Beyond the Image: A Photographer's Journey to Orthodoxy
From the March 2013 issue of The Word
Eight years ago, David DeJonge came to St. Nicholas Antiochian Orthodox Church in Grand Rapids to photograph the wedding of Jamie Abraham, a parishioner of St. Nicholas. David is a very well-known photographer, having completed portraits of many notable Americans (including President Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, John McCain, Antony Scalia, Newt Gingrich, Jesse Jackson). Being keenly aware of images, David was struck by the icons recently painted by iconographer, Fr. Theodore Koufos. This first encounter with Orthodox icons was the beginning of a spiritual journey that led to his chrismation in the Holy Orthodox Church. David was again engaged to return to St. Nicholas several times to photograph the installation of other icons with the intent of producing a historical picture-book for the parish. It was through his labor and the icons that David discovered the saints who lived from apostolic times down into the twentieth century. David was shocked to realize that, although he had been a serious Protestant Christian, he was totally unaware of the history of the Church from the apostolic period until the Reformation, and much that he did not know in general about the Church. His newfound interest in iconography and church history led to the publication of a book that was much more than just a collection of beautiful photographs of the icons of St. Nicholas Church, but an historical guide to two thousand years of history. The book, nearly two hundred color pages, is entitled, Beyond the Image: The History of the Church through Iconography. The text was written by Katherine Khorey, a member of St. Nicholas, and the book was inspired and produced through the generosity of Gerald and Julie Abraham. It is available from St. Nicholas Church in Grand Rapids for $40 (616- 954-2700).
David has also formed a company that produces some very fine reproductions of icons. Interested readers can see David’s photographic work on his web site at www.dejongestudio.com. They may also find his reproductions on his webpage, www.legacyicons.com. What follows is David’s story in his own words.
Fr. Daniel Daly
After twenty years as a photographer and a lifetime growing up with Christian teaching, my life was about to change. I call this moment the scaffold of divine ascent. I approached the stairs and looked up and behind me. I quietly said to myself one of my “life sayings”: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” And so this journey began as I stepped onto the stairs.
This was an intriguing assignment, one steeped in mystery both in my life and in the construction around me in this church. As I began the slow ascent, I was astounded at how much the entire manmade structure shifted with my every step. This movement let those working above know immediately that someone new was arriving.
The soft voices echoing above acknowledged that a new person was coming up. At the top of the scaffold I could no longer see what was going on below, but only those things surrounding me sixty feet above the floor. The workers were installing the Pantocrator icon in the dome of St. Nicholas Antiochian Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
So what happens when you take a lifelong Protestant and drop him into the installation of iconography representing two thousand years of church history? For me what happened were a transformation and the beginning of an addiction to learning. These led in turn to the production of a book by which I could share the journey and knowledge with others, and to my eventual chrismation in the Orthodox Church.
As a Protestant I found that it was always a mystery how the Christian faith became what it is today. For me and for many Protestant Christians, Christian history seemed to go from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ directly to 1500 A.D. and Martin Luther. What I discovered in this assignment was the fifteen hundred missing years. This was a discovery not only of the blood of my Lord, but the blood of those who forged our faith, of those willing to give their all to share faithfully the good news of forgiveness and love – daughters killed by fathers for their love for Christ, and miracles of which I had never heard.
Everything within the Orthodox Christian faith is harmoniously ordered. Here I refer to what Orthodoxy calls Holy Tradition, that is, the Scriptures, the writings of the Church Fathers, the creeds and councils, the prayers, hymns and liturgy, as well as the icons of the Church. All these things are in harmony with one another down through the centuries. The icons of the saints that I saw in this church depicted many of the heroes in the long history of Christian faith.
Like the scaffold on which I now stood, the wisdom of the Church Fathers was critical to the stability and the future of the church. The “truth once delivered to the saints” has been preserved and made present to us not in history books, but in all the elements of the Holy Tradition of the Church. What I saw in the icons is the same truth professed in the Creed and expressed in the prayers and hymns of the Church. The history and life of the Church is present in the Holy Tradition. This was the history that longed to know.
