1962Methodist Collection of Modern Christian Art, No.14
Commentary by Francis Hoyland
I find this a very beautiful painting. Somehow the fact that Our Lady and Her divine Son are safely tucked up in bed in a cosy looking stable, which is still very much a place of real poverty, while the Magi trudge towards is very touching.
Incidentally, were the Holy Family still living in a stable when the Magi arrived? Because Saint Matthew says 'When they had come into the house'. Perhaps the family of one of the holy shepherds had 'adopted' them - in fact this seems likely after what the shepherds had seen!
The stable, or house, is very compact and 'there' as a form, it stands on bare but fertile looking land, and the dark, blue sky arches over it. Perhaps we can see a glimmer of the star in the roof above the right of the door.
The rich, densely 'impasted' paint, the hefty realisation of the forms and the warm magnanimity of Herbert's attitude seem to give him a position in the art world somewhere alongside Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossof and their great teacher David Bomberg.
The Swedish painter Lundquist also comes to mind. These men were, and are, concerned with weight, gravity and in Bomberg's words 'the spirit in the mass'. Here we find an essentially Jewish (though probably only semi-orthodox) tradition stemming from Bomberg in the hands of a Christian artist, and it seems to be very much at home there.
Herbert has used everything he has to make this painting: his passions, his spiritual recourses, and his sense of himself as a heavy lump that moves laboriously across the ball of our planet held onto its surface by its own weight and by the weight of the earth itself acting as gravity.
This is what it means to be human. This is what it means to be flesh. 'And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us'.
Then there is St. John's other great image : 'The Word was the true light that enlightens all men' and 'God is light; there is no darkness in him at all'. Here the light glimmers and glows about and from the Holy Pair. How warm and tender and Christmassy it all is!
Another saying of St. John comes to mind, 'Something that we have watched and touched with our hands; the Word who is life - this is our subject'. Touch - the spread of paint from a loaded palette knife on a congenial surface, layer upon layer, like 'Grace in return for Grace'. Even the darkness sings.
I salute an artist who has achieved many of the things I hope to achieve myself.