Sacred Symbols: The Mandorla

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).

1. Mary & Christ Child in Mandorla, Chartres Cathedral, France

1. A Mandorla with Mary & Christ Child, Life of Christ Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Chenrezig Sand Mandala for the Dalai Lama's Visit to the House of Commons, UK, 2008 (photo from Wikipedia Commons)

2. A Mandala: Chenrezig Sand Mandala made for the Dalai Lama’s Visit to the House of Commons, UK (photo from Wikipedia Commons, 2008)

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.

3. Mandorla in Purple, by artist Elsah Cort

3. Mandorla in Purple, by artist Elsah Cort

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.

4. Postcard of Siegelring mit Liebespaar (Signet ring with lovers), 4 BCE, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

4. Siegelring mit Liebespaar (Signet ring with lovers) in Mandorla, 4 BCE, Pergamon Museum, Berlin

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.

Christ in Majesty in Mandorla, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

5. Altar & Reredos, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

Christ in Mandorla, Washington, National Cathedral, Washington, DC

6. Christ in Majesty Mandorla, Washington National Cathedral, Washington, DC

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).

Transfiguration Panel with Christ in Mandorla, Chartres Cathedral, France

7. Transfiguration Panel with Christ in Mandorla, Chartres Cathedral, France

Christ in Mandorla, West Facade Gable, Salisbury Cathedral, England

8. Christ in Mandorla Sculpture, West Facade, Salisbury Cathedral, England

St. John's Vision of the Apocalyptic Christ, Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

9 St. John’s Vision of the Apocalyptic Christ (in a mandorla), Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Albany, NY

Holy Family in Mandorla above South Portal, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

10. Holy Family in Mandorla above Southwest Portal, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC

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.

Christ in Majesty, Royal Portal Tympanum, Chartres Cathedral, France

11. Christ in Majesty, Royal Portal Tympanum, Chartres Cathedral, France

Christ in Majesty, Princeton Chapel, Princeton, NJ

12. Christ in Majesty, Princeton University Chapel, Princeton, NJ

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)!

Reliquary in Shape of Mandorla, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

13.  Almond-shaped Reliquary, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Christ in Mandorla Ivory, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

14. Trinity in Mandorla, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Photo of the Vierge Ouvrante closed. Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

15. Photo of the Vierge Ouvrante closed. Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Vierge Ouvrante, Open, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

16. Vierge Ouvrante, Open, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

Mandorla in Mary's Head, Vierge Ouvrante, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

17. Mandorla in Mary’s Head, Vierge Ouvrante, Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

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.

Good Samaritan Window, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

18. Good Samaritan Window with Subtle Mandorla Outline, St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Grand Rapids, MI

19. St. Paul on his Missionary Voyage, St. Patrick's Cathedral, NYC

19. St. Paul on his Missionary Voyage, St. Paul Window at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC

20. Bible in Mandorla, United Church of Christ, Iowa City, IA

20. Bible in Mandorla, United Church of Christ, Iowa City, IA

21. Icon from Anastasis (Resurrection) Fresco, Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, Istanbul, Turkey

21. Modern Icon based on ca. 14th Century Anastasis (Resurrection) Fresco, Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, Istanbul, Turkey

Mike Klug, mikejklug@aol.com., July 2, 2014

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6 thoughts on “Sacred Symbols: The Mandorla

  1. Jeff Leonardi says:

    I came upon the holy family portico image from St John the Divine Cathedral NY this morning while looking for a mandorla image for my Christmas letter. I found my way to your website and enjoyed your comments and explanations. Thank you. I see the previous comment came at the start of 2016, and mine will be almost at the end, just before Christmas. Happy Christmas! I will be in NY at the end of January and will hope to visit the cathedral and see the mandorla there.

    • Jeff: Thank you for visiting my blog and for your feedback. I’m glad you enjoyed the post on mandorlas and found it helpful. Your comment along with the one in January make nice bookends for the year! I hope you found a good image for your letter. About your visit to NYC, if you don’t know about it already, Riverside Church, a Gothic Revival gem, would be worth a visit too. It’s just west of Broadway on 130th & Riverside, not far from the cathedral. Some aspects of the interior are reminiscent of Chartres Cathedral. Enjoy your visit, and Merry Christmas to you also. Thank you again for writing. Mike

  2. Sharron May says:

    Mandorlas are definitely in my midst! The symbol appeared in my mind’s eye as an intuitive ‘flash’ on New Year’s Day 2016 as I pondered what my resolution and intent for the New Year might be. I googled the symbol and its meaning at that time. I too created a blog about it, although left unpublished. The Mandorla was in my midst again today and this time I found your blog. I don’t know why it’s calling me, but it is comforting to know I am not the only one.

    • Sharron: Thank you for visiting my blog and sharing your mandorla story. Indeed, you’re not alone! The symbol can call you to venture forth on various paths about its meaning. I hope that in due time its call to understanding or insight reveals itself to you in a flash or in another less dramatic light. I wish you well on the way!

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