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.