Cologne Cathedral Window was designed by Gerhard Richter to replace the cathedral’s original windows that were destroyed in the Second World War. Combining technology and tradition, Richter applied the principles of his color field paintings to the medium of stained glass to create an abstract composition made up of different combinations of colored squares. In this article, Singulart discusses the life and career of Gerhard Richter and takes a closer look at Cologne Cathedral Window.
Who is Gerhard Richter?
Gerhard Richter is a contemporary German artist, considered to be one of the most influential painters today due to his prolific and stylistically varied exploration of the medium which he often combines with elements of photography. Born in 1932 in Dresden during the rise of the Nazi regime, he grew up in Eastern Germany under Soviet rule where he trained as a muralist and created realistic paintings about socialist themes. His success allowed him the opportunity to travel and in 1959 he saw the documenta II exhibition in Kassel, where he came across the works of Jackson Pollock and Lucio Fontana for the first time. These two artists in particular left a lasting impression on Richter and challenged his previous perceptions of art.
Richter escaped to West Germany two months before the building of the Berlin Wall. Richter went on to study at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf alongside other celebrated artists such as Sigmar Polke. It was during this time that he began mixing the mediums photography and painting, in order to interrogate the very nature of painting. In 1962 he painted what he considers to be his first mature artwork, Table, which engages with the conflict between photography, realism and abstraction, themes which continue to influence his work. This experimentation led to the introduction of abstraction to his painting, beginning with his textured grey monochromes.
Throughout his career, Richter’s work has sold for record prices at auction. Among his influences are Caspar David Friedrich, Roy Lichtenstein, Fluxus and Art Informel. Richter has stated that he has no style, as he thinks of style as a ‘violent concept’, however his photorealist and abstract paintings are undeniably recognizable. He has also maintained a highly experimental technical approach to his artistic production, which is best exemplified in his abstract works.
The Compositional and Symbolic Elements of Cologne Cathedral Window
In 2007, the new window for the south transept of Cologne Cathedral was unveiled. Although several other artists proposed designs for this project, it was Gerhard Richter who was chosen to design the new window despite his rejection of the preferred figurative theme. Cologne Cathedral Window was commissioned to replace the original windows from 1863, which depicted secular and Christian rulers and which were destroyed in the Second World War. Over a surface of 106 square metres, Richter created an abstract composition comprising 11,500 antique, hand-blown, small squares of glass in 72 colors. Inspired by his 1974 work titled 4096 Colours, the arrangement of the squares was generated by a random number generator although the reflections and repetitions were predetermined to a certain extent and Richter also took the colors of the rest of the cathedral into account in order to create a sense of harmony with the rest of the building and with the art historical traditions.
Richter described his design stating: “I rather held myself back. I wanted the window to have something self-evident, something everyday, at least it should not be ‘colour noise’. Not too warm, not too cold, restrained, as neutral as possible.” This combination of chance and calculation created an abstract “colour-tone carpet” and unlike traditional stained glass windows, the squares are held together with silicone instead of lead, allowing for a seamless finish in which the colors interact with one another and adapt to the changes of the light throughout the day. Cologne Cathedral Window is consequently a kaleidoscopic mix of tradition and technology, something which was met with equal parts critique and celebration. It also takes into account a main theme of Richter’s work, which is the concept of perception and ways of seeing. This reflects from the work into the cathedral’s own cavernous atmosphere, intermingling with the spirituality already anchored in the space.