Using the shape of a mandorla in iconography represents Christ’s divinity, glory, and majesty. His glory is bursting forth into the world. As a teacher, icon painters portray Jesus in white for his incorruptibility. We may also find mandorlas that are round, oval, or even star-shaped. We find this representation in icons of the Transfiguration, Christ’s descent into Hades, the Dormition of Mary, and Christ’s Assumption. Mandorla is the Italian word for almond, and the mathematical term for this shape is vesica piscis (“bladder of a fish”) which is formed by overlapping two circles. Using a mandorla in iconography is appropriate, since Jesus exists in the intersection between the human sphere and the divine sphere.
1. The Mandorla represents Christ in His full divinity of the Godhead.
Icon Painters reiterate that the Father and the Spirit are present and working in all actions of the Son. Mandorlas often comprise concentric rings. Jesus stands in the center and the rings extend outward into bright light. Christ is place on the darkest area at the center, as he has come to illuminate the world with His teachings.
When there are 3 concentric rings, they are symbolic. The outer ring being the Holy Spirit, the central ring representing the Father, and the very center representing God or the Godhead itself. The darkness at the center represents the infinite unknowability of God, who when Moses asks the divine names replies, “I AM”. This darkness area represents the unlimited depth of the heavenly reality, “I am who I am/I will be who I will be” (Ex 3:14) .
2. This “Light” illuminates God in His complete power and energy.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes “the light that flows from Jesus here is not a ‘created’ light–-it isn’t a phenomenon of this world, caused by the sun or created light from electricity. The light is a direct encounter with the uncreated being of the godhead. In the 15th century Russian icon of the transfiguration by Theophanes, the Greek teacher of Rublev was the first to give us the most holy image of the transfiguration.
They always place the Mandorla in Iconography above the event happening below. The icon again represents the two realms. So above and below, flesh and spirit. The apostles are shielding their eyes, turning away in fear, or hiding from the light, because to be bathed in the light is to submit to being transfigured. The light they are bathed in transcends anything experienced in this world. To gaze on the “light” of Christ is to consent to allow our transformation into the image of God for which each of us was created.
3. Try Contemplating Mandorla in Iconography
As I contemplate the Mandorla, it represents for me the unknowability and uncontrollability of God. Our desire for knowledge of God in insatiable. We struggle to understand why we are here and for what we have been created. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor 13:12-13).
We can get so caught up in our search for complete knowledge, the right tradition, or the best way of believing and worshiping that we can forget that our human minds are incapable of grasping the vastness of God, the infinite unknowability. The apostles cannot bare the sight of pure divinity and infinite love. But we can believe in what we cannot see or touch. John’s Gospel uses the word “believe” 86 times, but the Greek verb we translate as believe is pisteuō from the noun pistis which is to experience faith.
4. What does it mean to be bathed in the eternal light of Christ, to “live our faith”?
Can we be completely transformed? To contemplate the teachings of Jesus Christ will toss us off the mountain, hide at times from what desires to heal us, and fall on our knees in thanksgiving. There is power using mandorla in iconography like a language to communicate. We may not be able to comprehend God, however, we can know the man who walked among us and invited us to see life exposed in its full glory from a mountain top.