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The Bible and the Visual Imagination.
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Josef Herman and the Biblical Narrative


Josef Herman (1911–2000) was a native of Poland, born and brought up in the Jewish community in Warsaw. His formal artistic education was at the Warsaw School of Art, but left-wing political activism (and an interest in Brueghel) compelled him to leave Poland for Belgium in 1938. He, alone of his family, thus escaped the Holocaust. The German occupation of the Low Countries soon after the outbreak of World War II demanded another – hasty – relocation, this time to Scotland. In 1944 he settled at Ystradgynlais in south Wales, which remained his home for eleven years. There were final moves to Suffolk (1955) and London (1972).

It has been said of Herman that he “was the foreign artist who put the British working class on a pedestal”(1) but this is not a fair assessment. Herman came of a poor family himself, but he remembered his Warsaw childhood as “Years of the sun”.(2) As his friend Moelwyn Merchant said of him “It happens that Herman’s vision of man’s tragic destiny, unlike that of Munch (whom he admires) does not issue in a scream of despairing rage. Labouring man is recorded faithfully, compassionately, and without histrionics.”(3) That is a much shrewder and more balanced verdict. ‘Faithfulness’ is indeed a word which comes to mind when meditating upon Herman’s artistic output. He is a sympathetic chronicler, and his pictures have a moral depth and purpose. He himself perhaps best expressed his ideal when he quoted Munch’s credo: “They [ie the subjects of his paintings] must be living people who breathe, feel, suffer and love. I will paint a series of such pictures in which people will have to recognise the holy element and bow their heads before it as though in church”.(4) Herman’s subjects are real people, shown, in his own words, in their “endurance of the everyday”(5) but that endurance is transformed, if not transfigured, by a dignity and a stillness that puts the composition both in and out of time; what Herman himself called “the timeless moment when life stands still…” and Moelwyn Merchant “arrested eternity”.(6)

It is these timeless moments, this arrested eternity, which gives Herman’s work its essentially religious nature. He understands, in Rudolf Otto’s familiar and well-worn phrase, “the Idea of the Holy”.(7) This is not to say that Herman necessarily had a ‘religious intent’ when he took up pen or brush, or that he had any part of the Biblical narrative in mind when he chose his subject (or that subject suggested itself to him) though for obvious reasons he was familiar with at least large parts of it. But he would have agreed with Eric Gill’s understanding, as he expressed it in his Art Nonsense, “all art properly so called is religious, because all art properly so called is an affirmation of absolute values. If we allow the name art to anything irreligious (i.e. affirming relative values) then such art is not, therefore, secular, it is merely paltry.”(8) What can be said of much of Herman’s work is that his subject can and does suggest an image in the Biblical text. If one was seeking an image to illustrate a particular verse or passage from the Bible, then one or more of Herman’s works would come to mind as appropriate. In the remainder of this short paper I want to take a number of examples and examine them to expand on this point.


Twilight in the Fields. (1976. Oil on board).  image
Here the primary focus is on two figures, one standing, slightly to the left of centre, and the other bent almost at right angles over a basket.(9) The standing figure seems to have just straightened up, and is in the act of brushing away sweat from the face; the bent, female, figure is entirely absorbed in the labour of harvesting.(10) The composition immediately suggests Ruth 2:6, from one of the most vivid verbal pictures in that book, the first meeting of Ruth the Moabitess and Boaz. Returning from Bethlehem, Boaz found Ruth gleaning behind the harvesters in his field, and challenged his foreman “Whose young woman is that?” The foreman identified her, and told his employer “She said, ‘Please let me glean and gather among the sheaves behind the harvesters.’ She went into the field and has worked steadily from morning till now, except for a short rest in the shelter”. The verse suggests the back-breaking and fairly unremitting toil of gleaning, and the chapter later informs us that Ruth continued her labour “until evening” (v.17). Even then her work was not finished, as she had still to thresh the barley, and carry back to town the resulting flour before she and her mother-in-law Naomi could eat (vv.17–18).

Herman captures such a moment; the continuation of labour in the field “until evening”. He captures the hardness of the work, and, if the Biblical narrative of Ruth 2 is borne in mind, we know that when the twilight turns to dark, and labour in the field is no longer possible, then the day’s work for the woman is still not done. The loaded hand-cart in the background has to be pulled to the storage, and then its contents unloaded. Toil is not confined within the limits of the picture or by its subject.

