Victoria Finlay, in her introductory chapter of Color: A Natural History of the Palette, states: “One of the most extraordinary moments in the history of paint happened in eighth-century Byzantium. Painted icons had all but been destroyed after senior church members argued it was against God’s teaching to make images.”
After much debate, it was resolved that the icons were celebrations of the natural gifts of God, not only in their depictions, but also in their materials. By using plants and rocks and insects and eggs, God was glorified through the body of the artwork. Even today Orthodox icon painters choose pigments that are as natural as possible.
The former Brother Aidan had been an Orthodox monk for sixteen years before leaving his order to marry. Aiden Hart is today a New Zealand icon painter. He has found that natural colors fit with his sense of aesthetics as well as his theology.
He demonstrates the subtle difference in paint by pouring a little French ultramarine powder, invented in the nineteenth century, onto his palm. “All these crystals are the same size, and they reflect the light too evenly. It makes the paint less interesting than if you use real ultramarine ground from stones. The natural paints are not perfect. Humanity, like all Creation, was created pure but not perfect, and the purpose of being born is to reach your true potential. Grinding a piece of natural rock so that it becomes the blush on a saint’s cheek can be seen as a parallel transformation.”
The Orthodox tradition emphasizes the light inside every human being. Icon paintings begin with light, which seems to shine through the pigments and also through the gold laid on top. Hart explains: “The intention is to introduce you to reality, not to imitate nature. It is to show you not what you see, but what is real.”