In Cologne, no traveler looks past the cathedral; its spires fly upward just steps from the train station, the Gothic delights of a large public space that’s otherwise stolid and boxy. Started in the 13th century but not finished until the 19th, the cathedral is full of minute modern touches that seem, at first glance, quite medieval.
Still, when I went to Cologne back in March, I didn’t expect to find a stained-glass window tuned in to such bright modern static. I took one (admittedly terrible) photo and thought to myself, “Just imagine what medieval builders might have done if they hadn’t been stuck with those 8-bit computers.”
It seems my dumb joke was more right than I knew. Designed by artist Gerhard Richter, the 65-foot window was installed only last year, and there’s a method to its pixelated madness. According to Wired, Richter
devised a mathematical formula to systematically mix permutations of the three primary colors and gray. Funny coincidence: 4,096 is also the number of “Web-smart” colors that display consistently on older computer screens, a limitation some Web designers still take into account.
Richter’s new window pops up this week in a New Yorker piece about—mirabile visu—controversial European stained glass commissions. Specifically, the contemporary design has prompted the locals to ponder the link between art and religion:
More seriously, the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, complained to a local newspaper that it “belongs equally in a mosque or another house of prayer,” adding, “If we are going to have a new window, then it should be one that reflects our faith, not just any faith.” He would seem to have a point, his doubtful reference to Islam aside. (Cologne has been roiled by plans to build a mosque for the city’s hundred and twenty thousand Muslim residents, with minarets that would share the skyline with the cathedral’s towers.)
The window does feel ecumenical . . . The literally paradoxical, if not quite heretical, results of these two projects pose a question of whether, in Christian Europe today, art on celebrated artists’ terms has risen to equality with religion or if religion has sunk to the level of mere art.
At the Kölner Dom, religion is hardly vestigial: when I visited on that gloomy March weekend, any tourists who didn’t wish to sit for prayers and a German-language homily were asked to leave for a while at noon. With its simple commingling of art and religion and framed by concerns about Islam, Richter’s window continues a medieval story; this “finished” cathedral is still being built.