An ancient symbol, the mandorla is the most concise way to express Christ’s majesty, glory and divinity in holy icons. It is found surrounding Jesus Christ in icons of His Resurrection, Transfiguration, Ascension, the Dormition, and of Christ in Glory. As with much of the symbolism in Icons, it reveals a straight-forward truth, whilst at the same time containing layers of hidden meaning.
Mandorla is Italian for “almond”, and describes the most common shape of mandorlas, though circular or star-shaped mandorlas are also seen. Also known as a vesica piscis, the oval shape formed by the overlap of two circles as they approach each other.
To associate this shape with Jesus Christ, Who unties the earthly and heavenly spheres seems natural. However, the almond itself lends much symbolic meaning to the mandorla of light which surrounds Christ. The almond tree is the first plant to flower in Greece, sometimes as early as mid-Janurary, and as such is a symbol of new life and fertility. Ancient Greek myths also link almonds, and the almond-shape, with new life; yet preceding all these in time, and succeeding them in importance, is the story of Aaron’s rod, which blossomed forth not only flowers, but almonds (Numbers 17:8)
The mandorla, representing Christ’s glory, is an iconographic depiction of light. This is most obvious in icons of the Transfiguration, where the mandorla is used to image the countenance of Christ before His disciples on Mt. Tabor, which was “white and glistening”:
And it came to pass about eight days after… He took Peter and John and James, and went up onto a mountain to pray. And as He prayed, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistening.
And behold, there talked with Him two men, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He should accomplish at Jerusalem. But Peter and those who were with him were heavy with sleep. And when they were awake, they saw His glory and the two men who stood with Him.
(St. Luke’s Gospel)
However, it is also true that the mandorla is used to reveal the glory which is beyond vision. This is why the mandorla is also found surrounding Jesus in Icons of the Ascension, and also surrounding the Holy Spirit which descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove at His baptism. In both these cases, the mandorla is not showing something which was seen directly, but represents the glory and majesty beyond what was physically witnessed by the gathered crowds. This is also what is described in the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, Luke going on to write:
While he thus spoke, there came a cloud and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered into the cloud. And there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, “THIS IS MY BELOVED SON. HEAR HIM!”
This “cloud”, clearly paralleling the cloud Moses entered in order to converse with God, is also represented by the mandorla. It is at the heart of God’s revelation to the Jews first, and then Christians: it is impossible to comprehend God. But to know God, to encounter and converse with Him, and to fully experience Him is possible. It happens through entering this “cloud of unknowing”.
What Scripture cannot express in words, Icons capture in the mandorla; yet what we can experience of God’s glory goes beyond even images. This is why the mandorla surrounding Christ usually shows concentric bands of shading which get darker toward the centre, rather than lighter. We must pass through stages of what seem like increasing mystery and unknowing, in order to encounter Jesus Christ.
The above owes much to Fr Stephen’s related post Within a Mandorla.