“Jesus in the middle of the fighting”

Story behind the “Jesus Prince of Peace” icon

by Ken Sehested

Two things distinguish the “Jesus Prince of Peace” icon (displayed below). One is the sheer fact of the hand-drawn images of brutality and violence surrounding the central figure. This isn’t normal iconographic practice.

The second distinctive is that the iconographer is a Baptist—not your usual religious affiliation for such artists. And he is from Georgia, but not that Georgia.

The artist’s name is Mamuka Kapanadze. He is the iconographer for the Evangelical Baptist Church of The Republic of Georgia, whose liturgical culture is heavily influenced by the Orthodox tradition.

As tensions were building before the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, 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." His friend and pastor, Evangelical Baptist Bishop Malkaz Songulashvili (yes, Georgian Baptist have bishops) said “we need an image of Jesus as Prince of Peace.”

"I wondered if it was okay with iconographical dogmatics to paint Jesus in the middle of war,” Mamuka said. “I had ideas in my head, but I could not visualize how could it be that Jesus was in the middle of fighting with someone who is dead, someone who is exploded. When I finished the icon I took a photo and sent it to Malkhaz and asked if he was happy. He said it was perfect."

Malkhaz later took a photocopy to a meeting of the European Baptist Federation where Russian Baptists were present, and it was part of the reconciliation between the Georgian and Russian Baptists. It was first published in a British magazine.

At an ecumenical meeting the Russian Patriarchate was supposed to participate but then backed out. Malkhaz set a photocopy of the icon as an offer of friendship, and the Russian Orthodox representatives came to the meeting. Jesus amid war is a new item in iconography.

Georgian Baptists have been at the forefront of numerous civil rights struggles in that country, including advocacy for religious freedom and opposition to discrimination against Muslims and gayfolk.

Georgia (Georgians themselves refer to their country’s name as Sakartvelo) lies between the Black and Caspian Seas, with Russia and the Caucasus Mountains on its northern border, Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan to the South. The oldest human remains outside of Africa are from this region.

The Georgian language belongs to its own ancient linguistic group, including their own alphabet, unlike no other language spoken outside the region. It first became a unified kingdom in the 9th century; was conquered for a period by Mongols in the thirteen century; was the subject of rivalry between the Ottoman and Persian empires; was annexed by Russia in 1801; and did not regain its independence until 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The eastern Georgian Kingdom of Iberia became one of the first states in the world to convert to Christianity in the early fourth century, when the King of Iberia Mirian III established it as the official state religion. The missionary who effected this conversion was a woman—Saint Nino (pictured at left), thought to come from a Greek-speaking Roman family in Cappadocia (part of modern Turkey). Nino is venerated by Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches as well as Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic Churches.

I think St. Nino would have been proud of this part of her legacy.

#  #  #

©Ken Sehested @ prayerandpolitiks.org
For a profile of Georgian Baptists’ first female bishop, see Ken Sehested’s “Listen to the Daisies: A profile of Georgian Baptist Bishop Rusudan Gotsiridze.”

I am indebted to my dear friend Dan Buttry for alerting me to this story and for providing key pieces of information. Dan has been present, shoulder to shoulder, with Georgian Baptists and others in nonviolent direct action resisting injustice in that country.