Mother and Child (1982–83. Pastel and water-colour).  image
The image of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus is ubiquitous in Christian art. Apart from the crucifixion, it is perhaps the best-known and most familiar of all representations of the Biblical narrative. It is, however, supported by no one scriptural text, though it could be said to be implicit in Matt. 2:11: “On coming to the house they [i.e. the Magi] saw the child with his mother Mary”. The image of Mary with the Christ-child in her arms, at the breast, or on her lap has a long history, perhaps as far back as the second century,(11) and as the Panagia Nikopoia, the seated, enthroned, hieratic Virgin Mother holding the child, became a dominant image in western catholic Christendom.

Representations of the Virgin and Child in this manner are still common, particularly in devotional images. Herman’s work is not a devotional image, but it has the potential to become one. There are two points in particular that need to be made about it, which illustrate that potential.

Firstly, both mother and child are naked. This might seem at first to distance the image from traditional representations of the Virgin and Child.(12) In fact, it takes us to a deeper level of significance. Mary is the second Eve, whose purity and, above all, obedience, to the will of God, undoes the disobedience of the first. (Gen. 3:1–7). The paradisal condition of Adam and Eve is nakedness, and with it innocence. “The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” (Gen. 2:25). Only with the disobedience does there come self-consciousness and shame; the first instinct of the man and the woman is to cover themselves, originally with fig-leaves (Gen. 3:7)(13). Clothing can thus signify humankind’s Fallen condition. The pre-lapsarian nakedness has no implication of sensuality or prurience — it is not, to use the word in its current, debased sense, ‘nudity’.

Herman’s ‘Mother’ is naked in an unselfconscious, non-erotic way. She is relaxed, the angle of the head indicating that her attention is entirely focussed upon the child seated, or rather, “dandled”, upon her knee. Again, a verse of Genesis (4:1) comes to mind; expelled from Eden, “Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, ‘With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.’”.(14) The pose of Herman’s ‘Mother and Child’ strongly suggests this understanding: “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man”.(15) The tenderness, thankfulness, awe, even reverence in the pose of the mother is inescapable.

The child betrays the helplessness of infancy. Without the support of the mother’s arms, he would fall. This brings us to the second, significant, point. Although there are the very slightest indications of features in the mother, there are none at all in the child. There is no individuation. The child is ‘Child’. There is great theological significance here. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, incarnate of the Virgin Mary, has particularity. He is “The Man”. His entire earthly life, within a particular historical context and temporal framework, has soteriological significance. But, as the Christian Creeds remind us, “He was made Man”; He is the “second Adam” who “to the fight, and to the rescue came”, in Cardinal Newman’s phrase. The first Adam and the first Eve were the progenitors of “all the living” (Gen. 3:20); the second Adam (Christ) and the second Eve (Mary) through their sacrificial obedience in love to the will of the Father, become the means whereby the curse of Fallen life through disobedience is lifted. Thus in Jesus there is both particularity and universality. The featureless “Child” of Herman’s composition can lead us through into this understanding.

On the Way Home. (1975. Colour lithograph).  image
Only in St Matthew’s Gospel (2:13–15) is the Flight into Egypt recorded, but it has been popular in Christian iconography since the fifth or sixth centuries.(16) The central composition contains the figures of Mary, carrying the Christ child and seated upon an ass, and Joseph, who leads or follows the animal. From the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, depictions of the flight tended to include quite detailed landscapes as well as the central figures, and, as in the sixteenth century painting by Cornelius van Poelenburgh, the composition can be set at a particular time of the day; in van Poelenburgh’s work, at twilight.

This is precisely the composition that we find in Herman’s On the Way Home. Only, here, there is no child, merely a walking male figure, and a female, seated side-saddle, upon a donkey or ass. Nonetheless, the composition strongly suggests Matt. 2:13–15, even if it is not directly inspired by it. In this lithograph the landscape is merely suggested, but harsh. It is the featureless sand of the seashore. Beyond is the blue of the sea, with a misty, crescent moon reflected in its surface. However, the shadows would suggest that there is still some sunlight. It is twilight.(17)

Twilight and night are closely bound up with the story of the flight into Egypt. It was “during the night” (Matt. 2:14) that Joseph took Mary and the child, and began the journey into exile. Given the heat of the day, and the vulnerability of lone travellers during the daylight hours, it would have been at twilight, during the hours of darkness, and at dawn that the fugitives would have pursued their journey.

