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The meaning of the Mandorla

mandorla historicity

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#1 H. Smith

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Posted 12 November 2017 - 09:46 PM

I read recently that the Mandorla has a meaning beyond a simple decorative halo showing that something is holy.

Fr. Hopko explained:

Now, one of the iconographic devices that very important to understand is a thing that is called a mandorla. Mandorla means an almond. And a mandorla is an iconographic device that is used in an icon when what is being depicted is not historically visible. So for example, in the icon of the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, the dove is put into a mandorla. It’s put in this circular, almond-shaped depiction. Sometimes, it even looks like two squares superimposed on each other. That’s a mandorla.

Sometimes, the hand of God, let’s say over the Baptism of Jesus, is shown in a mandorla. In the icon of the Transfiguration, Jesus is in a mandorla with Moses and Elijah, because only Peter, James, and John saw them and only when they were in the ecstasy of the Spirit. A shepherd man hiding on Mount Tabor would not have seen Jesus transfigured, or would not have seen Moses and Elijah. Just like a person passing by the Jordan would not have seen any dove descending and remaining upon Jesus.

In the Ascension, Jesus is put in a mandorla, because nobody hanging around the Mount of Olives would have seen Jesus go up. Jesus’ Ascension where He’s taken and hidden in the cloud is a statement of faith. It’s something that the disciples may have seen in front of them, but it’s not something that was just seen by anybody hanging around.


Do you agree with this description of the meaning of the Mandorla?
If a nonChristian bystander were at Jesus's tomb, the apostles room in Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives, or any other location where the apostles said that they saw and ate with Jesus, the bystander would not have objectively or "historically" have observed the post-resurrection meetings with Jesus's?

These meetings were not events in objective "history", but rather "appearances" to believers in their vision? What the women at the tomb experienced was what the Emmaus road travelers at the end of Luke's gospel told their acquaintaince (whom they later perceived to be secretly Jesus), ie the women saw a "vision of angels".

So whereas the disciples observed Jesus had entered the room and ate fish with them, the bystander would not see Jesus enter, see Him displace the room's airspace, or see the fish get eaten or moved from its plate?

And not only does the Mandorla show the post resurrection meetings to be appearances that are not objectively "historical", but the same kind of non-historicity applies to the miraculous events at Jesus's Baptism and Transfiguration?

Maybe I am misreading Fr. Hopko, or the Mandorla does not necessarily have all those implications? For example, Mark's gospel says that the crowd was amazed on seeing Jesus soon after he came down from the Transfiguration, which suggests to me that the bystanders could objectively observe the miraculous effects on Jesus.

Fr. Stephen Freeman writes the same kind of thing on the AFR blog about the Mandorla:

Revealed in the context of a mandorla is that which we know by the revelation of Scripture but which might not have been witnessed by the human eye – or – if witnessed – somehow transcended the normal bounds of vision.
The iconographic witness of the Church affirms this – placing the Ascension of Christ within a mandorla – recognizing that this will only be known and understood by the mystical knowledge of faith...

Very similar to this event is Christ’s Descent into Hades, the traditional icon of Christ’s Pascha. In this icon we see what is referenced in several places within the Scriptures and upheld in the Church’s dogma – that Christ descended into Hades and “trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” But when we confess this cornerstone of our faith we are not reciting what is known by eyewitness account.

There is a form of Christian literalism which belongs to a secular culture. The world is rendered only in a secularized, objective manner. Nothing is ever set within a mandorla. There is no perception of the mystery which has come among us in our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. In such a form of Christianity, faith is simply a description of what someone accepts as a set of “facts” in the same manner that we accept or reject what we read in a newspaper, etc. The facts are as static and empty as our perception. No change need happen in the witness of such facts. Either it happened and you saw it, or it did not happen.


#2 Dcn Alexander Haig

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Posted 14 November 2017 - 10:12 AM

I think one can understand what Fr Thomas is saying but perhaps he is using language slightly too extreme; the mandorla represents something spiritual: not that it did not happen but that it goes beyond the physical.  The Spirit "in the form of a dove" at the Theophany is a good example.

  • "He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him." Matt. 3:16
  • "He saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending upon Him like a dove." Mark 1:10
  • "And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him." Luke 3:22
  • "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and He remained upon Him." John 1:32

The text is unclear, though we might infer, who exactly sees the Spirit except the fourth Gospel where it is a direct quotation of the Forerunner: further, it does not say that it was a dove rather that it was "like a dove."  This is a spiritual reality.


As for the post Resurrection appearances of Christ, try not to generalise from the Ascension to all appearances.  Christ physically appeared to St Mary Magdalene, to Ss Luke and Cleopas, to the ten and eleven in the upper room, at the Sea of Tiberias etc.  What the mandorla implies at the Ascension is that Christ did not ascend going up forever, but that he ascended into a cloud, a common symbol in Scripture for the presence of God: he has been taken from us, and yet is still with us in a mystical and spiritual way.  The Ascension shows he is gone yet near.


