In Honor of Barth’s Birthday: Grünewald and Mozart

karl-barthOn this day in 1886, Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth was born, a man who would be known as the most important Christian theologian of the 20th Century and the most important theologian living after Thomas Aquinas. What many outsiders may not know is how heavily a role two artists played in Barth’s life: Matthias Grünewald and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. A reproduction of Grünewald’s Crucifixion from the Isenheim Altarpiece hung squarely over Barth’s desk for decades, joined only in his wall’s adornment by a portrait of Mozart. Barth regularly referenced Grünewald’s Crucifixion in his writings, making a tangent-like reference to it in many of his works. Likewise, Barth was incredibly devout in his adoration of Mozart. He writes,

I have for years and years begun each day with Mozart, and only then (aside from the daily newspaper) turned to my Dogmatics. I even have to confess that if I ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart and only then inquire after Augustine, St. Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and Schleiermacher.


Perhaps with an understanding of the arts Barth esteemed as transcendent, we can better understand the man and his theology. John Updike, in his forward to Barth’s short volume on Mozart, notes: “Those who have not felt the difficulty of living have no need of Barthian theology; but then perhaps they also have no ear for music.”