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Question 33.

Dear Father Christopher,

Since you write icons, please let me ask if you know or have read why behind our Lord in the icon of His Ascension, we see at the bottom, 2 semi circles, and behind Him, 5 concentric circles, each in a different colour, or 4 plus a black centre. In two places I found that these circles represent the Seven Heavens, because of the statement of the Apostle Saint Paul in his epistle to the Ephesians 4:10 that Our Lord has “ascended up far above all the heavens.” [Does this word “all” not suggest more than only “three”?] Furthermore, that the All-Holy Trinity dwells in an inaccesible abode, precisely above all the “Seven Heavens”. I do not see how this could be attributed to Gnostic heretics. At one time, I assumed the term “7 heavens” was alien to Orthodoxy but I have found it in St. Irenaeus “Against the Heresies Book 2, ch. 30:7”. But since he (Paul) has described that assumption of himself up to the third heaven, as something great and pre-eminent, it cannot be that these men ascend above the Seventh Heaven, for they are certainly not superior to the apostle." then his text continues quoting from Saint Paul himself in the New Testament “... Whether in the body, or whether out of the body, God knoweth.”
This fits with the “Cosmic Ladder” of the Christian Jews with their geometric pattern for each of the “Seven Heavens”.


Answer to Question 33

Dear J.

Your question on the Icon of the Ascension has puzzled me because I have never seen the two semi circles you mention are found on the bottom of the Icon. If you have a copy on you PC please send it me so that I can have a visual image of what you say. The concentric circles found in many Icons are called a mandorla and is a symbol used in Iconography to represent the divine glory or the heavens. They are usually of three concentric circles of graded blue with a white outer line which is just to tidy up the outline. I have seen Icons with four and five circles but never with seven. In the Ouspensky/Lossky book – The Meaning of Icons – on the interpretation of the Icon of the Ascension it says the following: “In iconography His (Christ’s) Glory is represented as a mandorla, oval or round, composed of several concentric circles, the symbol of the high heavens. Graphically this idea is conveyed by means of an image of the visible sky as the ancients saw it, which corresponds also to our modern conception of it as consisting of several spheres (troposphere, stratosphere, ionosphere). This symbolism shows that the ascending Saviour abides outside the earthly plane of existence and through this the moment of Ascension acquires a character that is outside time and so gives a quite special meaning to its details, taking them outside the narrow limits of an historical event.”

You mentioned that St. Irenaeus makes mention of seven heavens which indeed he does and not only in Book 2 Chapter 30:7, but also in Book 1 chapter 5:2, but from my understanding he is not quoting this as a belief of the Orthodox Church, but is laying down the beliefs of the heretics of his time which were mainly of Gnostic convictions.

Irenaeus - Against Heresies: Book 1 Chapter 5:2. “They affirm, therefore, that he was constituted the Father and God of everything outside of the Pleroma, being the creator of all animal and material substances. For he it was that discriminated these two kinds of existence hitherto confused, and made corporeal from incorporeal substances, fashioned things heavenly and earthly, and became the Framer (Demiurge) of things material and animal, of those on the right and those on the left, of the light and of the heavy, and of those tending upwards as well as of those tending downwards. He created also seven heavens, above which they say that he, the Demiurge, exists. And on this account they term him Hebdomas, and his mother Achamoth Ogdoads, preserving the number of the first-begotten and primary Ogdoad as the Pleroma. They affirm, moreover, that these seven heavens are intelligent, and speak of them as being angels, while they refer to the Demiurge himself as being an angel bearing a likeness to God; and in the same strain, they declare that Paradise, situated above the third heaven, is a fourth angel possessed of power, from whom Adam derived certain qualities while he conversed with him.”

The seven heavens are also a belief of Islam but there is no Scriptural support for more than three heavens. St. Paul’s statement in his Epistle to the Ephesians 4:10 that Our Lord has “ascended up far above all the heavens” can I suppose be interpreted as meaning many heavens but it doesn’t necessarily mean more than three. If we take it to mean seven then why not seventy seven? With his statement Paul is referring to the Judaic belief that there is more than one heaven and he wants to stress the greatest degree of Christ’s glory. And as St. John Chrysostom says: He rose above everything to a place from where there is no higher.

With love in Christ
Fr. Christopher