Through a Glass Darkly

Stained glass in cathedrals and churches can bring a special light and aliveness into the cool quiet interiors of churches and cathedrals, as well as signalling that the people of the ‘parish’ were, at the time these artworks were commissioned, wealthy enough to pay for their design and installation.

Cologne (or Koln) Cathedral is one of the greatest Gothic churches in Europe, designed to inspire awe and wonder amongst the faithful. In 2007, some 750 years or so after the first stone was laid, a great stained-glass window measuring an immense 23 metres by 9 metres was unveiled there. Conceived by German artist Gerhardt Richter and made from 11,500 squares of hand-blown glass in 72 colours, contemplation of the window threatens to send the viewer into a kind of trance as the eye frenetically tries to find pattern amongst the seemingly random arrangement of the squares. 

The scale and audacity of the window is a testament to the confidence and wealth of Cologne. Richter is of the most prolific and talented visual artists of our time, and his design, which references the pixelated images of the digital age, strides across tradition and history into modernity. His window declares on behalf of the city fathers that ‘Cologne is still at the heart of trade in northern Europe’. Cologne Cathedral features in my forthcoming book, We are Pilgrims and is only a day’s journey from the South of England and truly worth the trip.

Closer to home is Chelmsford Cathedral. Formerly the Church of  St Mary the VirginSt Peter and St Cedd it became a cathedral almost within living memory, when the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford was created in 1914. It is a modest place, pleasing and full of light, and has some interesting stained glass, of course nothing on the scale of Cologne. But more remarkable and inspirational than these colourful biblical illustrations are the plain leaded windows of old hand-blown glass that are set into the north side of the building. These translucent but unclear panes transform the scene beyond the walls into a soft Impressionist painting of blurry brush strokes; at once sheltering the viewer from the stark reality of everyday life, and yet allowing us to consider the world outside in a wholly new light. For those looking for a day of quiet reflection, the one-day walking route linked here created by British Pilgrim Trust and the Association of English Cathedrals, offers a promising destination in Chelmsford. Its plain windows do not boast of wealth or power, but they do offer us the chance to see the world differently.

Through the window – Chelmsford Cathedral

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