Dr. Katharina Schmidt, Deputy Chair of the Roswitha Haftmann Foundation

Laudatio for Sigmar Polke on the occasion of the Award of the Roswitha Haftmann Prize 2010 on 29 April at the Kunsthaus Zürich

A Path towards Sigmar Polke’s Church Windows
Images in Stone, Glass, and Light

When asked why he was interested in painting on transparent silk, on diaphanous fabrics, Sigmar Polke replied that he knew all about stained-glass painters—St. Luke had taught him everything about it.1 With this charming quip, which granted him cover behind the patron saint of painters and evasion into legend, the artist once again pointed the viewer towards his own path of seeking and looking.
In physics, transparency (adj. transparent, from Latin trans—through—parere to show) is defined, in simple terms, as the property of certain materials to allow for the passage of electromagnetic waves (i.e. light). In everyday life, it is commonly understood to mean a material’s ability to let light almost entirely shine through it, as in the case with glass. Yet not even pure translucency will guarantee the flawless passage of an image or a gaze. For just the slightest rough surface or particles inside the intermediate material will diffuse the light and impede the clear transmission of objects on the other side. Further optical properties such as reflectivity and absorption also determine whether a substance is transparent, translucent, or opaque. Translucency describes materials that are only partially permeable to light, allowing the human eye to discern little more than darker or lighter patches of what is located behind them. Such materials reflect the light striking them not only on the surface but also from deeper layers.2
The degree to which Sigmar Polke attaches fundamental importance to this complex interplay of light, material, and perception is manifested in the titles of several series of his work such as Transparent, Laterna Magica, Amber Paintings, and Lens Paintings. And even where this is not the case, he employs a plethora of optical effects and visual phenomena that point in this direction. Brilliance and fluorescence, diaphaneity and dullness, moiré, luminescence, iridescence, or sheer transparency—such terms only hint at the wealth of experience many of these pictures have in store for the eye. Yet the different attributes of Polke’s media should not distract from his primary concern of exploring “transparency” in a metaphorical sense. With a penetrating, inquiring mind, he targets all that is too easily seen through and that which is not seen through at all; he scrutinizes clarity and opacity, inspects the obvious and the disregarded, peers at the surface and into the depths. He is unremittingly interested in both facets, in the either as well as the or, in the simultaneous possibility of opposites.
In the 1960s and early 1970s Sigmar Polke soon developed a style of his own, unshackled by convention, which enabled him to explore and transmute the full visual spectrum of everyday culture with evocative gestural markings, blotches, traces, and drips. For him, all means were legitimate if they allowed him to superimpose, weave together, or intermingle motifs and multifaceted quotations of words and images on top of the farraginous patterns of the textiles that came to replace canvas. The more dense and delirious their layering, the more urgently they challenge us to keep our eyes trained to them, to seek and to question correspondences. Observing pictures means diving inside and sounding their fluctuating and frequently fathomless spaces; they also never cease to captivate us with their charms.
Polke’s dot-screen paintings—the consequence of his rarely interrupted preoccupation with halftone textures—also induce the eye to explore the underlying ground, which between the enlarged dots glares with emptiness. The reality feigned by images that are simulated by dots and pixels is unmasked as illusion, thus revealing the limits of perception and of the extent to which it is shaped by pattern.
When Polke’s interest in the early 1980s turned to color, nature, and its materials, he investigated minerals, metals, pigments, and ancient formulae, the states of dampness and dryness, of fluidity and solidity. He mixed, cooked, brewed, grated, powdered, heated, and allowed materials to cool down again. Hermeticism and alchemy draw attention to substances and the ceaseless transformation inherent in all things. Luster and reflections impede our visual access to the images, to nocturnally iridescent spaces, or to realms cast in dawning light. Translucent, glinting or dull—in the course of being poured in numerous coats over the large canvases, the yellow-tinged synthetic resin evolves into open terrain, unbounded on all sides. Only by shifting perspective can the viewer gradually find a way inside. The painter prizes the quick gaze, yet he waylays fleeting scrutiny with traps. Constantly changing hydro- and thermo-sensitive images are enticements to return.
To achieve greater transparency, both in physical and methodological terms, since around 1988 Polke has chosen to work on translucent supports: polyester fabric soaked in resin.3 The fabric also renders the lattice stretcher visible, integrating it as a component of the painting’s composition and pictorial idea. The motifs are now derived increasingly from the history of art and culture and executed with graphic linearity, free-flowing gestures, or in halftone dots; they complement one another against the pellucid ground, as if they were meant to be conserved. Discoveries from the world of myth—phantasmagoria and curiosities—also crop up, yet alongside them contemporary events retain their virulence. The more the works manifest their texture, even if just creating a clear view of the bare wall behind them, the more fragile they appear to be. The resplendently colored Lens Paintings overlaid with vertically raked lenticular screens4 once again dramatically raise questions about how we see, what we perceive, and how much the viewer is, in fact, part of the picture. Depending on one’s angle of vision, what one sees always appears to be different, whether plausible or grotesque, since the refraction caused by the grooved screen and the varying thickness of the lenticular surface create distortions and mutations.5 A wholly meaningful view of the image can only be gained from certain perspectives.

