Towering icons of Jesus and the Virgin Mary painted on wood are part of the biggest art exhibit the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis has ever hosted.

Nearly 100 icons are included in the traveling exhibition called "Icons in Transformation" and is the largest of its kind in the world, according to Johan van Parys, director of liturgy and sacred arts at the historic downtown church.

The expansive exhibition -- with wood panels rising up to 9 feet tall -- features the contemporary work of abstract expressionist Ludmila Pawlowska along with traditional Russian icons from the Vassilevsky Monastery.

The icons are on display through Nov. 15 at the church, 88 N. 17th St.

Icons often depict images of Jesus and other Christian holy figures and are a hallmark of the Eastern tradition. Found in Russian, Greek and Ukrainian orthodox churches, their use dates to the 14th century.

"They're sort of like a visual entrance into the sacred," Van Parys said. "They're considered somewhat parallel to the holy scriptures themselves, as they are visual representations of the scriptures."

Pawlowska's work combines painting and sculpture, using a mixed technique that includes oil, acrylic, fabric, metal, stone, copper and granite on wood panels. Both her icons and the icons from the Russian monastery were created in recent times but are inspired by traditional icons, Van Parys said.

"New icons are never really created," he said. "Today when iconographers paint or write an icon, they use prototypes. They go back to the ancient tradition."

The exhibition has been shown in churches in Europe and has been in the United States nearly three years. The basilica is the first U.S. Catholic church to host the exhibit, Van Parys said.

"I think they are beautiful pieces of art," he said. "There's a mystical aspect to it, that you can see as Christian mysticism. But I think there is a more global sacred mystical aspect to it that calls people."

Rose French • 612-673-4352