Mandorla: Ancient Symbol of Wholeness by Brian Jensen
Images of Mary, mother of Jesus, are often surrounded by an aureole, as in this image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The Mandorla is a symbol that is all but unknown today. It was used during medieval Christianity. It is an ancient symbol of two circles coming together and overlapping one another to form an almond shape in the middle. Jensen (1996) describes the mandorla as similar to the image of two mandalas (Sanskrit for circle) merging together until an almond shape is formed in the center. Also known as the “Vesica Piscis”, symbolizing the interactions and interdependence of opposing worlds and forces, the circles may be taken to represent spirit and matter or heaven and earth (Baldock, 1990).
Mandorla is the Italian word for almond. According to Biedermann (1994), the almond is an ancient symbol for the closing up of valuable contents in a hard, almost impenetrable shell. It is a mysterious image of concentration upon the light that shines from within. Christ’s true nature is supposed to lie beneath the surface of the corporal (bodily) being.
During medieval times, the almond was interpreted as a symbol of the embryo enclosed in the uterus. The form of the almond which suggests a stylized vulva may have contributed to such an interpretation (Biederman, 1994). It is also a variant of a halo which surrounds the whole body of the holy person (Bruce-Mitford, 1996).
According to Fontana (1994), the mandorla symbolizes power as well as spirituality, and is often appeared around the body of Christ to represent the Assention (Fontana, 1994).
Although the symbol may have its roots before the Christian movement began, the early Christians used the symbol as a method to describe the coming together of heaven and earth or spirit and matter. Also, the early Christians would make themselves known to one another by scrapping into the walls two lines indicating a stylized fish-which is the Mandorla. One would scratch a small circle in the wall, and another would come by and make another circle slightly overlapping, thus completing a Mandorla.
Since man struggles between both heaven and earth the Mandorla instructs people how to reconcile. Christ and the Virgin Mary are often portrayed in the framework of the Mandorla. This reminds us that we do partake in the nature of heaven and earth. Christianity makes a wonderful affirmation of the feminine life by giving it a place in the Mandorla, and the Virgin Mary sits in majesty in the Mandorla as often as Christ. One can still see this symbol with Christ and Mary framed, in the west portals of the great cathedrals of Europe(Johnson, 1991).
Christ in majesty in a mandorla, surrounded by emblems of the evangelists: ivory plaques on a wooden coffret, Cologne, first half of the 13th century
According to Johnson (1991), the mandorla is important to our torn world. It is the nature of cultural life to set good possibilities against bad and banish the bad so thoroughly that we tend to lose track of its existence. These banished elements make up our shadow, but they will not stay in exile forever, and about mid-life they come back like the Old Testament scapegoats returning from the dessert.
What can one do when the banished elements demand their time of reckoning? As Johnson(1991) put it, “It is time to understand the mandorla” (p.. 102).
The mandorla has a healing encouraging function. When one is so tired, discouraged or battered by life that one can no longer live in the tension of the opposites, the symbol can show what one can do. When the most Herculean efforts and the finest disciplines no longer can keep the painful contradictions of life at bay, one can find relief in the mandorla. According to Johnson (1991)it helps us to transfer cultural life into religious life(but culture has been around long enough that it is not wiped out).
The mandorla begins the healing of the split. The overlap generally is very thin at first, only a sliver of a new moon, but it is a beginning. As time passes, the greater the overlap, the greater and more complete is the healing. The mandorla binds together that which was torn a part and made unwhole-unholy. It is considered the most profound religious experience one can have in life.
The mandorla is the place of poetry. It is similar to the duty of a true poet to take the fragmented world that we find ourselves in and make unity of it. When the images such as fire and a rose are overlapped, we have a mystical statement of unity; we have a rebirth once again. We begin to feel a safety and sureness in our fractured world, and the poet has provided us with a demonstration of synthesis. Great poetry makes such leaps and unites the beauty and the terror of existence. It has the ability to surprise and shock-to remind us that there are links between the things we always thought of as opposites.
Mandorla as Language
Johnson (1991) claims, the mandorla is demonstrated in a well-structured sentence. He says that is why we like to talk so much because it is restorative and healing. Good talk restores unity to a fragmented world. He says that to make any well-formed sentence is to make unity, or that the mandorla is formed every time the truth is told. It is similar to Freud’s talking cure. When distressed, language that is properly used is highly curative. As long as we are provided the right container, we can make mandorlas of speech, and cure many things (Johnson, 1991). Also, all good stories are mandorlas. As they speak, gradually through the miracle of the story, they demonstrate that the opposites overlap and are finally the same.
Human Dimension of the Mandorla
Johnson (1991) views human life as the mandorla. Every human being has the potential to be a redeemer, and Christ is the prototype for this task. Every glance between a man and a woman is also a mandorla, a place where the great opposites of masculinity and femininity meet and honor one another. The mandorla is the divine container in which new creation begins to form and germinate. If we do have such a moment of unity, it will be brief, and then we return to the world of duality, but in that process that our opposites are created all over again, and a new experience of transformation is required again.
Finally, since the mandorla represents the coming together of the opposites, then if man were to transform this symbol from a religious one (which may limit the use of to only Christains) to a psychological one, then the use of the symbol can have an intrapsychic healing or integrative effect to both ego and shadow. Therefore, the process of integration can transform from the personal unconscious of others to a cultural level, eventually leading the healing process to the collective unconscious.
Baldock, J. (1990). Glossary of Symbols. In Fairbrother, M. (Ed.), The Elements of Christian Symbols (p. 102, 119). Worcester: Element Books.
Bierdermann, H. (1994). Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural icons and the meaningsbBehind them (1st ed.). New York: Meridan Books.
Bruce-Mitford, M. (1996). The Illustrated Book of Signs and Symbols (1st ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Company.
Fontana, D. (1994). Haloes, Mask and Shadows. In D. Baird (Ed.), The Secret Language of Symbols (p. 130). San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Jensen, B. (1996). Art Therapy Through Test Anxiety. Senior Thesis Dominican College of San Rafael, Unpublished, 1(1), 13- 14.
Johnson, R. (1991). Owning your Own Shadow. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Brian Jensen was a student at Sonoma State University when this article first appeared in Sandplay: The sacred journey, Spring 1997
© 2001 Sandplay Therapists of America/International Society for Sandplay Therapy. All rights reserved.