For a Roman Catholic, it's a crucifix or a rosary; a Jew will affix a mezzuzah to his doorpost; a Muslim will have a prayer rug. And the religious object that most identifies the Russian Orthodox religion is the icon.

Because of the suppression of religion in the Soviet Union since the revolution, icon may be more familiar as a word that appears occasionally on the newspaper political page than as a religious object. An icon is an image or picture of Christ, Mary or a saint that is venerated as sacred. While icons are not something the majority of Americans are familiar with, Gene D. Fitzgerald has become an expert on iconography, giving lectures as he did this week for the Utah Committee for American-Soviet Relations.As an associate professor of Russian language and literature at the University of Utah, Fitzgerald has made numerous trips to the Soviet Union. "I guess I was led to the Russian Orthodox Church by Dostoyevski, the greatest of the Russian religious writers," said Fitzgerald during an interview. "There is a sense of spirituality in the Russian Orthodox Church that is simply overwhelming. The music is glorious, the only instruments being voice. The choirs are truly inspiring - the meetings three hours long with no place to sit, there being no pews," he said. "With all the candles and gold, there is an inner light that seems to come out at you. There are voices of the choir you don't see, descending on you from above and priests intoning the liturgy and lighting incense. When I'm at a Russian Orthodox service, I feel like I am Russian Orthodox," he said.

Fitzgerald became fascinated with the icons found in Russian Orthodox homes and churches. "Just looking at an icon, you think maybe the spirit really is there. It has a profound effect on you," he said.

According to Fitzgerald, the sanctuary (where only priests enter) and the nave (where the congregation stands) of Russian Orthodox churches are separated by an iconostasis or a wall of icons. "They can be 8 feet high going to the ceiling," said Fitzgerald. "They don't actually divide the two but connect them, like connecting this world and the next, the sacred and the secular, all combined to make a sanctified whole."

Most of the icons he has collected during trips to the Soviet Union are house icons. "The prizes of my collection would be the metal icons that are from the 16th century. They are icons that people actually wore," he said. The metal icons were given to Fitzgerald by Russian friends who in turn received Duke Ellington records. "They knew me for a long time before they would give me the icons. They were interested that I would venerate the icons and treat them with respect," Fitzgerald explained.

One icon in Fitzgerald's collection is called "Our Lady of Sorrowful Joy" and represents Mary, the mother of Christ, who always knew through her joy that the end was Golgotha. Another of Christ depicts him being crucified on the spot where paradise was lost, with a skull below the cross representing the burial place of Adam. Fitzgerald explained that the scene represented the blood of Christ atoning for Adam's original sin.

"There are certain themes that are depicted in icons," said Fitzgerald, "and they are always created by a monk who is considered more a translator of the word into form than an artist." Icons are not a graven image that replaces God but a spirit-imbued image that leads to God. "Icons are not to be trifled with - the theology of the icon is that the spirit can descend into our midst," Fitzgerald said.

Many of the icons are gilded and when sunlight strikes them, they glow with light. "The painting is so detailed that the monks used brushes made of a single horsehair," he explained.

When Russia fell under communist rule in 1917, it was not economically wise for citizens to be seen in church. The village of Palekh, most noted for its beautiful icons, switched artforms. The artisans began producing lacquered boxes using folklore instead of religious motifs. "In 1988, I bought a set of the `little mother' nesting dolls that are a famous old Russian toy but now are made with religious art on each doll. This was in the millenial year of 1988, celebrating 1,000 years of Christianity in Russia. There is a resurgence of religious art now," Fitzgerald said.

"With the new period of openness the church is emerging," said Fitzgerald. "But it never was dead, there were always grandparents and children in church."