“From Many Wounds:” Kathe Kollwitz and the Cross (Art and Theology)

6 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

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Death comes in many forms, bearing many guises. And yet death is universal and unavoidable. Death is both personal, in that it afflicts us each individually, but it is also systemic, in that it affects humanity as a whole.

Perhaps nowhere is this more vividly and hauntingly clear than in the artwork of Kathe Kollwitz, known for her expressionist style and her woodcuts, drawings and etchings. Kollwitz was born in a province of Prussia, though she would spend her adult life in Berlin after moving there to study art and marry her husband.

Kollwitz’s work initially reflected the politics of her day, focusing on the class struggles of the bourgeois and the proletariat, struggles given life in such works as The Peasants’ Revolt.

But turn-of-the-century Germany was a trying time. Initially the country crested the waves of enlightenment optimism, codified through a wide variety of social programs, including the German Wandervogel movement (literally, “birds of passage”). The Wandervogel movement was, at its core, a protest against late bourgeois (i.e., middle-class) culture, attracting some 40,000 young people by the time of the first World War.

But this optimism shattered and bled at the outbreak of the first World War, where in 1914 German student regiments were cut down by British machine gun fire, all the while singing the German national anthem.

It was during the course of the war that Kollwitz’s own son was killed in the line of duty. And with this loss began her preoccupation with images of death that would come to define her career. It is this Kollwitz that I came to love as a student of art, a strong yet deeply vulnerable woman, who used image to give voice to the voiceless.

“It is my duty to voice the suffering of men, the never-ending sufferings heaped mountain-high” she says. “While I drew, and wept along with the terrified children I was drawing, I really felt the burden I am bearing. I felt that I have no right to withdraw from the responsibility of being an advocate.”

Tod und Frau (“Death and Woman”), 1910; soft-ground etching on emery paper

The picture above is entitled Tod und Frau (literally, “Death and woman”). In dynamic, expressionistic style, Kollwitz envisions death as an actual entity which physically wrestles life away from us, and in the context of the picture shows the separation of mother and child.

Images of mother and child would appear in numerous other works, such as the iconic image of mother and child (right). The work is simple, yet evocative, an unmistakable portrait of a mother’s loss as death claims yet another victim.

Though Kollwitz had abandoned institutionalized Christianity, she nonetheless appropriated religious imagery in her work to punctuate the expressions of suffering. The piece entitled Pieta (below)is an example of this. Medieval iconography was defined by a rigid stoicism, and art of the renaissance by religious symbolism. Kollwitz’s depiction of Mary and the crucified Jesus possesses neither of these elements but presents the event in raw,  unadorned, simplicity, its title serving as the work’s only interpretive context.

“Pieta,” 1903; lithograph

“No one cries like a mother cries for peace on earth,” sings Bono. In the eyes of Mary, Kollwitz finds a kindred spirit, a fellow mother weeping over the loss of her son.

But for Kollwitz death was not personal, but had profound social ramifications. The piece below is entitled Aus vielen Wunden, blutest Du, O Volk (“From many wounds, you bleed, Oh people,” below).

Aus vielen Wunden, blutest Du, O Volk (“From many wounds, you bleed, O people”), 1896; etching and aquatint

Here, the dead Christ is the symbol of Germany’s national identity, hemorrhaging from the many wounds of systemic corruption, war, and the naïve optimism that resulted only in bloodshed.

THE WOUNDS OF EXILE

“Exile,” says Thomas Merton, “is a hemorrhaging wound.”

Indeed, it truly is “from many wounds” that Israel has bled, as demonstrated especially during times of exile:

Jeremiah 6:13-14 “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘ Shalom, shalom,’ they say, when there is no shalom.”

According to scripture, death is the final product of sin. Sin is, according to Cornelius Plantinga, “both fertile and fatal.” Sin arises from the individual human heart, but invariably has dramatic impact on the social and even environmental sphere. Death brings not only the termination of our own life, but the wounds of our communities as well.

The words of Isaiah demonstrate the pervasive nature of this corruption, describing the wounds of an entire body:

Isaiah 1:5-7 Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and raw wounds; they are not pressed out or bound up or softened with oil. Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence foreigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners.

Israel is a nation in desperate need of healing, not only for its people (Is 10:21) but also the land (2 Chron 7:14), its religious institutions (Hos 6:6 – 7:1) and public health (Ps 41:3-4).

