WASHINGTON -- Alexander Sokolov was 17 years-old when he stumbledupon a crossroads for his love of art and Orthodox Christianity, hisnewly adopted religion: painting religious icons.

"When I first started making them, they were for me an image ofanother world, a spiritually rich world," said Sokolov. "When I began topaint icons I understood that painting sacred art is a method ofbuilding your soul."

Twenty-three years and hundreds of icons later, the passion stillblazes, and his new exhibit at the new Russian Cultural Center bearstestament to that fact.

"I love to do this," said Sokolov, now a veteran iconographer whoseworks command as much as $5,000 and grace private homes and cathedralsin Japan, England, and his native Russia. "It is wonderful to show thebeauty of Christ, the beauty of Christianity."

Sokolov's exhibit of nearly a dozen icons -- venerated images ofJesus, the Virgin Mary or saints -- brings to Washington a religious arttradition that extends as far back as the 6th century.

Emperors and Orthodox church leaders in the 8th century tried tostop the use of icons in Orthodox worship fearing it bordered onidolatry, sparking a doctrinal debate -- the iconoclast controversy --that continued for the next 100 years. The matter was finally resolvedin 843, when a synod convened by the Empress Theodora restored icons inOrthodox churches. The synod's decree is commemorated every year byOrthodox Christians with a special service on the first Sunday ofOrthodox Lent, the "Sunday of Orthodoxy."

Iconmaking made its way to Russia in the 10th century, but fellvictim to repression during the Soviet era. The government viewed iconsas museum pieces, not venerated images.

"When I first started in this, iconography and religion was notprohibited, but it was repressed," said Sokolov, who parlayed thetraining he received in art restoration at Moscow Surikov Art School andStrogonov Art College into a career in iconography. "It was difficult tobe an artist painting icons, it was difficult to make icons out in theopen. I had to do it underground -- no sale papers, no taxes."

Undaunted, Sokolov embarked upon a two-year apprenticeship with amaster iconographer -- a Russian monk -- before striking out on his own.

"I did not want to be an artist outside of the church," saidSokolov, who worked as a professional iconmaker and teacher in Russiaand Japan, and helped to establish a school of iconography in Poland in1992. "It was too easy. I wanted the challenge of sacred art."

The art form requires discipline and patience, said Sokolov. Justpreparing the wood canvasboard -- which requires layers of linen, gessoand tempera paint -- can take as long as 48 hours, he said. One icon cantake as long as seven days to complete.

"Yes, it can take a long time," conceded Sokolov, "but the endresult is so beautiful."

Spiritual preparation before painting is just as important, saidSokolov.

"Silence is the right way -- no television, no music," said Sokolov."Iconmaking is a kind of spiritual service, so I must pray, and I try todedicate my hands and my soul as an offering to God."

His images are lush, resplendent with vibrant blues and autumnalgolds and reds. One icon in the Cultural Center exhibit shows a forlornMadonna cradling Jesus Christ in her arms as she gazes into thedistance. Peering inquisitively into her bronze face, Christ cups hismother's cheek with one hand in a frozen gesture of comfort. To theirleft, a stone-faced St. Nicholas gazes sternly at the world.

"There is the opinion that icons must be cold, only serious -- nopassion, no emotion in the face," said Sokolov. "For me, that'simpossible. I try to show mood, not with a smile or a frown, but withthe whole piece -- expression, color, everything. I want my work to beemotional."

Exhibitions of religious icons are rare, said Sokolov. Mosticonmakers, himself included, are commissioned by churches or privateindividuals. But Sokolov said he believes icons should be shown to thepublic.

"They say that is not the right way, that we must paint only for thechurch," he said. "But I think it is very important to exhibit becausethere are many people who will never come to church, never see icons inany other place except an exhibit. Very many people think iconography issomething very old, medieval -- they don't believe that sacred art isstill alive."