richter's window for the Cologne Cathedral


Left: Gerhard Richter's window. Right: The Cologne Cathedral. (Photos: Hannah Dübgen)

“I’m glad to see it wasn’t a complete failure,” remarked Gerhard Richter at the unveiling of his new stained-glass window, installed in the south transept of the famous Cologne Cathedral and the result of a long, occasionally arduous production process. Richter’s understatement was greeted with lighthearted laughter from the crowd of assorted journalists and citizenry. “We had very fruitful discussions,” confirmed the cathedral’s master builder, Barbara Schock-Werner, who also admitted that the commissioning board had originally favored a more traditional representation of twentieth-century Christian martyrs. But when Richter’s abstract window design, a grid comprising 11,263 colored squares drawn from a palette of seventy-two different colors, was uncovered last Saturday, five years after the work’s conception, everyone present seemed more than merely satisfied—they seemed thrilled.

Appropriately, given the ecclesiastical setting, praise abounded. “The new window looks fantastic. The bright summer sunlight shining through it illuminates an overwhelming magnitude of colors!” enthused Cologne’s mayor, Fritz Schramma. “Richter’s composition is itself a symphony of light that reveals the beauty and inconceivable order of God’s creation and relates sensitively to the cathedral’s architecture,” added prelate Josef Sauberborn during the consecration service. The art world hasn’t been gathered in such unequivocal worship since Olafur Eliasson revealed his similarly scaled “divine intervention” at Tate Modern in 2003.

It is indeed a major achievement that the new window—a gift of the artist to the city of Cologne, where he’s resided for nearly twenty-five years—manages to look decidedly modern while maintaining harmony with the building’s thirteenth-century Gothic architecture. The original window was destroyed by bombs during World War II and was replaced in the early 1950s by a clear glass pane. Merging ornament and geometry, the composition of Richter’s replacement is, as the artist explains it, the result of a combination of “chance and control.” After selecting the palette, Richter used a computer to randomly generate the color arrangement for one half of the window, making the other half a mirror image of the first. (Though, apparently, he experimented with several different modes of reflection.) The resultant pattern gives an impression of cheerful opulence, a deliberately organized chaos.

To place the window within the broader context of Richter’s work, the Museum Ludwig organized a small accompanying exhibition. The museum, which sits kitty-corner from the cathedral, features two paintings and some drawings that demonstrate Richter’s long-term engagement with seriality: 4,900 Colors, a large work that he created following his design for the cathedral, and 4,096 Colors, 1974, a key inspiration for the window.

On Sunday, the festivities culminated with a free concert featuring pieces by Philip Glass and Morton Feldman in the city’s famous music hall the Philharmonie, attended by such art-world luminaries as Kasper König; the performance continued with a John Cage number just below the new window. And when the sun set at the end of this summery weekend, many people remained standing on the square in front of the cathedral, gazing at “their” new window, their faces lit with pride and joy. Or perhaps it was simply the flush of too much consecrated wine. “Our cathedral will never be finished—it is an eternal construction site,” is a well-known saying among Cologne citizens, who also like to predict that the renovations will end when the world does. Who knows? Perhaps contemporary art will augur the apocalypse yet.