At the top of the steps I was greeted by those who were not only artists but also expert church historians, actively working at their artistry . . . or was it just artistry? For what I have found in five years of studying church history, as part of the preparation of this book on iconography, is that everything within the Orthodox Christian faith is linked together to the past. There are checks and balances to make sure that there is no deviation from the foundations laid by Christ, the Apostles and the Church Fathers. For no one or no denomination can declare himself or herself Orthodox; first there must be a set of defining beliefs, rules, and structure.
Like the manmade scaffolding put up to construct this temple, eventually the men who made the structure and icons will fade away from the earthly scene. For the manmade structures can be flawed, damaged and imperfect. For those in the profession of iconography there is no room for imperfection as these images are visual stories to indicate to people today and in the future of the faith and outside of it. They must be faithful to the Tradition of the Church.
Again, like the structure of the scaffolds, the iconography is symbolic and historic and must adhere to centuries of consistency and instruction. For iconography has been called theology in color. As a mere human being, working to capture the photographs of this book, I will fade away as well. And when the men and women fade, what remains will form a link from the earliest days of the church to the future, so that others as well can trust the foundation described within this book. If we have done our jobs properly, you will look at the images rather than us. The history depicted within the iconography and photographs should be able to tell the story of Christianity accurately and sufficiently.
For the purposes of this book we decided not to delve into a theological defense of the use of icons in veneration, worship or prayer. If this perplexes you, we invite you to study the history of the Church using the full spectrum of materials now available, or to seek the counsel of an Orthodox priest. (These topics, however, were scrutinized and established at the Second Nicene Council in 787 AD.) As a lifelong historian and photojournalist my intent has always been to get as close to the source of the story as I could, and that has always meant going to the witnesses to gather information. Hopefully to find the witness is to find the truth. From there one can truly assess and determine one’s own beliefs. I studied thousands of hours in preparing this book, and many times have been surprised to learn that what I had thought was biblically correct in fact was wrong. Good study of church history should yield “clarity by contrast” for you, too, who are curious, shedding light on your own beliefs, wherever you end up.
The Antiochian stream of the Orthodox Church can trace its origins back to the very first church (after that of Jerusalem), founded by the Apostles in Antioch (thus the term Antiochian). The Orthodox Christian faith also gave the world the Nicene Creed that many Christian bodies either cite or use as a basis for Christian faith. Orthodox believe in apostolic succession, which means that each bishop is in a line of succession going back to the Apostles themselves. In laymen’s terms, this might be compared with a family tree or spiritual chain going back to the beginning, and to appointments made by the very first apostles. The Orthodox Church, for all intents and purposes, is the custodian of the undivided Church’s history, as Orthodox are in charge or share care of the most holy sites in Christian history: the Church of the Sepulcher, the Church of the Nativity, and the Monastery of St. Catherine which is at the foot of Mt. Sinai, to name a few. The Orthodox monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery have some of the oldest Christian documents in the world.
What I found in the process of producing this book was a vast gallery of witnesses to church history – icons, theologians and priests. The scaffolding at St. Nicholas has long since been taken apart and removed, allowing those below to fully view those above. With its removal, those above are looking down and witness clearly how people have assembled and disassembled their own lives; each person owns a scaffold of divine ascent. What are the pieces in our own lives that need repair? What acts of mercy are we not tending to? Are we spreading the news about the truth that can bring peace? What poor are we ignoring? What hurting need to be helped? Have we given up the first-class seat to aid the poor and the homeless? Do we help our neighbors the way we would help strangers on a mission trip overseas? What spiritually lost need help?
The lessons on the scaffolding are now permanently etched in my mind as now, each Sunday, my family worships at St. Nicholas. I look upon the face of the Pantocrator each week and reflect on where this journey has led me. To know that once I touched the face above, and one day I will be forever in His presence brings me the greatest comfort in my life. I am forever grateful for the friendships forged on this project. For it was my escort up and down the scaffold both in life and at St. Nicholas that has forever changed me. Perhaps those above are watching our lives the entire time to see if we are pure, and what truly lies Beyond the Image.
Let mercy lead us.