The Commission for the Grossmünster in Zürich

The task set by the Grossmünster in Zürich was to design all the windows in the church aisles. Rather than adopting a stylistically uniform solution, Polke opted to create a dichotomy by treating the five same-sized windows to the east of the two portals (two at the northern and three at the southern end) with figurative images based on themes from the Old Testament, while giving the other seven abstract designs. This idea provided a certain degree of homogeneity in the rear section of the church with its various types of window, which seemed to call for a counterweight to the deeply resonant colors of the windows in the chancel by Augusto Giacometti, as well as offering the possibility of union in a spiritual sense.

The Agate Windows

Polke’s extraordinary choice of agate for the panes produced unique results.Treasured like alabaster since antiquity, this resilient gemstone had never been used in this way.6 In 1986, making reference to the cosmos and geology, Polke had already incorporated a meteor and a crystal into his concept for the Venice Biennale7; later he exhibited gold and a block of jade8, as well as combining rare amber objects with his Amber Paintings. The idea came to him when he noticed a pronounced similarity between the cosmos pictured as a disc in an illuminated manuscript and a slice of agate. The frontispiece of the Viennese Bible moralisée9 shows the Creator with a compass shaping the universe represented by the medieval illuminator as a series of concentric circles. With the earth at the center, celestial bodies rotate against a nocturnal backdrop, while water and air revolve around these in rippling pale green and bluish-white seams.10
Anyone entering the Grossmünster through the northern portal and turning around to behold the interior will be taken by surprise. For, above the door’s lintel, where, from the outside, no more than a slight, gentle pattern had been discernible, one is now stunned by the sight of a scintillating image, an intense interplay of colors in brilliant arrangement. Only on closer inspection of this assembly of blue, green, and a purple outshone by bright red, of brown, beige, and gray, does one begin to recognize the composition, its order and symmetry. The upright central division bar in the semi-circle of the former tympanum11 acts as a mirror axis for the round and oval sheets of agate. From the middle of the base loosely ordered rows fan outwards, reds in pairs compete with green sequences, glisteningly white crystals puncture pools of cobalt blue. Some of the stone slices owe their vivid color to artificial treatment; since the stones’ contours barely appear to have been straightened for fitting into the lead cames that hold them in place, one could almost imagine them to be part of a naturally found conglomerate. The presence of two oversized, somber, blackish slices of agate obliquely peering out through this bed of color transforms the whole into a stony gaze cast by a hundred thousand eyes. A demon. Is it protecting the exit? Or standing guard over the entrance?
None of the other agate windows makes an impact quite as strong as this, but each one exudes magic of its own. The narrow slits set inside the deep embrasures of the tower façade’s thick stone walls allow for almost no other solution than an ascending sequence of rounded forms. Whereas the bright red in the northern window and the intense blue in the southern window echo the color of the Apostles’ gowns in the nineteenth-century windows in the nave, the remaining windows are dominated by the natural tones of different agate varieties, accentuated by the occasional synthetically pigmented blue specimen. Altogether, with their variously regular/irregular structure, Polke’s agate windows are clasped within the masonry like a precious mosaic, sealing it as if the massive stonework itself had transformed into luminescent matter. Indeed, the agate almonds are translucent only when sliced very thinly; their diaphanous crystalline layers refract and filter the light. They thus glow as if emanating from the depths of time, radiantly manifesting their primeval substance.

