Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.


Herman, Bruce - VM - Alexandra Harper

Bruce Herman: Riven Tree

A Theology of Trees

by Alexandra Jean Harper

Then Jesus approached and said to them,
"All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age." Matthew 28:18-20

Today the church celebrates Trinity Sunday, the core Christian belief that God is three Persons in one divine nature: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is a deep mystery that we can scarcely fathom yet know to be true according to the Scriptures (e.g., Gen. 1-2; 18:1-15; Ex. 3:14, Jn 14:1,5; Deut. 4:32-34, Ps. 33; Rom. 8:14-17; Matt. 28:16-20). Historically, the church has depicted icons of the Holy Trinity such as the three winged Persons in The Icon of the Hospitality of Abraham.

It may seem odd to offer a resurrection painting to reflect on the Trinity, but American artist Bruce Herman’s Riven Tree offers an excess of meanings. Herman’s title shares the theme of “riven-ness” with the poem "Every Riven Thing" by Christian Wiman. “Riven” means “split or torn violently” and both poem and image are imbued with wonder over God’s making and unmaking, brokenness and belonging in the midst of mystery.

When Dr. Richard Hays, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School, commissioned a resurrection work, Herman was struck by the challenge. According to Herman, resurrection paintings rarely range among great works of art. Something ineffable yet essential to the resurrection seems absent even among the masters’ works.

The Gospels do not tell the moment of the Jesus’s resurrection. The resurrection is a hidden noise, known but not open to for public consumption. While Jesus is honored by all, by his divine nature, the Son’s triumph is a Godhead event: The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit form a unique community in action and adoration.

Riven Tree depicts a theology of trees in Scripture to advance a compelling vision for humanity and creation through the creative and dramatic destruction of the Cross, God’s architecture of resistance to humanity’s greatest enemy: death. While the bodily resurrection of Christ is central to the birth of the church, the very hiddenness of those first moments led Herman to reach beyond the human form for a symbol that captures the meaning behind the experience. Whereas typical resurrection paintings show an isolated, individual event with Christ alone, Herman’s Riven Tree is layered with symbols.

Symbols grant passage to meaning beyond the immediate. Here, they are thresholds that trace God’s story from ground zero (the predella) into the Kingdom of God (the lunette). Although it appears to be three panels, Herman has constructed four main panels with a mysterious fifth element (the central vertical gold plinth) that links the medieval elements of earth, water, fire and air to the works of God and man. Herman outlines his theology of trees and symbols here:

1. The Roots of the Tree: The predella (bottom) shows the space before Time that is marked by the Fall and Paradise lost. Here, the skull symbolizes death as a consequence of man’s mistrust, pride and disobedience. The serpent’s temptation to eat from the tree forbidden by God has led to a world wrecked by ambition and greed. First Element: Earth

2. The Tree in Time: This panel hints of the Cross when the tree is seen through the emersion of history, prophecy and pilgrimage. Here, the tree is a promise and source of sustenance yet troubled by suffering and labor. Second Element: Water

3. The Tree of the Cross: This is God’s intervention in human history and we are “redeemed from fire by fire” (cf. “Little Gidding” from Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot). This also references the Burning Bush which is never consumed. Third Element: Fire

4. Tree in Paradise Regained: The lunette holds an image of life that grows out of the Kingdom of God: “A shoot will spring from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1). This panel symbolizes the fulfillment of Time and Time redeemed, with gold as the symbol of the new heavens and green for the new earth. Fourth Element: Air

5. Jesus Christ is the Tree of Life: The vertical shaft of gold is the ladder that bridges heaven and earth and restores humankind to God. Christ is the mysterious Fifth Element: the “Ether” (the quintessence), in which all the Elements are held together (Col. 1:17).

Through a theology of trees, Riven Tree promises that all time, all places and all people are gathered back to God. Now, as we celebrate the Trinity this Sunday, may we remember the meaning of the Resurrection journey with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.


Bruce Herman, Riven Tree, 2016 triptych in oil and alkyd resin on wood with 23kt gold, platinum, and silver leaf.

Bruce Herman is a painter, and Professor of Art at Gordon College, near Boston, where he is currently Lothlórien Distinguished Chair in the Fine Arts. Herman’s artwork has been exhibited in over 100 exhibitions in major cities in the United States (Boston, New York, Chicago, L.A.) and abroad (England, Italy, Israel, Japan, Hong Kong). His work is housed in many private and public collections including the Vatican Museums in Rome; Grunwald Center at Armand Hammer Collection, L.A. County Museum, Cincinnati Museum of Art, and the DeCordova Museum.

Alexandra Jean Harper is the Creative Director for Culture Care, a ministry department of Artists in Christian Testimony International (A.C.T. Intl). Her work equips the local church to show Christ in creation, creativity and artistry. She received an M.Div in Apologetics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. She then went on to receive an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination and the Arts at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. She has interned with the artist Makoto Fujimura as part of the Fujimura Institute based in New York City. She lives in Durham, North Carolina, USA. 

ArtWay Visual Meditation May 22, 2016