Finally the Transfiguration which is only found in the synoptic Gospels.

  • "Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, led them up on a high mountain by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became as white as the light." Matt. 17:1-2
  • "Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them." Mark 9:2-3
  • "Now it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. As He prayed, the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening." Luke 9:28-29

Again, the text is unclear: who exactly saw the event?  Was it observable to all or was it only how the three disciples perceived it?


The mandorla is a device used in iconography to convey a special revelation of God to us: it shows that events in some cases that images should not be taken too literally – the Holy Spirit was not incarnated as a dove but of the form of a dove, the hand of the Father is not literally his hand – or that Christ revealed himself as God in a mystical way.


In Christ


Dcn Alexander

#3 Phoebe K.

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Posted 14 November 2017 - 10:50 PM

The concept and use of the Mandorla is complex in its development along with having many layers of meaning related to the context. A good exploration of this aspect of Iconography is Metamorphosis, The Transfiguration in Byzantine Theology and Icongraphy, by Fr Andreas Andreopoulos (although he wrote it several years before he was ordained), the book is on the Transfiguration but explores the use of the Mandorla in this.



#4 H. Smith

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Posted 16 November 2017 - 09:08 PM

My guess is that the Mandorla refers to the uncreated divine light. It is something like a halo, but it is used only for God Himself (eg. for a person of the Trinity). It often has a darker inner part, reflecting that God is mysterious in his essence. I liked what Deacon Haig said: "; the mandorla represents something spiritual: not that it did not happen but that it goes beyond the physical." It can show that the supernatural essence of the Trinity is breaking through the natural plane of our world.


Fr. Hopko seems to be saying that the Mandorla's events were observable to only a limited group of people, ie. those whose faith allowed it. But this theory that it shows the event in the Mandorla to be limited in observability only to a few persons seems to only come from Fr. Hopko and Fr. Freeman originally. I have never heard the theory having much more origin or direct description by other theologians.


It seems rather that Fr. Hopko and Fr. Freeman are basing this theory on the Scriptural and Traditional descriptions of the depicted events themselves, rather than on Traditional explanations of the mandorla. For example, he writes in his essay "Within a Mandorla":


Revealed in the context of a mandorla is that which we know by the revelation of Scripture but which might not have been witnessed by the human eye – or – if witnessed – somehow transcended the normal bounds of vision.


In the icon of the Transfiguration, the transfigured Christ stands within the mandorla. The Church’s hymns remark on this in their own manner:

You were transfigured on the mount, O Christ God,

revealing Your glory to Your disciples as far as they could bear it.

Let Your everlasting Light also shine upon us sinners,

through the prayers of the Theotokos.

O Giver of Light, glory to You!

In this text for the Troparion (Hymn) for the Feast of the Transfiguration, Christ’s glory is described as having been revealed to his disciples “as far as they could bear it.”

The Kontakion of the Feast carries the same message:

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God

And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;

So that when they would behold You crucified,

They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,

And would proclaim to the world, That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

The disciples are described in the Scriptures as having been “afraid.” St. Peter speaks of building three tabernacles, “because he did not know what to say.” The experience is more than even the words of Scripture can express.






However, to my knowledge, the disciples seeing the Transfiguration "as far as they could bear it" does not mean necessarily that it was only observable to them, due to their being faithful, and that an agnostic or neutral bystander would not have noticed anything supernatural or paranormal occurring. Maybe they could bear seeing Jesus' whiteness, his light, and the prophets, whereas a neutral or agnostic bystander could only bear seeing limited radiance or whiteness on Jesus? Why should one propose that a neutral bystander would not notice anything paranormal when looking at the Uncreated Light? This seems to be Fr. Freeman's own extrapolations from the passage.


He seems to be saying that since the disciples only saw the Transfiguration to the extent that they were able, therefore neutral, agnostic observers would not have noticed anything paranormal. Fr. Hopko's conclusion seems to be that this means that the Transfiguration did not occur in objective, physical history, but purely in the plane and dimension of belief and spirituality.


However, I don't find this to be an inherent conclusion from the hymns. Further, the passage in Mark 9 following the event suggests to me that neutral observers could have seen the radiance and splendor or noticed an amazing, supernatural aspect to the event:


And as they came down from the mountain, he charged them that they should tell no man what things they had seen, till the Son of man were risen from the dead.

10 And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean.

11 And they asked him, saying, Why say the scribes that Elias must first come?

12 And he answered and told them, Elias verily cometh first, and restoreth all things; and how it is written of the Son of man, that he must suffer many things, and be set at nought.

13 But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him.

14 And when he came to his disciples, he saw a great multitude about them, and the scribes questioning with them.

15 And straightway all the people, when they beheld him, were greatly amazed, and running to him saluted him.


What were they amazed at in beholding him, other than the Transfiguration?

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