Son of Man

Unlike the agate windows, the figurative motifs from the Old Testament are designed in glass and full of light. The contrast of the first of these, titled Son of Man, to the closest agate window could not be more abrupt. The window is conceivably a reference to the second day of Creation when light was divided from darkness.12 Here the image is defined by the stark opposition of black and white with rare passages of intermediary gray. Human beings are invoked in the form of life-size facial profiles.13 Four lateral bars divide the lancet window into eight rectangular fields, in each of which Polke has repeated the reversible figures of so-called Rubin’s Vases14; in their vertical sequence down the center of the window they form a column of Janus heads.
Rubin’s reversible image is created by the entirely flat representation of seamlessly matching contours of facial silhouettes and vases or goblets, allowing one to perceive them either as figures or as ground. But they cannot both be perceived simultaneously: if one concentrates on the heads the goblets will turn into an empty background, and vice versa. In this window the focus is on this alternating either/or, on ambiguity, on the moment of uncertainty. The silhouettes, having first been electronically modified and de-individualized, equivalent perhaps to the four basic types from the doctrine of humors, determine the shape of the eight goblets: the elegantly sculpted tazza at the top, the sturdy trophies and chalices in the middle, and at the bottom the spindly and somewhat flawed, lopsided specimen—almost a reject. Polke’s view of the Son of Man is evidently tied to his idea of the “human subject per se” or “all humanity”—as portrayed in halftone dots in his work Menschenmenge (Crowd, 1969)15, in which the figures stare expectantly and stonily upwards, as an oppressive mass. In some of the panels, the heads appear to be steadily approaching each other, only to draw back as the radiant cup with its wondrous aura surges between them. This pulsating phenomenon has a mesmerizing effect on the viewer. Created by tracing the contours in fine layers of black vitreous paint, it never ceases to disturb and fascinate. The human image remains ambivalent and essentially somber, a vision from which the artist does not omit himself. Nonetheless, the window shines in “white brightness”16 since the scattered light from the profiles and the goblets emits a diffuse, somewhat dulled luminosity, while in the threshold areas diaphanous black glazes stand out with engraved precision from the white, or merge into the dark areas.
In the arch of the window, Polke inverts the constellation. Here, borne on beams of light, a shadowy, delicately contoured chalice floats on a bright ground. The suggestion of a slightly lowered perspective adds to the cup’s spectral aura. In Zwingli’s house of worship the painter adds a deeper metaphorical sense to this more settled culmination by alluding to the participation of all people in the shared symbolic rite of receiving from the eucharistic chalice. Yet the window’s disconcerting impact on our perception reminds us that these signs remain ambivalent, affording a glimpse of an eternally elusive mystery.

Elijah the Prophet

In the neighboring window, dedicated to the departure of the prophet Elijah,17 the central motif stands out distinctly against the background. Polke adopted the decoratively illuminated initial P from a French twelfth-century illustrated Bible which depicts the prophet’s tumultuous ascension up to heaven in a chariot of fire.18 In the ornamentally rendered circle of the initial, one can make out Elijah in a war chariot. The shaft is pointing upwards, two horses are stamping with burning hoofs, everything is ablaze in primary colors of yellow, red, blue, and green; even the spokes of the wheel are flickering with fire like burning blossoms. With white hair and beard, Elijah is passing his mantle with his right hand to Elisha. Entangled in the arabesque foliage wound around the upright bar of the P, Elisha’s outstretched arm grasps the token of the prophet’s gift; with this he is assured of the “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit.
Polke shortens the exaggerated tail of the initial’s descender as far as the figure of Elisha, and mounts it in a lead came to give it an emphatically heavy contour, as though this extraordinary event needed to be preserved within the letter. Magnifying the letter to fill the breadth of the window, he places it at the center so that the vast P appears to be floating in the sky. The division bars play a relatively minor role, whereas the circular forms at the top of the window echo the rotating, ascending movement of the chariot wheel in the Elijah medallion.
Compact and bright, the window is made of thick glass, both in the initial and its surroundings. The coloring for the black-and-white copy of the page from the Bible is entirely of Polke’s making. Echoing the brush strokes in the original miniature, the blazing activity staged inside the letter P consists of colored glass strips, coruscating as if it had just burst into flame, while Elisha withdraws into the earthly shades of indigo violet, green, and black. The surrounding surface is covered with a mosaic of vitreous pebbles. From the bottom upwards they gradually grow paler, as aleatorically quickening moments of red and pink intermingle with clear blue, joined here and there by green and, near the P, a somber violet; beneath the arch, spots of golden yellow and light red appear to open up the heavens. Each hue was individually produced, each element melted into a plano-convex lens and set in a white mount, also made of glass. In sunlight this creates a unique effect: the entire sky is mirrored in each single domed surface and, as though charged with energy, the air carries Elijah far aloft into another world.
Polke’s interest in supernatural phenomena and anything that poses as such has invariably been marked by ironic and irreverent curiosity. Levitation of all kinds, even involving his own body, has constantly intrigued him. In Sternenhimmeltuch (Starry Heavens Cloth, 1968)19 he discovered his own name inscribed by celestial bodies in the cosmos, displaced into the firmament as was so often the lot of heroes and their victims in ancient mythology. Can the prophet, the visionary, be read as a synonym for the artist? The dramatic moment of valediction and mourning that also resonates in this window ultimately appears to be suspended, inverted into a mood of wonderful serenity and hope. Elisha will assume the goatskin mantle of Elijah and with it wondrously divide the waters of the River Jordan.

