Karl Barth, Matthias Grünewald, and the Task of Theology

Originally situated as a part of the Isenheim Altarpiece in Alsace, France, Matthias Grünewald's Crucifixion piece was completed in 1515. Influenced by the mysticism of the Middle Ages--most specifically St. Bridget of Sweden--Grünewald's Crucifixion is a tragic depiction of the suffering Christ, in all of the crucifixion's violence and ugliness. In this painting, the suffering Christ is situated in the middle, with Mary Magdalene and Mary, Jesus' mother to his right, and John the Baptist to his left. All three are witnesses of this grotesque event. At the Baptist's feet is placed a lamb, carrying in its arm a cross, with a goblet resting below. It is John the Baptist who recognized Jesus as the lamb early in John's Gospel (cf. John 1:29), and here once again he is a witness to the lamb who has been led to the slaughter (cf. Isa 53:7). In a way, the darkness and despair of the painting is prophetic of the brokenness of the Catholic Church at the time, as Luther would nail his ninety-five theses onto the Wittenberg door only two years after the completion of the painting.

The body of the Christ hanging on the cross is battered and broken. While Jesus' fingers are curled towards the heavens, perhaps in a final appeal to his Father whom has forsaken him, the rest of his disfigured body is downcast and beaten. There is nothing apparently divine about this body that hangs heavily upon the cross. It is an ultimate picture of suffering. Blood flows from Jesus' side as the rest of his body is torn apart by the lashes given by the Roman soldiers. Wounds mar his body from the lashes he has been given. The crown of thorns tortuously sits upon Jesus' brow. His feet are misshapen, bowed from the weight of the body they have carried. The black sky is symbolic of this man's forsakenness by the Father, while at the same time bringing this godforsaken man into the foreground. There appears to be nowhere else to look other than upon the broken body of Jesus Christ.

Yet, look where Jesus' body hangs, it is upon the cross, which in and of itself seems disfigured. Even the wood is strained and bends under its outstanding weight -- for Christ is carrying the sins of the whole world. To the world, this monstrous sight is not an image of glory, but one of humiliation. This is not an image of hope, but despair. This is not an image of strength, but of ultimate weakness. Yet, for the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth, this painting of a "wretched, crucified, dead man . . . is the place of Christology. It faces the mystery. It does not stand within the mystery . . . It cannot and must not do more than this. But it can and must do this" (CD I/2, 125). What is it about this mystery, this wretched, crucified dead man, that Barth not only finds useful, but essential to the task of theology?

For Barth, humanity can only speak about God insofar as our speech is about the One who has revealed himself. Furthermore, this revelation humanity receives is a work of God, not of humanity's own doing. Thus, Barth says that humanity can only know the being of God through his work, the two of which are inseparably linked. The pinnacle of this divine work is the cross. Thus, for Barth, the surrounding characters of Mary Magdalene, Mary, Jesus' mother, and John the Baptist, are not merely aesthetical additions. Rather, they are integral to interpreting Grünewald's piece insofar as they are understood in response to focal point of the piece, the person of Jesus Christ.

First, the Mary characters, while in anguish, at the same time emit a sense of adoration towards the crucified Christ. Their hands are folded in a posture of worship and prayer, directed towards the one who hangs on the cross. At the foot of the cross, they cry out towards the heavens, pleading with God to intervene in their state of despair. However, the Marys in their adoring anguish only provide half of the witness. Commenting on John the Baptist, it is Barth's understanding that "this is the way, in fact, that the Church believes in and recognises God in Christ . . .  It can only look out of the darkness in the direction in which a human being is to be seen in a light, the source of which it cannot see itself . . . John the Baptist too, in Grünewald’s Crucifixion, can only point" (CD I/1, 125). For Barth, any speech about God--even that which is found in the Bible--can only be truly called speech about God insofar as it points the listener to the person of Jesus Christ. This is indeed why Jesus is the focal point on the painting, and John the Baptist is positioned to the side. The painting is not about John the Baptist, it is about the person of Jesus Christ, the source of the mystery.

For Barth, "witnessing means pointing in a specific direction beyond the self and on to another" (CD I/1, 111). In this way, Grünewald’s Crucifixion not only offers a depiction of who God is, but also functions as an apologetic for the way one is to do theology. Simply put, for Barth, any speech which does not point beyond one's self towards the person of Jesus Christ is not theology. Even more, in what is perhaps a polemic against his liberal teachers, the hope found in Christ is, for Barth, not found in the optimism of man, but in the suffering of the cross. Indeed, for Barth "in the death of Jesus Christ God has humiliated Himself and rendered Himself up, in order to accomplish His law upon sinful man by taking his place and thus once for all removing from him to Himself the curse that affects him, the punishment he deserves, the past he is hurrying to meet, the abandonment into which he has fallen" (Dogmatics in Outline, 111). For Barth, it is only in the crucifixion of Jesus that humanity is drawn into life with the Godhead, and perhaps there is more exemplary work of this act than Grünewald's Crucifixion.