The Mandorla - symbol of the liminal space in which we are called to "remain".
on the cobbled path of Chalice Well gardens
The Mandorla is an ancient symbol of two circles coming together, overlapping one another to form an almond shape in the middle. Mandorla is the Italian word for almond. The Mandorla is also known as the "Vesica Piscis" (see the Jensen references below), symbolizing the interactions and interdependence of opposing worlds and forces. Although the symbol has its origins before the Christian era, the early Christians used the symbol as a method to describe the coming together of heaven and earth, between the divine and human.
The circles symbolise interacting but complementary opposites. The space within the overlap is the place in which we are called to "remain", the "liminal space" Richard Rohr speaks of.. This is the place where you arrive after you leave one room and have not yet entered another. In this place, you are living on the threshold and this requires faith. All transformation takes place in liminal space.
If we deny one of the opposites (eg. our shadow, death, ..), the circles may only touch; they do not intersect. In this situation, we are polarised, out of balance. Perhaps too when we become wholly integrated, the overlap is total and there appears to be only one circle (for awhile anyway).
The Mandorla, known in both East and West, expresses the standpoint of the mystic. It symbolises for us the tensions of life, the tension of complementary opposites:
|Tension of the Opposites|
|Heaven <--------> Earth|
|Natural <--------> Supernatural|
|Divine <--------> Human|
|Life <--------> Death|
|The Inner world <--------> the Outer world|
|Esotericism <--------> Exotericism|
|Apophatic spirituality <--------> Katophatic spirituality|
|The Self <--------> the Shadow|
|The rational "calculative" mind <--------> the contemplative mind|
The Mandorla depicts the union of apparent opposites, the same union of which the mystics speak. Our ego-consciousness divides reality into subject and object, whereas out true self experiences unity and harmony; Thomas Merton speaks frequently about this (eg. in his book The New Man). In the Mandorla both of these aspects coincide.
Nicholas of Cusa speaks of the coincidence of contradictories or coincidentia oppositorum:
... coincidence does not really describe God. Rather it sets forth the way God works, the order of things in relation to God and to each other, and the manner by which humans may approach and abide in God. God is beyond the realm of contradictories. God ... preceded opposites, is undifferentiated, not other, incomparable, and without opposite, precedes distinctions, opposition, contrariety, and contradiction.
(Definition by H. Lawrence Bond in Nicholas of Cusa: Selected Spiritual Writings, p. 366)
Nicholas of Cusa also writes:
"I have found the place where one can find Thee undisguised. It is surrounded by the coincidence of opposites. This is the wall of Paradise in which Thou dwellest. Its gate is guarded by the highest spirit of reason. Unless one overcomes it, the entrance will not open. On the other side of the wall of the coincidence of opposites one can see Thee, on this side never." (Jager, p.77)
The early Christians would make themselves known to one another by scraping into walls two lines indicating a stylized fish (the Icthus). One would scratch a small circle in the wall, and another would come by and make another circle slightly overlapping, thus completing a Mandorla.
In Romanesque times, Jesus is represented by these two circles as is the Sakayama Buddha in Buddhist art. The Mandorla is now thought to be older than both religions. Jesus and the virgin Mary are often portrayed in the framework of the Mandorla. In the area where the two circles overlap sits the God-human, a place we too are called to be, where both aspects of reality coincide and become one. This reminds us that we too partake in the nature of heaven and earth; in Jesus becoming human, we can become divine.
One can still see this symbol with Jesus and Mary framed in the western portals of the great cathedrals of Europe (see Johnson, 1991). A more recent example can be seen on the front wall of a Canberra Catholic parish church, St Jude's, Holder, here in Canberra. This ceramic and glass tile icon (created in 2002 by local craftsmen in Bungendore near Canberra) stands about 1.8m and shows the Transfigured Jesus framed by the Mandorla. In our remaining in the place of the intersection of opposites, we too will be transformed if we but bear the tension of remaining there.
Click on the picture to see the image in more detail.
Robert Johnson has written about the psychological significance of the Mandorla in his book Owning your own shadow. Brian Jensen has summarised Johnson's work. I have used these sources and some of my own to produce the brief insights above. I recommend the references below. Please also see the Mandorla Resources International site for some more interesting information.
Jager, W. (1995). The search for meaning. Ligouri.
Jensen, B. (1996). Art Therapy Through Test Anxiety. Senior Thesis Dominican College of San Rafael, Unpublished, 1(1), 13- 14.
Jensen, B.(1997). Mandorla - Ancient symbol of wholeness. http://www.sandplayusa.org/mandorla.html.
Johnson, R. (1991). Owning your Own Shadow. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Merton, T. (1962), The new man. Burns & Oates.
Date this page was last modified: 05/10/08