King David

Although the Bible later makes no further mention of the harp-playing with which the young shepherd, David, dispelled King Saul’s evil spirits, the image of the priest-king as a musician and poet still predominates in Christian iconography. In the ecclesiastical thinking of the Middle Ages he played an eminent and exemplary role as the direct predecessor of Christ, as one of the just persons in the Old Covenant, as the psalmist, and Old Testament prefiguration of the Messiah. The musically gifted psalmist stood at the forefront and was frequently depicted as author/composer in psalm books.20
The Biblical figure occupies the entire surface of the window in larger-than-life dimensions, its significance emphatically asserted through its monumentality. David sits enthroned in the pose of a sovereign.21 Angled slightly to the right, he clearly gestures with his hand in the same direction, yet what he is pointing at remains obscured.22 His arm itself is partially masked behind the dazzlingly white, appliquéd instrument. The impression created by the king’s foot cushion set at an angle to and abutting the lower edge of the embrasure is that he, whom God would not permit to build a temple, seems to have been dispelled into a kind of antechamber on the far side of the crossed black division bars. Besides the light areas denoting face and hands, his royal attire—the decorative armilla, a magnificently hemmed robe, the embroidered shoes, the cloak draped in sumptuous folds over the knee—introduces white accents textured with black glass- paint stain hatching into the monochromatic green image. The glass in the window, produced especially in this bright but saturated green hue, consists of unusually large individual forms.
That the painter was not concerned with presenting an idealized image of David—the Bible similarly creates the impression of a contradictory figure—is evident from the expression on his face. As though he were peering somberly through a peephole, camouflaged in the green expanse beneath the arch, his head emerges within the disc of the roundel; a thickly bearded warrior with long hair, the instigator and hero of countless battles who finds no peace from his pursuers yet spares them nonetheless. In lieu of a crown he is wearing a cap and cockade; his eyes are screened by small round discs, his gaze concealed behind them.
Can this image be interpreted in any other way? As the “green pastures” of the psalmist, perhaps?23 The supple linear contours within the drawing bring to mind fertile plots of land, lush grass-covered hills, rugged gullies descending onto blue streams. That the same channels circumscribing the monarch’s head shimmer red, even if almost indiscernibly so, is unsettling but it also fits the picture.
As one of the oldest known musical instruments, the harp has been attributed magical and healing powers since time immemorial. It is as prevalent in Nordic myth as in the grotesque depictions of animals in the Middle Ages. In Polke’s David window it is rendered in a Celtic form and defines the center of the composition; yet its addition seems remarkably alien, a flat and white intrusion. Is it meant to disrupt? Or to allude to a different reality? The contours of David’s figure shine through the stylistically discordant instrument as fine fissures. Age? Deterioration? The flat monochrome areas of green signal the king as the bearer of hope for promised glory, proclaim the psalmist as the guarantor of art. Precisely this vision of him is accentuated by his timelessly stylized attribute, the harp. While supported by David’s body, it looms forward through the division bars, a white and decisive presence.

