Today’s post differs from the others that have come before in that I’m writing a reflection on a specific symbol called the mandorla (for which I’ve named this blog). What is a mandorla? First of all, it is not a mandala, nor is the distinction between the two a small matter of pronunciation or semantics as in, “You say mandorla…I say mandala!” There really is a big difference!
A mandala, with which many people are familiar, is a symbol that takes its name from the Sanskrit word for circle. Mandorla, in contrast, is an Italian word that means “almond.” The Dictionary of Art states that it is an “almond-shaped light (or aura) enclosing the whole of a sacred figure.” One of the most striking mandorlas in medieval stained glass appears atop the Life of Christ lancet at Chartres Cathedral in France (photos #1 & 2).
The mandorla is indeed a shape that many artists have used to enclose images of Christ, Mary, and sometimes the saints. It is not, however, exclusive to Christianity or the west. Artists in China and Japan have used mandorlas to embrace the Buddha in paintings and statuettes. Yet, to simply describe the mandorla as a shape somehow misses the point. It is an ancient symbol formed by two identical intersecting circles that holds multiple meanings, much like a word with a double meaning (photo #3). We’ll ponder the mandorla’s various meanings as we see how it shows up in cathedrals, churches, and museums on both sides of the Atlantic. I’ll end the post with an anecdote about how this blog got its name.
Origins The Encyclopedia Brittanica says that the mandorla’s origins are uncertain but notes that fifth-century Christians were using it in mosaics in Rome. Other sources indicate that the symbol pre-dates Christianity in Britain and point to Glastonbury’s Chalice Well. It comprised two large circles whose intersection formed a mandorla (http://www.chalicewell.org.uk/). The ancient Greeks used the mandorla too. During a visit to Berlin’s Pergamon Museum in 2012, I spotted a gold signet ring dating to 4 BCE that shows two lovers sitting side by side within a mandorla (photo #4). Apparently, the ring symbolizes their union in the intersection of two unseen circles that represent the genders.
As a quick aside, I’ve often wondered how an Italian word came to be associated with a symbol whose roots in our culture extend much deeper than those of the Italian language. In Latin, the symbol was called vesica piscis, or “bladder of the fish.” But who dubbed it a mandorla? I suspect that “mandorla” came into use by the 15th century as early Renaissance painters in Italy extended the old artistic tradition of enclosing sacred figures in the shape of an almond. If you can point me to a definitive answer, please use the blog’s comment function or email to reach me.
My first mandorla I think I first noticed a mandorla during a visit to the Washington National Cathedral in the late 1980’s. There, behind the high altar, in a limestone screen called a reredos is a sculpted figure of Christ in Majesty framed by an almond shape (photos #5 & 6). Intrigued, I went to a library and learned that artists used the mandorla to convey the Christian belief that Christ is both god and man. One circle represents Christ’s divine nature and the other his human nature. He occupies the mystical space created where the two circles intersect.
Since then, I’ve kept my eye out for mandorlas and have found them in the Gothic cathedrals of France and England (photos #7 & 8), and in churches throughout the United States (photos #9 & 10).
Mandorla Connections It surprised me to learn that mandorlas are as prevalent as they are. But it surprised me even more to see how closely some mandorlas in the U.S. resemble those in Europe’s cathedrals. Compare the mandorlas in the tympanum sculptures above the main doorways at Chartres Cathedral in France (photo #11) and Princeton University Chapel in New Jersey (photo #12, click to enlarge). Both scenes contain figures of Christ in Majesty (based on a vision in the Book of Revelation) surrounded by the traditional emblems of the four gospel writers. The sculpture at Chartres dates to the 12th century and Princeton’s to the 1920’s (http://www.princeton.edu/religiouslife/chapel/history/). At first glance, the figures of Christ, accompanying mandorlas, and gospel symbols look alike. But on close inspection, you’ll see that Princeton’s mandorla contains the small faces of 24 crowned men, a reference most likely to the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse who St. John the Divine (not to be confused with the gospel writer) describes in the Book of Revelation. At Chartres, the 24 Elders appear in the series of arches that frame the composition.
A Mind for Mandorlas During the Middle Ages, mandorlas appeared in religious objects such as reliquaries (photo #13), book covers (photo #14), and devotional pieces. The extensive medieval collection at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore contains one of the most unique mandorlas—and interesting devotional ivories—that I have seen. The Vierge Ouvrante (“Opening Virgin” in French) was carved somewhere in the Champagne region of France between 1180 and 1220, about the same time that Chartres Cathedral and its famous windows were under construction. The Vierge Ouvrante, when closed, takes the form of a seated Virgin Mary holding the Christ child on her lap (photo #15), and when open, reveals scenes of Christ’s Passion (photo #16). But look more closely. You’ll see that the artist made the point that Mary kept her mind on Christ by embedding a mandorla with a miniature image of Christ the Teacher in Mary’s head (photo 17)!
To wrap up this post, I’d like to share the story of how my blog, “Mandorlas in Our Midst,” got its name. Four years ago, when I knew my job was about to end, I read a book about life transitions that asked, “What’s waiting in the wings?” One of my answers was, “I’d like to give talks about the symbolic connections between cathedrals in Europe and churches in the North America.” With that thought in mind, and before I made any plans to give a talk, I visited the Washington National Cathedral to take a photo of “my first mandorla” (photo #6, above). The mandorla is a dynamic symbol that one can use to represent the link between many familiar dichotomies: divinity & humanity, male & female, spirit & matter, heaven & earth, conscious & unconscious, right brain & left brain, and more. I sensed that I would eventually need a mandorla for my power point presentation.
I returned home and over the weekend a curious thing happened. On Sunday, our pastor reported that she had just returned from a workshop in Chicago where she learned about a symbol called a mandorla. She used her hands to form two intersecting circles in the air and explained, “It’s like a Venn diagram from high school geometry!” I was surprised, and the coincidence—she had never spoken about sacred symbols before—moved me. After the service, we talked and within minutes scheduled my first presentation. I called it “Mandorlas in Our Midst” with a focus on how mandorlas and other sacred symbols cut across denominational lines (photos #18-21) and connect people of different religious traditions. Mandorlas appear in churches throughout the United States and, I believe, remind us of a common thread that extends back to a time, eons ago, when humans first contemplated the mystery of what it means to have a body and soul and be both human and divine.
Mike Klug, email@example.com., July 2, 2014