Tree of Life (Herbert)



Albert Herbert (1925-2008) was an artist with a powerful and original poetic vision. For five decades he consistently painted surprising and dream-like images-these seemingly naïve yet sophisticated paintings were the result of his life-long journey exploring ‘what lies beneath the surface of the mind’.

Clive James suggested that Herbert “always dealt in that trickiest of artistic qualities, enchantment. The danger of enchantment is that it can quickly cloy, but Herbert’s version of it never did. His exquisite balancing of the areas in the painting, a poise which would be convincing even if the pictures were abstracts, depends on an infallible sense of color.”

It was while studying at the British School, Rome, in the 1950s that the painter, who had no religious background, was drawn towards Catholicism. “I was a bit like someone who is gay, but doesn’t consciously know it,” he observed. “I’m not gay, but I am religious. There’s nothing I can do about it.” It was the beginning of a spiritual journey that lasted a lifetime and produced hundreds of serious meditations on the meaning of his faith.

Albert was a maverick, liked but seldom taken seriously by the art establishment.  His one major public commission – 14 Stations of the Cross, at the behest of an Anglican vicar – was abandoned. His paintings were “too disturbing” said the parochial church council.

So here’s “Tree of Life.” It is quirky and thoughtful beneath a deceptive childlikeness. On this Tree of Life there are no fruits to be plucked to gain knowledge of good and evil (according to the Genesis archetype). Their place is taken by variations on the theme of love. We see a couple embrace, kiss and meld into one figure (“It is not good for man to be alone“; “And the two shall become one“). There are smiles, inverted heads, leaves (presumably fig leaves) and the repeated words “glad, sad” which would seem to suggest a trajectory of emotions.

The smiles and warmth of the piece create a positive, optimistic ambience about the choice to be made. And there she is, a diminutive Eve on the bottom right, in contemporary dress with a shopping bag, with hand outstretched towards the Tree of Life and yet her face turned not towards the tree and her choice, but, as it were, towards the camera. She’s saying: “What will I choose?”

It’s not remotely sexual or erotic, but rather romantic. Oddly,  (and you need to work with me here), it made me think of the Doris Day song “Que Sera, Sera”

 “When I grew up and fell in love
I asked my sweetheart
What lies ahead
Will we have rainbows
Day after day
Here’s what my sweetheart said

Que sera, sera”…etc

It’s like a choice of romantic possibilities, and the Eve figure smiles, standing on the brink of her choice, like a schoolgirl doodling the name of her boyfriend on her schoolbag.

But to a Christian artist such as Herbert, the Biblical concept of  the “Tree of Life” has a deeper and darker side. It represents the archetypal human choice to exclude God and to demand autonomy, not realising that we are created for dependence and spiritual relationship. The choice to live without God is like the choice of a deep-sea diver to live without an air-tube.

There are other versions of “Tree of Life” that Herbert did, which include a serpent figure and darker elements. This one does not, except for the presence of the leaves which in the Biblical narrative becomes the cover-up for the “human error” of Genesis 3:

 “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.”

That is to say, the leaves represent a future loss of innocence, when Eve can no longer smile.

The other, possible,”darker” element is the patterning of the cross in the background.It’s the merest suggestion in the painting, but there is a strong connection in Biblical theology between the sin of the “First Adam” and the salvation offered by the “Second Adam”, Jesus on the cross. This is drawn from Genesis 3:15 and the prophetic announcement:

And I will put enmity
    between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

This is often called the “Protoevangelium” (“the first gospel”).


Because of the grave nature of the context, the fall of man, this passage describes more than just a man stepping on a snake’s head. In Romans 16:20, there is perhaps the clearest reference to the Protevangelium in the New Testament, “And the God of peace shall bruise Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. Amen.” Here the seed of the woman is identified as “the God of peace” and yet the Church is identified as the feet that will bruise Satan’s head.  From the masculine singular Hebrew pronoun in Genesis 3:15, we see that the seed of the woman is a man, and yet in Roman’s 16:20 he is called the God of peace, which identifies him as the Lord Jesus Christ.

The reference to the seed of the woman as Christ is believed to relate to the Virgin birth of the Messiah, as well as the Hypostatic union of the Divine nature with the Human nature of Christ.