The Sacrifice of Isaac

The monumentality of King David is followed by a shift towards a relatively detailed composition, again with the lancet window divided into eight fields of equal size, of which the lower four, the top four, and the panels beneath the arch constitute three distinct compositional units. From a simultaneous narrative illustration of the biblical account,24 which was available to Polke in black-and-white reproduction, the artist selected several salient details, reworking them into ornamental designs. In the four lower panes he has set two motifs in a criss-cross arrangement: bottom left and diagonally opposite are two rams in red silhouette standing on a pink ground,25 each facing inward towards the center; shaped in enamel and still embedded in underbrush, the body of each ram shimmers with a bluish hue. The animal’s duplication is a reference to Leviticus 16:5–28, where it is claimed that for the ceremony of atonement Aaron should sacrifice two goats as offerings, one to the Lord and the other to the demon of the desert, Azazel. The other motif, positioned bottom right and diagonally opposite, makes a brutal impact. Polke has isolated Abraham’s arm and hand, with which he has seized Isaac by the hair, mirroring and inverting them to create two sets of hands clutching two helpless heads. Due to the small spherical lenses used to model the figurative elements,26 embossed almost like a bas-relief, the refracted light creates a troubled surface in keeping with the dramatic subject. The purple hue of Abraham’s sleeve complements the dark green of Isaac’s tunic, while his yellowish hair and white face shimmer wanly alongside the blood red of the ram—sacrificial victims both. Similar to a windmill, the images rotate before our eyes, a perpetuum mobile of violence. Thus Polke extracts key motifs from a mythological narrative and its illustration in order to lay bare the quintessential core through a process of ornamental concretion.
For all their compositional elegance, the four central panes simply intensify this impression of violence. Abraham’s figure in three-quarter profile with a drawn and shortened sword is mirrored along the diagonal axis of each pane so that—in allusion to the promised number of his progeny—he is reproduced eight times. He is confronted with himself four times over. The blades of his weapon mutually block one another and fuse the supple physique of the old man into a single filigree ornament resembling a Greek crucifix; the design’s negative forms also complement one other to produce a cross and rosette. This strangely exquisite emblem, a blend of a wheel and a cross molded in delicately hued enamel, occupies the entire surface of the four panes. The dark patterns that decorate the pale lavender of Abraham’s gown lend the curvaceous dynamic forms further momentum27 and reinforce their presence against the uniformly light background. The two semi-circular panes crowning this motif are filled with an abstract, cloudy pattern of swirling tones, blue, gray, and violet, while in the round, uppermost pane beneath the arch the head and wings of the angelic herald have been multiplied to form a St. Andrew’s Cross, clasped on either side by pale green pendentive-shaped forms—a somewhat placid conclusion perhaps, but remote and not easily deciphered.
Polke engages in a loose treatment of the biblical narrative. Sparse means such as quotation, repetition, mirroring, and his innovative use of glass-making techniques suffice to effect a gradual transition towards more abstract forms, coupled with a shift of signification into a timeless, universal dimension, thereby conveying a powerful impression of the eloquence and complexity of ornamental symbolism.