But the Holy Family did not just journey into exile. They returned. (Matt. 2:20–21). There was a time when they, too, were On the Way Home. Here there is a parallel with the Exodus, the wanderings in the wilderness (and by the seashore) en route to the Promised Land. This is Home. The figures in Herman’s lithograph have about them an air of weariness from long labour and toil, but also that sense of ‘looking forward’ to rest; to all that the word ‘home’ implies; something personal, of the heart; something far more than ‘abode’ or ‘dwelling’.(18)

Fisherman. (1960–61. Inkwash).  image
This is one of a number of Herman’s works inspired by fishing, and is a very good example of that “timeless moment when life stands still” which he always tried to capture. The composition is simplicity itself. A solitary figure, seated upon a rock, stares out at a boat moored close by. There is an air of tranquillity about him which bespeaks the contemplative, the seeker after quiet. The image suggests no one Biblical text, but there are echoes here of those occasions when Jesus Himself sought silence and the solitary state for communion in prayer. (e.g. Matt. 14:13; 14:23).

Portuguese Fisherman. (1963. Oil on canvas.)(19)  image
This painting is very closely related in subject matter to the previous composition. The difference is that here the boat is not moored, but drawn up on the shore, its bow pointing out to sea. The solitary fisherman sits in the stern, his back to the artist (and the viewer) and looks out over the water. There is the same sense of ‘arrested eternity’ here, the same tranquil sense of stillness and a contemplative intimacy with the Divine. However, if the image is taken in conjunction with Matt. 14:13, then the truth of Herman’s identity with Munch’s “living people who breathe, feel, suffer and love” is brought home to us. In that verse from Matthew’s gospel we find Jesus withdrawing by boat to a solitary place. The reason for his retreat is the hearing of the execution of his cousin and ‘forerunner’ John the Baptist, at the hands of Herod. (Matt. 14:1–12). Jesus’ withdrawal here is necessitated by his sense of loss, pain and grief. There is shadow as well as light in the life of the Saviour just as much as there is in our own. And it is just as much sorrow, pain and loss that need to be brought before God and committed to Him, as joy. Herman’s Portuguese Fisherman can speak to us of the enriching love that comes from entering into the magnitude of the mercy and compassion of God.

Hanging out the Nets (1948–49. Inkwash).  image
Mending Nets (1959–60. Inkwash).  image
Mending Nets (1959–60. Inkwash).  image
It is helpful to take these three compositions together, as, although the first is separated from the others by a decade, they are so closely linked thematically. The first comes out of Herman’s experience of the fishing villages of the Scottish Highlands and Islands, and what he himself wrote of that experience helps us interpret both it and the two later compositions. “A group of fishermen in yellow or black oilskins standing on shore, sitting in the boat, or moving about their tasks. A dream-like tranquillity. A planet all its own. In the atmosphere of this planet one forgets the distant hustle and one is reminded of more durable rhythms. Each figure self-contained in a grand form. Each group telling the simple tale of human bondage….(20) [my italics] In this first composition we have two standing figures, set against the hull of a clinker-built boat drawn up on the shore. The two men are separated by a line of nets, which they are carefully and meticulously untangling and hanging out to dry. In the second, we have a single, seated figure, bending over a net between his knees, and in the act of repairing it. In the third, three figures, again seated, one with his back to the artist (and ourselves), one in profile, and, in the centre, the third facing towards the left foreground. All are bent forward in the act of repairing nets – indeed, it is only the shared occupation which brings the figures together.

In all three of these works, Herman has achieved his “dream-like tranquillity”, the self-containment of which he speaks. What comes across most strongly is not only the total absorption of the men in their appointed task, a task which is vital to their livelihood, but their skill and assurance in the work that they are undertaking. These are men who know precisely what they are doing, and have satisfaction at least, and possibly joy, in the doing of it. One is reminded inescapably of Matt. 4:21, the call of the apostles James and John, who were “in a boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets”, and Luke 5:2, the fishermen washing their nets alongside two beached boats, one belonging to Simon (Peter). Just as Herman’s three works here recall to mind these Biblical texts, so in their turn the texts re-enforce the impact of the images. It is, for example, important to remember that the tasks of mending and washing of the nets are tasks of preparation. Tangled or broken nets, nets coated with slime, weed and detritus, when cast will not yield a catch. The work of fishing depends much upon the quality of the preparation. In Luke 5, Jesus makes use of this understanding. It is the newly washed (prepared) nets which are “let down for a catch” (v. 4) and which yield so large a harvest that the nets begin to break with the strain (v. 6). It is only after this dramatic demonstration that Jesus says to the fishermen “from now on you will catch men” (v. 10). The catching of men, the work of evangelism, requires just as much assiduous preparation, of washing, mending and attention to detail, as does the catching of fish.

