"When I first started making them, they were for me an image of another world, a spiritually rich world," said Sokolov. "When I began to paint icons I understood that painting sacred art is a method of building your soul."
Twenty-three years and hundreds of icons later, the passion still blazes, and his new exhibit at the new Russian Cultural Center bears testament to that fact.
"I love to do this," said Sokolov, now a veteran iconographer whose works command as much as $5,000 and grace private homes and cathedrals in Japan, England, and his native Russia. "It is wonderful to show the beauty of Christ, the beauty of Christianity."
Sokolov's exhibit of nearly a dozen icons -- venerated images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary or saints -- brings to Washington a religious art tradition that extends as far back as the 6th century.
Emperors and Orthodox church leaders in the 8th century tried to stop the use of icons in Orthodox worship fearing it bordered on idolatry, sparking a doctrinal debate -- the iconoclast controversy -- that continued for the next 100 years. The matter was finally resolved in 843, when a synod convened by the Empress Theodora restored icons in Orthodox churches. The synod's decree is commemorated every year by Orthodox Christians with a special service on the first Sunday of Orthodox Lent, the "Sunday of Orthodoxy."
Iconmaking made its way to Russia in the 10th century, but fell victim to repression during the Soviet era. The government viewed icons as museum pieces, not venerated images.
"When I first started in this, iconography and religion was not prohibited, but it was repressed," said Sokolov, who parlayed the training he received in art restoration at Moscow Surikov Art School and Strogonov Art College into a career in iconography. "It was difficult to be an artist painting icons, it was difficult to make icons out in the open. I had to do it underground -- no sale papers, no taxes."
Undaunted, Sokolov embarked upon a two-year apprenticeship with a master iconographer -- a Russian monk -- before striking out on his own.
The art form requires discipline and patience, said Sokolov. Just preparing the wood canvasboard -- which requires layers of linen, gesso and tempera paint -- can take as long as 48 hours, he said. One icon can take as long as seven days to complete.
"Yes, it can take a long time," conceded Sokolov, "but the end result is so beautiful."
Spiritual preparation before painting is just as important, said Sokolov.
"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 to dedicate my hands and my soul as an offering to God."
His images are lush, resplendent with vibrant blues and autumnal golds and reds. One icon in the Cultural Center exhibit shows a forlorn Madonna cradling Jesus Christ in her arms as she gazes into the distance. Peering inquisitively into her bronze face, Christ cups his mother's cheek with one hand in a frozen gesture of comfort. To their left, a stone-faced St. Nicholas gazes sternly at the world.
"There is the opinion that icons must be cold, only serious -- no passion, no emotion in the face," said Sokolov. "For me, that's impossible. I try to show mood, not with a smile or a frown, but with the whole piece -- expression, color, everything. I want my work to be emotional."
Exhibitions of religious icons are rare, said Sokolov. Most iconmakers, himself included, are commissioned by churches or private individuals. But Sokolov said he believes icons should be shown to the public.
"They say that is not the right way, that we must paint only for the church," he said. "But I think it is very important to exhibit because there are many people who will never come to church, never see icons in any other place except an exhibit. Very many people think iconography is something very old, medieval -- they don't believe that sacred art is still alive."