The Scapegoat

Polke has dedicated the fifth figurative window to the Scapegoat.28 The figure of the ram already depicted in Isaac’s sacrificial ceremony that was based on the full-page miniature from Aelfric’s Paraphrase29 is now repeated and shown to best advantage in a different context. One sees a lissom creature with white shaggy fleece, graceful legs, and sure-footed hoofs. Here Polke has used his characteristic technique of colored halftone dots to model and accentuate the contours through painting.30 The simultaneous narrative representation assembling different temporal strands is based on the scene in the medieval miniature relating the scapegoat’s dispatch into the wilderness. The two-tier lateral division of the slender window enables the creature to be magnified to imposing dimensions. In the lower section one sees the animal’s hindquarters as far as the shoulder, trotting from right to left over uneven, verdant ground and wrapped around by a vine, thereby introducing the theme of flora. On the upper tier, as if in the meantime it had ascended a distant plateau, the animal’s forequarters enter the picture from the left. Its hoofs are still standing on fertile green ground, from where a spiral of foliage curls up towards the goat’s head; yet the scene is cast in the pale pink hues of the desert’s dazzling light; everything is irradiated by the white sun which, like its alchemical symbol31, is surrounded by a halo.32 The animal, with amber tusks, appears calm and unperturbed;33 there is a knowing quality in its anthropomorphic gaze; a damson red tear hangs from its cheek. Polke has bestowed this innocent creature with the most exquisite jewelry since the burden borne by the goat is clearly visible. Here, too, the painter has chosen precious stones and worked them into the glass, strewing the animal with glittering slices of tourmaline as if the conglomerate of the deplorable load on its body had wondrously metamorphosed. No other mineral displays such a plethora of color as the rare crystal tourmaline.34 Among crystals it is distinguished by a number of exceptional features. In Arabic tradition it is considered the stone of the sun and credited with healing powers. Polke has distributed eighteen differently sized discs, mainly on the animal. A few smaller ones are speckled over the plants. A red heart is hovering below, somewhere between hoof and foliage. Predominant are the large rubellites, slices of red, pink, and mauve adorning the goat’s forehead, neck, and breast, with darker gems spread across the back, the torso, and hind legs. Almost all of them, even the smaller, pale green and pink discs and the yellow and brown ones, harbor the central triangle of tourmaline accumulated in exact layers around the core; especially radiant is the largest tourmaline disc as light floods through the prism of its triple-winged column.35 Polke exalts his motif with the precious stones, as well as the glass in which he has assembled them. Here too, on the margins of the wilderness, he enlists them to evoke geological time, lending visual expression to the beauty and profusion of natural color and nature’s creative powers, as well as to the fascinating composition of crystals, the dignity of the animal, and the enigmatic movement of plants. They gleam in the white light of the sun and are exposed to mortal danger. It is, so it seems, no accident that this window bears the artist’s signature for all twelve of them: “Gestaltung Sigmar Polke / Glasmalerei Mäder / Zürich / 2009.”36
The impression made by these church windows has a lasting effect. They convey an idea of how perceptively the artist has responded to the site and the situation, yet never leaving us in any doubt about the magic and the natural lightness and elegance of his art. Transparency and translucency are crucial factors in this, as are his powers of invention and flexibility that never cease to surprise. Here, in a place where the function of the windows and the unusual artistic materials of glass, agate, and tourmaline provide entirely different conditions to those of, on the whole, artificially lit exhibition spaces, natural light37 permeates the works in tune with the changing seasons and times of day, making their images visible, and setting constantly shifting accents. The volatile moods of meteorology, clear and overcast skies, and passing clouds all contribute to the windows’ appearance, which is animated, timeless, and tranquil by turns. An evening stroll across the square and around the church when lights are burning inside is a stunning sight. This is when these images reveal themselves from the other side. The precious stones dazzle with exquisite gleam; the figures—the king, the prophet, the wondrous animal — emerge as mysterious apparitions.
The uncommon openness in Polke’s art, an expression of his particular alertness to the world, has led him here to choose several separate subjects rather than a single complete theme, and to treat these according to a wide range of creative principles. Numerous references relating to the history and specific nature of different genres of painting emerge: seeing, appearance, and perception are examined and challenged. The eye-like agate discs convey a sense of being looked back at. All these aspects transpire as part of a concept that explores the possibilities of contemporary painting from a variety of angles and always incorporates the viewer. Here his gaze does not attempt to penetrate depth nor seek access to concealed, obscured layers; it examines instead what approaches us in the light and what comes to the fore “from the very base.”
The spiritual space that appears in these window images has a very broad time horizon. The crystalline strata within the agate bring alive the primordial geological era of the first days of Creation. All the figural motifs derive from the Old Testament and relate typologically to Christian notions of the Messiah, whose epiphany finds expression in the windows by Augusto Giacometti in the chancel. Linked to each concept and each figure chosen by Polke is a further biblical story, opening up an arc which stretches from mythical accounts of the world’s inception to historical time, from oral tradition to the words and images that keep alive and lend visual presence to these stories. By selecting medieval miniatures as models for his motifs, Sigmar Polke references imagery from the period when the Grossmünster was built. But for his source material he turns to xeroxed reproductions of photographs of the miniatures, which in turn were shaped by iconographic tradition. He highlights telling details, imbues them with new color, substance, and dimensions. On the one hand, they have been preserved; on the other, they are subject, in their new context, to reinterpretation and adjusted to the context’s pictorial significance—of which they themselves are constitutive parts. In lieu of a chronological sequence and linear narration, Polke turns to simultaneity and isolated depictions. Although the windows function as a single, inherently consistent artistic ensemble, they also underscore the possibility of individual interpretation and the autonomy of each image. These are never conclusive or unequivocal, and their symbolic potential remains inexhaustible. They lay themselves open to contradictions and conflict, to illusion and wonder, to good faith, severity, and healing, to the beauty of the earth and the dignity of living things. These are images one can constantly return to and repeatedly interrogate.

