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The Independent Culture

a tradition older than Christianity. Sergei Fyodorov, 39, whose solo selling exhibition opens in London on Thursday, was apprenticed to his father Zinon, the finest icon-painter in the former Soviet Union. He now works in a studio in a sandstone country mansion near Bath.

Fyodorov's stylised paintings of the Holy Family and saints are resplendent in gold leaf and pigments that he grinds himself from lapis lazuli, malachite and amber.

Iconographers are not Renaissance men. They abjure the fleshy naturalism of Giotto or Raphael, adhering instead to the pure forms of Byzantine painting zealously guarded by the Eastern Orthodox Church since its split with the Western (Roman Catholic) Church, back in 1054.

In his studio, Fyodorov tips a spoonful of Russian balsam into my tea - "in case you go to sleep". He is softly spoken and courteous.

Even Western eyes cannot fail to be transfixed by Fyodorov's disciplined harmonies of proportion and colour, but what makes one copier of archaic forms better than the rest?

Fyodorov has had commissions from all over Russia. In this country, he has painted icons for Winchester cathedral's retro-choir and a crucifixion for Rochester cathedral; two of his icons hang in Westminster Abbey. Why?

He explains: "Painting icons is like using a language. Every language has its own words, its own grammatical rules, but that does not mean that everybody can use the language to express themselves as deeply as they might wish. I try to combine the elements of the language - the rules of correct proportion, say, or the rules governing the positioning of the saints - in the most harmonious way. I have read plenty of books... but in the end it is the artist's eye that chooses the elements."

He points to the angels' wings of his Trinity, feathered with long strokes of gold. "This is a 14th-century style of wings," he says. "I would use a different style for the Angel Gabriel." And the mountains in the background? "Seventh century. The style is so old that I dare say they look modern to you."

"Every icon painter should have his own connection with eternity," he adds. "Then his icons will give direct experience of it, like a touch of heaven.

`A Vision of Eternity', 12-27 November (Monday-Friday, 10am-5.30pm), Daphne Johns Contemporary Art,

12 Duke Street, London SW1 (0171-839 7671). Prices: pounds 2,000-pounds 15,000