Barth on visual representations of Jesus

Rembrandt - Portrait of Christ's Head (1650)

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 'Portrait of Christ's Head', c.1650. State Museum, Berlin-Dahlem.

In preparing some lectures on theology and the arts recently, I’ve been struck yet again how that for all his radical revision of some central aspects of Calvin’s thought, Barth remains remarkably close to Calvin at so many key junctures, and consistently so (it would seem) on issues related to the visual arts. Here’s just one example:

This decisive task of preaching in divine service seems to suggest that the presence of artistic representations of Jesus Christ is not desirable in the places of assembly. For it is almost inevitable that such static works should constantly attract the eye and therefore the conscious or unconscious attention of the listening community, fixing them upon the particular conception of Jesus Christ entertained in all good faith no doubt by the artist. This is suspect for two reasons. The community should not be bound to a particular conception, as inevitably happens where there is an artistic representation, but should be led by the ongoing proclamation of His history as His history with us, so that it moves from one provisional Amen to another, in the wake of His living self-attestation pressing on from insight to insight. Supremely, however, even the most excellent of plastic arts does not have the means to display Jesus Christ in His truth, i.e., in His unity as true Son of God and Son of Man. There will necessarily be either on the one side, as in the great Italians, an abstract and docetic over-emphasis on His deity, or on the other, as in Rembrandt, an equally abstract, ebionite over-emphasis on His humanity, so that even with the best of intentions error will be promoted. If we certainly cannot prevent art or artists from attempting this exciting and challenging theme, it should at least be made clear both to them and to the community that it is better not to allow works of this kind to compete with the ministry of preaching. (Barth, CD, IV.3.2, 867)

To be sure, Barth had already anticipated this move in CD IV/2 when he insisted that Jesus Christ cannot be known in his humanity as abstracted from his divine sonship:

As God cannot be considered without His humanity, His humanity cannot be considered or known or magnified or worshipped without God. Any attempt to treat it in abstracto, in a vacuum, is from the very first a perverted and impossible undertaking. As Son of Man, and therefore in human form. Jesus Christ does not exist at all except in the act of God, as He is first the Son of God. Where He is not known as the latter, He cannot really be known in His humanity as abstracted from the divine Son as its Subject.

This was the difficulty which beset all the modern attempts – now, of course, more rare – to sketch a biography of Jesus, a picture of His life and character. It is no accident that the New Testament material for this purpose is so sparse and unsatisfactory. The scholars and men of letters who attempted it in their different ways were necessarily betrayed from one difficulty into another. A predicate cannot be properly seen and understood and portrayed without its subject. But in itself and as such the humanity of Jesus Christ is a predicate without a subject. And although the attempt was made – and very seriously sometimes – it was absolutely impossible to try to ascribe a religious significance, or to enter into a religious relationship, with this predicate suspended in empty space. It is only rhetorically that the empty predicate of His humanity could and can be counted as a subject which summons us in this way.

Even greater is the difficulty of representing Jesus Christ in the plastic arts. It is even greater because here there emerges unavoidably, and indeed purposively and exclusively, the particular and delicate question of the corporeality of Jesus. The prior demand of a picture of Christ is that its subject should be seen. And He must be seen as the artist thinks he sees Him according to the dictates of his own religious or irreligious, profound or superficial imagination, and as he then causes others to see Him (and sometimes in such a way that they cannot possibly fail to do so). As against this, the biographer of Jesus only speaks, or writes, on the basis of texts by which he can in some degree be checked by his readers or hearers, and in books which can be left unread or forgotten. The claim of the biographer is an impossible one. But that of the artist who portrays Christ is so pressing as to be quite intolerable. It must also be added that every picture in pencil, paint or stone is an attempt to catch the reality portrayed, which is as such in movement, at a definite moment in that movement, to fix it, to arrest or “freeze” its movement, to take it out of its movement. The biographer has at least the relative advantage over the artist that whether he does it well or badly he has to tell a story and therefore to see and understand and portray what he takes to be the life of Jesus on a horizontal plane, in a time-sequence, in movement. In addition to everything else, the picture of Christ is far too static as a supposed portrayal of the corporeality of Jesus Christ in a given moment. But what will always escape both the biographer and the artist, what their work will always lack, is the decisive thing – the vertical movement in which Jesus Christ is actual, the history in which the Son of God becomes the Son of Man and takes human essence and is man in this act. In this movement from above to below He presents Himself as the work and revelation of God by the Holy Spirit, as the Jesus Christ who is alive in the relationship of His divinity to His humanity. But He obviously cannot be represented in this movement, which is decisive for His being and knowledge, either in the form of narrative or (especially) in drawing, painting or sculpture. The attempt to represent Him can be undertaken and executed only in abstraction from this peculiarity of His being, and at bottom the result, either in literary or pictorial art, can only be a catastrophe. We say this with all due respect for the abilities of the great artists, and the good intentions of the not so great, who in all ages (incited rather than discouraged by the Church) have attempted this subject. But this cannot prevent us from saying that the history of the plastic representation of Christ is that of an attempt on the most intractable subject imaginable. We shall have to remember this when in the doctrine of the Church we come to the question of instruction by means of plastic art. It is already clear that from the point of view of Christology there can be no question of using the picture of Christ as a means of instruction’. (Barth, CD IV.2, 102–3)

That art is concerned with ‘earthly, creaturely things’ is reflected in Barth’s scathing critique of attempts to visualise the ‘inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world’, and he lists ‘heaven’, and Christ’s resurrection and ascension as examples: ‘There is no sense in trying to visualise the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations’ (Barth, CD III/2, 453). And, on the resurrection, he writes:

There is something else, however, which the Easter records and the whole of the New Testament say but wisely do not describe. In the appearances He not only came from death, but from His awakening from the dead. The New Testament almost always puts it in this way: “from the dead.” From the innumerable host of the dead this one man, who was the Son of God, was summoned and awakened and reconstituted as a living man, the same man as He had been before. This second thing which the New Testament declares but never attempts to describe is the decisive factor. What was there actually to describe? God awakened Him and so He “rose again.” If only Christian art had refrained from the attempt to depict it! He comes from this event which cannot be described or represented – that God awakened Him. (Barth, CD IV.2, 152)

Only with Mozart the musician, it would seem, are we in safer hands!

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