1 Paul Groot, “Sigmar Polke, Impervious to Facile Interpretations. Polke wants to Reinstate the Mystery of Painting” in: Flash Art, 140, May–June, 1988, pp. 66–68. Cf. also: G. Roger Denson, “The Gospel of Translucence according to Polke” in: Parkett, 30, 1991, pp. 109–114. Sigmar Polke began his art training with an apprenticeship in stained glass at the glassmakers Derix in Düsseldorf-Kaiserswerth in 1959–1960.
2 Since the term translucency/translucent is not common currency in everyday German, the word transparency is used to denote both phenomena.
3 The translucency results from the different way in which the resin-soaked fabric reflects and transmits light waves through the material.
4 Polke makes these lenticular screens himself using an elaborate procedure.
5 Cf. Charles W. Haxthausen, “Space Explorations – Sigmar Polke’s ‘Lens Paintings’” in: Wunder von Siegen/Miracle of Siegen, exh. cat. Siegen, 2007 (Cologne: DuMont Buchverlag, 2008), pp. 44–51.
6 The stone was named agate by Theophrastus of Eressos (c. 371–287 BC) because it occurred in abundance along the river Achates in Sicily, but it was already being used in ancient Egypt to make signets, jewelry, and small vessels. It is mentioned in the Bible in Exodus 28:17–21. In addition to the gemstones amethyst and jacinth, it was supposed to embellish the breastplate of the priest. In antiquity agate was used to make precious ornaments; it found particularly beautiful application in the decorative art of pietra dura in the Renaissance.
7 Sigmar Polke, “Athanor,” 42nd Venice Biennale, German Pavilion, 1986, curated by Dirk Stemmler.
8 Example: Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco, November 1990–January 1991.
9 Bible moralisée, Codex Vindobonensis 2554, from the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna, title page 1, folio I v; the book is dated to approximately the same period as the construction of the Grossmünster in Zürich.
10 Agate is a microcrystalline variety of quartz that accrues in numerous layers through rhythmical crystallization as it turns into characteristically almond-shaped nodules in a constant process of lining or filling out cavities—frequently vapor vesicles entrapped in cooled lava—during which all manner of glittering white, roughly shaped crystals are formed. In its natural form agate on the whole exhibits bluish, beige, brown, orange, and green hues, yet never cobalt blue, magenta, purple, or pink, which, especially in view of requirements for jewelry and ornaments, resulted in the development of methods to synthetically color agate through “burning” and chemical baths.
11 The tympanum was removed and replaced by glass in 1766 when the windows were enlarged.
12 Bible moralisée (see note 9), 2 folio I, medallion in the upper line on the left.
13 They appear so, but are in fact larger than life.
14 The figure/ground illusion named after the Danish psychologist Edgar Rubin, 1886–1951.
15 Sigmar Polke, Menschenmenge, 1969, dispersion paint on canvas, 180 x 195 cm, Kunstmuseum Bonn.
16 Wolfgang Schöne, Das Licht in der Malerei (Berlin: Verlag Gebrüder Mann, 1954, 4th edition), p. 203: “weisse Helle.”
17 2 Kings 2:9–13: “And so it was, when they had crossed over, that EIijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?’ Elisha said, ‘Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.’ So he said, ‘You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.’ Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, ‘My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!’ So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. He also took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood by the bank of Jordan.”
See also: 1 Kings 19:16: “…And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place.”; and 1 Kings 19:21: “…Then he arose and followed Elijah, and became his servant.” 
18 P, “Ascension of Elijah,” Sens Bible, 452 x 290 mm, Sens, Bibl. Mun. 1. folio 163 v; reproduced in: Walter Cahn, Romanesque Manuscripts. The Twelfth Century (London, 1996), vol. II, fig. 177 (kindly recommended by Jacqueline Burckhardt and Bice Curiger). Like Hans Swarzenski (in: “Fragments of a Romanesque Bible,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts [Mélange Pocher],(Paris, 1963, p. 79), Cahn reproduces a somewhat dated photograph of the page by H. Pissot which does not render the entire page. It shows a picturesque initial, probably drawn in the twelfth century in the Champagne or northern Burgundy region. The letter P stands at the beginning of 2 Kings 1: “Prevaricatus est autem moab in Israel postquam mortuus est ahab” (Moab rebelled against Israel after the death of Ahab). Speaking about the motif in an interview with Peter Schjeldahl (“Many-Colored Glass,” New Yorker, May 12, 2008), Polke also makes reference to the Greek god Helios.
