THOLEY (Germany) • For Abbot Mauritius Choriol, the new church windows ceremoniously inaugurated last Saturday at Tholey Abbey are a gift: from God, from two generous patrons and from Gerhard Richter.
The three windows - with deep reds and blues prevailing on the two outer displays and the central one dominated by radiant gold - are made in stained glass to a symmetrical design by Richter, the revered German artist.
"Abstract art is not normally my thing," said the abbot, who oversees Tholey Abbey. "But you don't need to be an art expert to appreciate the qualities of these."
Since the installation was completed on Sept 10, the abbey's monks have been able to enjoy the windows in peace. But if all goes according to plan, that will change: The windows, at more than 9m tall, play a key role in the monks' plan to secure the abbey's future by turning it into a centre for hospitality and education.
Beginning next month, the abbey grounds will be open to the public six days a week. A report commissioned by the monks said the new work by Richter could attract up to 100,000 visitors by next September.
In addition to Richter's windows, the abbey commissioned Mahbuba Maqsoodi, an Afghan-German artist, to create 34 more windows for the church. Her figurative images portray saints and scenes from the Bible.
Tholey is the oldest working abbey in Germany. The first surviving document that mentions it dates from AD 634. Situated in tranquil green hills near the borders with France and Luxembourg, the abbey is home to 12 Benedictine monks who meet five times a day to pray. They also grow fruit, keep rabbits and chickens, and make quince schnapps, honey and jam.
Twelve years ago, the abbey was near to closing. The garden was a jungle, the windows were drafty, the walls were damp, and the abbot at the time was tired of his job, according to Choriol. "It was in a very sorry situation, financially and in personnel terms," he said.
Then, in 2008, a pair of wealthy benefactors stepped in. Mr and Mrs Edmund and Ursula Meiser, a local businessman and his wife, who are both committed Catholics, first offered to build a fence around the abbey's garden. They then paid for a renovation of the chapter house, built a new gate and restored a baroque pavilion on the abbey grounds.
In 2018, the monks and the Meisers turned their attention to the abbey church, whose corroded windows were "flaking away like pastry", the abbot said. They set up an anonymous competition for an artist to redesign most of them, which Maqsoodi won.
Yet the monks also wanted a work by a famous artist for the church's choir windows, a focal point behind the altar, where the morning sun shines through into the nave. Choriol said their inspiration was the cathedral windows in the nearby city of Metz, France, which are by Marc Chagall and attract thousands of visitors a year.
"But Chagall is dead," the abbot said. "So we asked, 'Who is the most famous artist in the world?' Gerhard Richter sprang to mind. We didn't think he would say yes."
A local organist, Bernhard Leonardy, wrote to Richter. In June, the artist called Leonardy and left a voicemail message. "Gerhard Richter from Cologne here," he said. "It's about the oldest monastery in Germany. It all sounds wonderful, but I am too busy and simply too old. I don't think I can do it." Then followed a 10-second pause. "Although - I would like to do it," he added.
The monks wrote to Richter expressing concern that his fee might be too high. After all, an abstract painting by Richter fetched about US$45 million at Sotheby's in London in 2015. The artist replied to say he would design the windows for free. "Not a cent," Choriol said. "We were speechless."
Richter, 88, declined to be interviewed for this article. His studio said he was not well enough. But in brief comments reported by the German press agency DPA last Wednesday, Richter said the Tholey windows might be the last entry in the official catalog of his works, which begins with the 1962 painting Table. The windows will be No. 957 in the catalogue. Short of a miracle, "that's it", DPA reported him as saying. These are not Richter's first church windows, however.
A stained-glass structure that he designed for Cologne Cathedral, containing 11,263 randomly arranged coloured squares, was met with criticism and admiration when inaugurated in 2007. Cologne's archbishop at the time, Cardinal Joachim Meisner, caused a furore when he said the abstract design with no direct reference to the Bible was "better suited to a mosque".
With their recurring patterns and intense colours, Richter's windows at Tholey Abbey resemble the design of a Persian rug. But not only has the abbey installed a window whose Eastern flair and abstract design Meisner may have considered better suited to a mosque, but it also commissioned Maqsoodi, an artist who grew up in a Muslim family.
Maqsoodi, who was granted political asylum in Germany in 1994, trained as a miniaturist in Herat, Afghanistan. "It is wonderful to find a place to exhibit that is permanent, and where the doors are always open," she said of the abbey, adding that she felt her windows complemented Richter's. "The colours," she said. "I think our works harmonise." And the main difference? "No one knows me," she said. "His name is known around the world."