There is much we will never know about the early history of Byzantine iconography. Most icons were destroyed in the eighth century during an official purge called the “Iconoclasm.” The few icons that survived on the fringes of the empire date from the sixth or seventh centuries.
In the twelve centuries since the Iconoclasm, icons have become a dominant feature in the spiritual life of Eastern Christians. While iconographers have used mosaic, fresco, wax encaustic, and even oil colors to create icons, egg tempera has been the most common medium until now.
Brother Robert was trained in traditional Greek iconography, using egg tempera. In creating icons, pigment is added in layers from dark to light. Whereas many painters create shadows, iconographers create the light. The darkest pigments are applied first, and colors are added in lighter and lighter hues until the final layers of pure white light are applied. The final layer of white gives life to the icon and represents the light of God. Egg tempera is ideally suited to this process because of its transparent quality.
The problem in using egg tempera is that it will only bond with an absorbent natural gesso. Natural gesso is made from gypsum and animal skin glue and is extremely brittle. It cracks easily and flakes from surfaces if they warp. This is the reason so many old icons are missing large areas of paint.
For almost 40 years, Brother Robert has been using acrylic paint instead of egg tempera, because it allows him to use a flexible acrylic gesso for priming the boards on which he paints. Because acrylic is more opaque than tempera, it is more difficult to achieve the same delicate layering of dark to light colors. Robert compares it to trying to dance ballet in combat boots. Through years of practice, however, he has found ways to make the acrylic “dance.”
When purists object that egg tempera is superior because it uses “natural” materials, they forget that the materials that go into acrylics also come from the earth originally. It is difficult to imagine medieval iconographers not using whatever new pigments or materials might have come their way from caravans from the East or through human invention. Egg tempera, like encaustic painting or mosaic, is simply one medium among many that iconographers have used in the past.
When Robert begins a new icon, he does extensive, prayerful research. While notions of holiness became very ascetical and monastic in later centuries, Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel (verses 31-46) remains Christ’s own litmus test for holiness. Robert examines the life of the person he is considering painting in the light of Gospel passages like this. If the person’s life embodied a Christ-like love for others, he then considers symbols that can describe their life and love. This preliminary work may take weeks or even years. There are times when he has to tell a client that their request for a particular image is impossible. The process of creating an icon isn’t simply an artistic project, but a theological work.