19 Sigmar Polke, Sternenhimmeltuch, 1968, felt, adhesive tape, cord, cardboard sheets, 250 x 240 cm, private collection.
20 Carved into the capital of a half-column in the northern portal of the Grossmünster is an image of the musician-king.
21 This image is supposedly based on a typical medieval miniature of Herod, whose source is unknown (kindly suggested by Bice Curiger).
22 Polke was presumably seeking to achieve a typically medieval depiction of a monarch. The gesture could be said in general terms to suggest David’s role as a forerunner. 
23 Psalm 23 (attributed to King David): “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, He makes me to lie down in green pastures, He leads me beside the still waters…”
24 Aelfric’s Paraphrase, London, British Library, Cotton MS Claudius B iv, fol. 3, “Abraham and Isaac.” Polke worked from the black-and-white reproduction in: Walter Cahn, Die Bibel in der Romanik (Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 1982), p. 89. Using this reproduction as source material for the window The Sacrifice of Isaac (nIII), Polke adopted the motifs of Isaac clutching the head of Abraham; the torso of Abraham brandishing his sword; the angel; the goat. The same goat is also used for the motif of the Scapegoat in the eponymous window (nIV).
25 Polke apparently spoke of a “bloodstain” (kindly mentioned by Urs Rickenbach).
26 They are semi-concave lenses specially made by the glass manufacturer Mäder AG, whose curvature points into the church’s interior.
27 Urs Rickenbach speaks of a damask pattern. Based on the shape of Abraham’s body, it was hand cut (sand blasted) and subsequently melted into a shade of dark violet using colored granulated glass.
28 Leviticus 16:5–28, on the rite for the Day of Atonement: “…Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the children of Israel, and all their transgressions, concerning all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and shall send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to an inhabited land; …” 
Here Polke uses the same image of the ram for his representation of the scapegoat rather than portraying an actual goat.
29Aelfric’s Paraphrase (see note 24).
30 The contours and the fleece of the goat are dot-screened in brown, the plants in green.
31 The sun is represented by the same alchemical symbol as gold.
32 Urs Rickenbach informs me that the pink pane is mounted over a pane of white glass. The center of the sun and the halo were sandblasted so deeply that they gleam in bright white. Given the overall lightness of the window’s hues, Polke rendered the entire glass in a structure that somewhat obscures its transparency.
33 Contemporary research has shown that herd animals such as sheep can recognize the faces of fifty members of the same species for up to two years. As herd animals they panic when separated from their flock.
34 Tourmaline is a boracic silicate crystal compounded with elements such as magnesium and aluminum. The stone’s composition is complex and ranges from transparent to opaque, changing color when observed from different angles (pleochroism). Exposed to heat it becomes electrically charged (pyroelectric and piezoelectric properties), is resistant and stable in color. In its double refraction of light, the mineral absorbs some of the rays of light. High absorption can cause the stone to gradually darken in tone, but it retains the same color. The stones used in these windows are from Madagascar. On tourmaline, cf. the comprehensive monograph by Friedrich Benesch, Bernhard Wohrmann, The Tourmaline A Monograph (Stuttgart: Urachhaus, 2004); also: Paul Rustemeyer, Faszination Turmalin: Formen – Farben – Strukturen (Heidelberg/Berlin: Spectrum Akademischer Verlag, 2003).
35 Here Polke has integrated the natural pattern of the crystal into his composition in such a way that the tourmaline resembles a lens screening or x-raying the stalk of the plant as it rises up over the goat, thereby reversing its color.
36 “Designed by Sigmar Polke/stained glassmakers Mäder/Zürich/2009.”
37 A certain level of artificial lighting is in fact installed to illuminate the wall below the higher windows via yellowish spotlights and to provide basic lighting for the space at the rear and the side of the church.

The text of the Laudatio is published in extended form in:
Sigmar Polke. Fenster – Windows. Grossmünster Zürich, Parkett Verlag, Zurich 2010

©This text and/or any parts of it may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the written permission of the author and Parkett Verlag, Zurich.