Old Testament scholar Derek Kidner describes the Protevangelium as “the first glimmer of the gospel.” Several of the early Church fathers, such as Justin Martyr (160 AD) and Irenaeus (180 AD) regarded this verse “as the Protoevangelium, the first messianic prophecy in the Old Testament.”

All this must be undesrtood by the title given to the painting, since, biblically, the “Tree of Life” is not only the fruit tree in Eden but also the cross at Golgotha. And the opportunity for life and choice offfered deceptively by the first, is supplied in truth by the second.

And we live and die in the moment of that choice.


A Celtic dreaming

milky way.jpg

“To hear never-heard sounds,
To see never-seen colors and shapes,
To try to understand the imperceptible
Power pervading the world;
To fly and find pure ethereal substances
That are not of matter
But of that invisible soul pervading reality.
To hear another soul and to whisper to another soul;
To be a lantern in the darkness
Or an umbrella in a stormy day;
To feel much more than know.
To be the eyes of an eagle, slope of a mountain;
To be a wave understanding the influence of the moon;
To be a tree and read the memory of the leaves;
To be an insignificant pedestrian on the streets
Of crazy cities watching, watching, and watching.
To be a smile on the face of a woman
And shine in her memory
As a moment saved without planning.”
Dejan Stojanovic

Pic from Ebor Benson Photography:”Last nights milky way on the rise, battled against the moonlight to capture this.” 30th March 2016


moon sky.jpg


BEHOLD the Lightener of the stars
On the crests of the clouds,
And the choralists of the sky
Lauding Him.

Coming down with acclaim
From the Father above,
Harp and lyre of song
Sounding to Him.

Christ, Thou refuge of my love,
Why should not I raise Thy fame!
Angels and saints melodious
Singing to Thee.

Thou Son of the Mary of graces,
Of exceeding white purity of beauty,
Joy were it to me to be in the fields
Of Thy riches.

O Christ my beloved,
O Christ of the Holy Blood,
By day and by night
I praise Thee.

(Carmina Gadelica)

“At Tara in this fateful hour”


At Tara in this fateful hour,

I place all Heaven with its power,
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the wind with its swiftness along its path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the Earth with its starkness
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace

Between myself and the powers of darkness

(Madeline L’Engle)

Photo of Hill of Tara from

“The Celt… is a visionary without scratching”


“The Celt, and his cromlechs, and his pillar-stones, these will not change much – indeed, it is doubtful if anybody at all changes at any time. In spite of hosts of deniers, and asserters, and wise-men, and professors, the majority still are adverse to sitting down to dine thirteen at a table, or being helped to salt, or walking under a ladder, of seeing a single magpie flirting his chequered tale. There are, of course, children of light who have set their faces against all this, although even a newspaperman, if you entice him into a cemetery at midnight, will believe in phantoms, for everyone is a visionary, if you scratch him deep enough. But the Celt, unlike any other, is a visionary without scratching.”
W.B. Yeats

St Columba: Celtic environmentalist


St Columba  (Colm Cille, ‘dove of the church’) ;was the sixth century Irish missionary  credited with spreading Christianity in  what we now call Scotland. Importantly, he also founded  Iona, which became a dominant spiritual centre for centuries to come. He is one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland.

Around 563, as the picture indicates,  he and his twelve companions crossed from Ireland to Dunaverty near Southend, Argyll in Kintyre before settling in Iona in Scotland, then part of the Irish kingdom of Dál Riata, where they founded a new abbey as a base for spreading Christianity among the pagan picts.

Here’s a lovely clip of some early medieval Latin hymns which are often attributed to him.


And environmentalist?  He is credited with the statement:  “He who tramples on the world tramples on himself” which resonates (with me at least!) of the need of our society to heed the Celtic call to rediscover both the real value of self and the real value of our lovely planet, within the framework of an awareness of the Divine.

Beannacht / Blessing

glencar waterfall

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.”
John O’Donohue, Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

The photo is Glencar Waterfall, Co.Sligo (Mary Rooney)

For the Traveler

ben-bulben Emer O Shea

Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
You needed
To illuminate
Your way.

When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.

 ~ John O’Donohue, ‘To Bless the Space Between Us