It demands also total dedication and absorption in the task. And here again the Lucan narrative (5:1) is helpful. Jesus was not only standing on the sea-shore, he had about him a crowd of people, who he was teaching. Yet the fishermen – the very men he was about to call so dramatically – were oblivious of this activity. They were by their two boats, washing their nets (v. 2). This is the single-minded attention to the task in hand that the three works of Herman depict so effectively. Thus, once again, if it is illustration of the gospel narrative that we seek, then the work of Josef Herman can provide it.

Pruning the Vines.(21)
The final work in this selection returns us to the fields, and once more to that bent figure which is Herman’s characteristic depiction of toil. Here the figure is central, tending espaliered vines, against a background of open country. Herman says of the image “Watching a figure bent over the low vines, noting the rhythm of his hands – one holding shears, the other the twig to be cut – reminds me of some sacred ritual…Should I succeed in synthesizing its grandeur, I could call it justly ‘Pruning the Vine’ and be certain that it is a poetic record of all such incidents, that I have captured the universal in the particular.”(22)

I have discussed the image of the vine and the grape-cluster elsewhere,(23) and much of that discussion is relevant to this composition of Herman’s, but need not be reproduced here. I want rather to concentrate upon that passage in Jesus’ Last Supper discourse with his disciples, in John 15, particularly vv.1–2, which this composition of Herman’s brings to mind. “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-dresser. He cuts off every branch that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” Taken in this context, Herman’s vine-dresser reveals God the Father engaged in that labour of love, what could even be termed “the toil of God”, which is the tending and pruning of his creation, that it may fulfil its purpose. In its turn, the espaliered vine has long been seen as an allegory of the crucifixion, the outspread branches representing the outstretched arms of Jesus upon the cross. It is through this sacrificial self-offering, this painful pruning, that humankind’s salvation is achieved, and paradise restored. Jesus is “the true locus amoenus, the earthly paradise made once more available to man and able to renew him”.He is “the soul’s Edenic refuge”.(24) This final image thus returns us to a contemplation of the Adamic state which we discussed in Mother and Child.

Two final, more general, points can be made. All of Herman’s art-work discussed here depict what could be called “pre-technological” labour.(25) Labour in the fields or the vineyard, in fishing and child-rearing, the work is intensely personal and tactile, a bonding of those involved with what they are undertaking. It is this intimacy which makes these compositions of Herman’s so entirely apposite for the illustration of the Biblical texts and narratives which they call to mind.

Secondly, as was noted earlier, none are devotional images, though all have the potential to become such. In most cases, if not all, they can be seen and used as allegories; they may even be said to be aneikonic. Herman’s own Jewish background, his personal experience and understanding of suffering, his conviction of the essential dignity of man and of “the work of men’s hands”, all these provide a fertile soil for meditation and contemplation.(26)

The Giardino di Orationi of 1454 urged the faithful to meditate by using “memory places”, by rooting the Biblical narrative in familiar surroundings. Speaking of the Passion, the author instructed his readers to allow familiar places and people to represent the places and people of the story in their minds. Thus the visualizing of the familiar, an active process, made real the events of the Passion in the present, transcending both time and space.(27) Art-work can and does help in the process of ‘realizing’ (making real) a Biblical narrative, not only that of the Passion. The art-work of Josef Herman belongs in the long tradition of compositions that do just that.

John Morgan-Guy
January 2006


Note on images: A selection of images by Josef Herman may be found on the website of the Boundary Gallery, London. The above links to individual works on the Gallery website may only be temporarily operational.

