Thirty years ago the word icon had a very specific meaning. It referred exclusively to the religious art of the Orthodox Churches of the East. Today the word is used for many other objects, ranging from famous movie stars to computer shortcuts for opening an application. When the word refers to religious art, however, it reverts once again, almost exclusively, to Orthodox religious art.
Orthodox icons date back to the period after Constantine when Christianity came out of the catacombs as a public presence in Mediterranean cultures. This art form has evolved slowly for almost 16 centuries, yet has remained remarkably the same. While the Western Church originally had its own icons, in the form of Romanesque paintings, the West went its own way after the Mendicant religious orders were founded in the 13th century, by saints like Francis and Dominic. Western art became more emotional and began to pursue natural realism, both as a response to new forms of popular piety and the rise of modern sciences.
Brother Robert has always referred to his religious images as icons. He learned iconography in a Greek Orthodox monastery and created Orthodox icons for almost ten years as an Orthodox Christian, for Orthodox church buildings. When he left the Orthodox Church in 1982, he gradually began introducing new elements into his icons, such as saints that do not belong to Orthodoxy, brighter colors, and elements from non-European cultures—cultures that have become Christian in recent centuries. His intention was to help reintroduce a form of iconography to Western Christianity, after centuries of a different type of Western religious art.
Orthodox and Romanesque icons did not develop in a vacuum. They had as predecessors the ancient funerary art of Egypt. In the 1920s, an Orthodox theologian, Pavel Florensky, connected the first Christian icons with mummy portraits from Roman Egypt, especially at Fayum. The mummy mask made present the person of the deceased. It was a sacramental effort to bridge this world with the world we cannot see. Its purpose was the purpose of every icon, whether it is a Baule mask from West Africa, a Tibetan sand painting, a Russian Orthodox icon, or an impasto oil painting by Georges Rouault. What makes a piece of visual art an icon is not its connection with Orthodox Churches, but its purpose and style.
Primordially, iconographic art is the art of shamanism. It takes for granted the existence of another reality beneath and behind what we can see and touch. It answers our desire to communicate with that world, through symbol. Its purpose is not to decorate, illustrate, arouse edifying emotions, or tell a story, but to bridge realities/worlds. It does this through arbitrary symbolism meant to express the transcendence of divine mystery. This symbolism varies from one culture to the next, but its purpose is always the same.
In losing its icons 800 years ago, the West lost an important aspect of its religious life. As the new Western art focused on story telling or evoking emotion, it slowly abandoned much of its transcendence. When Brother Robert began his experiment 30 years ago, it was to revitalize Western religious art by restoring elements preserved in Orthodox icons.
Because it has been centuries since Christian icons were anything besides Orthodox, it’s not surprising that critics today find fault with Robert’s icons for not being Orthodox. Cyberspace is cluttered with countless pages of blogs full of these criticisms. They fail to see that a new kind of icon is developing in the West—one that is Catholic, non-European, and modern. However modest its beginnings, a new school of iconographers have sprung up around Robert, composed of his students and those who in various ways copy his work. These new non-Orthodox icons may not fit into Byzantine churches, or traditional Byzantine piety, but they speak of Christian responses to the Gospel elsewhere in the world today.