Exile is something that happened historically to the nation of Israel, but it is an experience to which all people may relate, whether they experience the wounds of physical exile or the equally tender wounds of spiritual alienation.

Kollwitz’s portrait of death and suffering reflects not only the condition of her generation and people, but indeed all generations and all peoples, whether the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocide of Rwanda, or even the many hurts we bear in our western world.

Through her art, Kollwitz believed she had a responsibility to tikkun olam – to repairing the world.  Ironically this is not far from the truth, for the world’s repair is indeed found in a creative act known as “incarnation,” the act of God becoming man.

HEALING THROUGH DEFORMITY

Athanasius famously compared Christ’s incarnation to God painting a new portrait of humanity. Yet in the cross this portrait becomes eerily similar to the stark black-and-white imagery of Kollwitz’s work, a portrait of a man taking on the suffering and wounds of our humanity. He suffered innocently, but He suffered nonetheless.

The cross represents Christ’s self-identification with the woundedness of creation, and in His humanity He is Himself dehumanized. Through the cross Jesus experienced not only physical death, but betrayal and humiliation. Through the cross Jesus bore God’s curse (Gal 3:13). Through the cross, the innocent suffered alongside the guilty.

And most profoundly, through the cross Jesus experienced the abandonment of the Father, crying out “My God, my God; why have you forsaken me?” In Mark’s gospel, these words are rendered in Aramaic, the common language of the people, words meant to be heard by a later community that struggled with harsh and cruel governments. While John’s gospel describes Jesus as a light shining in the darkness, in Mark’s gospel the darkness herself becomes a form of revelation. Jesus deity is revealed through death – it was only when He’d breathed His last that the soldiers acknowledged His deity (Mark 15:39).

These words came to life in the midst of an allied prison camp during the Second World War, where Jurgen Moltmann, a defected German soldier, was handed a Bible by one of the British soldiers.

“I must have looked at him somewhat uncomprehendingly: a Bible of all things! I then went on to read it without much understanding until I came to Israel’s Psalms of lament. Psalm 39 caught my attention: ‘I am dumb and must eat up my suffering within myself’ (Luther’s rendering) ‘…My life as nothing before you…I am a stranger as all my fathers were.’ … Later, I read Mark’s gospel. And when I came to Jesus’ death cry, ‘My God, why have you forsaken me?’ I was profoundly struck. I knew: this is the one who understands you. I began to understand the Christ who was assailed by God and suffered from God, because I felt that he understood me. That gave me new courage to live. I saw colors again, heard music again, and felt the stirrings of renewed vitality.” (Moltmann, In the End, the Beginning, 33-35)

And so we are reminded of Bonhoeffer’s words, that “only a suffering God can help.” “The deformity of Christ forms you.” writes St. Augustine. “By his wounds,” says Isaiah, “we are healed.”

DEATH SWALLOWED UP

But Christ’s self-identification with a wounded world would mean little if the story had ended there. The resurrection of Christ teaches us that God desires more than merely to identify with His lost children. The resurrection tells us that God has a newer and better future planned.

The resurrection teaches us that death does not have the final word, but that this “last enemy” would be “swallowed up in victory.” The risen Christ is the crucified Christ, whose risen body still bears the wounds inflicted by the world He came to redeem. From a prison cell during the second world war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

“We are paying more attention to dying than to death. We are more concerned to overcome the act of dying than to overcome death. Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as the ‘last enemy.’ There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities, the other means resurrection. It is not from ars moriendi, the art of dying, but the resurrection of Christ, that a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world…If a few people believed that and acted on it in their daily lives, a great deal would be changed.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 132)

So as we turn back to Kollwitz’s work, we find a reminder of the power of death and the influence of sin on our lives and culture, and are reminded of the “sufferings heaped mountain-high.” Justin Taylor recently reports Tim Keller as calling for a better theology of suffering. In the crucified Christ we have our beginnings, and in artistic expression we have our vocabulary. Taking up His cross therefore means not avoiding life’s pain, but entering into such struggles, following His example.

We may quite equally be reminded of a Savior who moves these mountains of suffering, and who places His scarred hands over the many wounds from which we bleed.

It is only in light of the risen Savior that we look at Kollwitz’s figures of death with defiance – “Where is your victory? Where is your sting?” The wounds are healed. The bleeding has subsided. Death has been swallowed up for all time.

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6 April 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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