A mandorla is an ancient symbol that is largely unrecognized in the Western world today. The shape, also known as vesica piscis, the Vessel of the Fish, occurs when two circles overlap to form an almond shape in the middle; hence, the name mandorla, which means “almond nut” in Italian. In Hinduism this shape is called the yoni, a stylized vulva used in religious art and as a maternity charm to celebrate and invoke the Great Mother’s creative, life-giving fertility.
Although the mandorla shares the symbolism of the mandala, the Hindu term for a circle, the two also have separate meanings. Whereas the mandala is a soul-symbol used as a meditative aid to encourage the spirit to move forward along its path of evolution from the biological to the spiritual, the mandorla represents the key to bringing this evolution about.
Mandorlas have carried powerful sacred overtones from earliest times. For example, the virgin birth of the god Attis was conceived by a magic almond. Early Christians used the shape as a secret symbol to represent their belief that Jesus was the coming together of heaven and earth. In medieval Christian art it framed the figures of saints, the virgin Mary, and Christ, usually to suggest the aureole of light that surrounds the whole body of holy persons, but sometimes piously (with an unintentional double entendre) interpreted as a gateway to heaven. A twelfth-century panel in the Chartres Cathedral shows “Christ of the Apocalypse” within a mandorla. Alchemists and Christian mystics redefined the mandorla as the arcs of two great circles, the left one for female matter, and the right for male spirit.
As symbols of the interactions and interdependence of opposing worlds and forces, the two separate mandalas which must meet and merge to form the mandorla represent the sacred divide between spirit and matter, masculine and feminine, self and other. The space wherein these apparently irreconcilable opposites overlap is an image of hope for our torn world, a healing place where we can reconcile our struggles with life and each other.
In Owning Your Own Shadow, noted Jungian analyst Robert Johnson wrote, “The mandorla begins the healing of the split. The overlap generally is very tiny 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 apart and made unwhole-unholy. It is considered the most profound religious experience one can have in life.” p. 102-3
The overlapping space between two souls is a place of growing self-awareness, acceptance, connection, and union. It is the communion table where God and human, self and other, ego and Self meet. It is a sanctuary wherein we connect with others to find refuge from the terrors of life. It is a womb of poetry, story and ritual where the boundaries between left-brained logos and right-brained mythos disappear, old life is refreshed, and new life is nurtured and protected. Above all, it is a threshold from which healing new life for ourselves and our world emerges.
The gorgeous art on this post is by my dear friend, Cicero Greathouse. I invite you to visit his site and click on the link “works on paper” to see his magnificent mandorlas. Perhaps you can pick out the one(s) which will grace the cover of my next book, “Healing the Sacred Divide.”