Icons and Baptists don’t usually go together, but they do in the Republic of Georgia where the deep iconography tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Churches has been as rich as stained glass in the Western Churches. So if Baptists churches in the U.S. use stained glass to express their faith and tell their stories why not Baptists in Georgia use icons? And what a rich story they have.
I have traveled to Georgia nine times beginning in January 2004 immediately after the Rose Revolution. In those trips I’ve seen much wonderful art from monastic caves in the desert where Syrian monks painted their icons on the stone walls to dark Orthodox cathedrals with candles before the icons. The Baptists in Georgia have incorporated much iconography into their worship spaces and spirituality. But the story of the Christ the Prince of Peace Icon is special.
In 2008 tensions were building between Georgia and Russia that would eventually erupt into war. The Baptist Archbishop at that time (Georgian Baptists call their regional leaders Bishops with their top official being the Archbishop), Malkhaz Songulashvili started a conversation with the Baptist iconographer and artist Mamuka Kapanadze about what to do. Mamuka wanted “to think of something as an expression of protest against the injustice we were experiencing, but on the other hand be nonviolent and speak about peace.” When the war erupted Malkhaz was in Oxford and called Mamuka saying they needed an icon on Christ as the Prince of Peace.
Mamuka had a bold image in his mind of Jesus in the middle of war, but wondered about the spirituality of putting Jesus with bodies and explosions around. He painted a picture and sent a photo to Malkhaz who thought it was perfect. Jesus amid war was a totally new theme in the history of iconography.
Malkhaz took the photo of the new icon to a meeting of the European Baptist Federation where Russian Baptists were present. That image became an expression of prayer, hope, and reconciliation for both sides. He also offered it to the Russian Orthodox leaders as an expression of reconciliation.
Malkhaz sent small copies of the icon to various friends in a beautiful triptych card. Sharon and I put the one we received in front of the large “Holy Trinity” icon Sharon had painted following the work of the Russian iconographer Rublev. It became a powerful focal point for our prayers for peace around the world, including for Georgia and Russia.
I visited the Baptist church in Gori (there are two Baptist churches in Gori that I’ve visited many times) where the Christ the Prince of Peace Icon without the war images hangs at the front of the sanctuary. The Russian advance stopped in Gori, and many people in Gori suffered from the war. A couple with young children who were part of that church were killed in the shelling, and some old women from the church were maimed by shrapnel. This January I was once again in Gori, preaching in front of the icon.
Later in the week I was welcomed into the home of Mamuka and his family. I saw some of the other wonderful art he had painted. He told me the story of the creation of the Christ the Prince of Peace Icon, which moved me deeply.
As I was about to depart from Georgia I found that Mamuka had dropped off a beautiful icon he had painted of the Transfiguration of Jesus. I was stunned. But how would I get it back to the U.S.? It was too big to put in the suitcase. Someone helped me securely wrap it with cloth and cardboard and lots of tape. But then at the airport I discovered that you can’t take art out of Georgia without special permission and documentation. There was no way I was going to be allowed to carry that icon on the plane! Fortunately the current Baptist Archbishop Merab Gaprindashvili had stayed around to be sure I’d gotten on the plane okay. Sorrowfully I handed the Transfiguration icon to Merab for safe-keeping.
Maybe someday on another trip we can get the documents to bring it to the U.S. But I was able to take away the amazing story of the Christ the Prince of Peace icon, to know the beautiful heart of Mamuka who put his faith into paint, and how this image has spurred the work of reconciliation. Thank you, Mamuka!