1.  Josef Herman. Biographical Notes. There is, I would suggest, a world of difference between putting the British working class on a pedestal, and Herman’s own description, during his Ystradgynlais years, of the Welsh miner as “the walking monument of labour” Josef Herman, Related Twilights. Notes from an Artist’s Diary (London, Robson Books, 1975) p.102.

2. He gave this title to the first chapter of his Related Twilights. Op.cit. p.10.

3. Moelwyn Merchant, Fragments of a Life (Llandysul, Gomer, 1990) p.29.

4. Quoted in ibid. p.39.

5. Ibid. p.42.

6. Ibid. p.41. In this respect the art of Josef Herman can be compared with the poetry of his contemporary, R S Thomas. As D Z Phillips said of Thomas, he wanted to “celebrate the sense of eternity” in his verse. D Z Phillips, R S Thomas: Poet of the Hidden God (London, Macmillan, 1986) p 169.

7. Herman was not reluctant to speak of “our spiritual depth”. He does so, for example, in his short essay in Related Twilights on A P Ryder. Op.cit. p.217. He also cited with approval Henryk Gotlib’s recognition of the link “between the act of painting and mystical experience”. Op.cit. p.211.

8. Quoted by Malcolm Yorke, Eric Gill. Man of Flesh and Spirit (London, Constable, 1981) p.86.

9. Merchant pointed out that the bent figure “is Herman’s invariable rendering of toil: bent over the cobbler’s last, bent at the coal face, bent at the potato picking, bent at the drawn net, and, in the solitary labour of the vineyard, bent over the branches and the pruning knife.” Op.cit. p.50.

10. One cannot but be reminded of the lines in R S Thomas’ poem Aside, “no forward and no back / In the fields, only the year’s two / Solstices, and patience between”.

11. See for example the image of Mary nursing the infant Jesus in the second century catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.

12.It is, perhaps, worth noting that Herman knew the Mexican muralist Orozco’s ‘Virgin and Child’, in which the figures are naked. Related Twilights p.179.

13. In the alternative ‘strand’ of the tradition, Genesis 3 verse 21, it is God who clothes the disobedient, Fallen, man and woman.

14. There has been a long debate down the centuries as to whether Adam and Eve had sexual intercourse before the Fall. One ‘strand’ of the argument saying ‘no’, that the pre-lapsarian state of innocence precluded the possibility, even the necessity of such a relationship, the other ‘strand’ saying ‘yes’; there was sexual intimacy and intercourse, but without desire. In the pre-lapsarian state there was pleasure, but not pain. For example, the pleasure of sexual intimacy was enjoyed, but the pain (of childbirth) came only with the Fall. (Genesis 3 verse 16). The text of Genesis, chapters 2 and 3, however, gives no conclusive indication.

15. It has to be said at once that in Herman’s painting there is no indication as to the gender of the child. In this context, that is immaterial. The emphasis here is upon “With the help of the Lord…”

16. Gaston Duchet-Suchaux & Michel Pastoureau, The Bible and the Saints (Paris & New York, Flammarion, 1994) pp 149–150.

17. Twilight, as the title of Herman’s autobiography suggests, had a particular significance for him. In that work, for example, he speaks of it as the time of “the resignation of the world before the night sets in.” Op.cit. p.36.

18. It should not be forgotten that ‘home’ can also mean ‘the place to which one belongs’. In the Christian sense, our true ‘home’ is heaven, no transitory place, but an eternity in the presence of God.

19. The original locus of this work was Torremolinos. Herman, op.cit. p.128, where it is illustrated.

20. Quoted in Merchant, op.cit. p.36.

21. The original locus of this work was La Rochepot. It is reproduced in Herman, op.cit. p.120, at the beginning of his reminiscence of his visit there. It is also reproduced in Merchant, op.cit. p.51. The painting is in the collection of National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, Accession Number NMW A 1603

22. Quoted in ibid. p.50.

23. See the discussion paper on the significance of the vine motif on the pulpit at St Mark’s Church, Brithdir, on this website [to be published on this site shortly].

24. Anthony D Cousins, The Catholic Religious Poets from Southwell to Crashaw. A Critical Study. (London, Sheed & Ward, 1991) p.91.

25. I owe this insight to a discussion of these works with my wife, Valerie Morgan-Guy.

25. Herman believed that “the pain of living must never be too far from artistic expression”. Op.cit. p.97.

26. I am grateful to my colleague Dr Martin O’Kane for bringing this reference to my attention.