Mandorlas, Halos, and Rings of Fire

Originally printed in the July - August 2000 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Callicott, Burton. "Mandorlas, Halos, and Rings of Fire." Quest  88.4 JULY - AUGUST 2000): pg 124 - 127.

By Burton Callicott

Mandorla—not your common, everyday word. It is the word found in art-history texts for the large oval shape behind the representations of single sacred figures. "Mandorla" is the Italian word for almond. The term is well chosen, for in Christian art the shape most commonly used resembles the shape of the almond. In some instances in Christian art, however, the shape is more elliptical and in others it is circular or nearly circular.

In texts describing these background shapes in Hindu and Buddhist art, the term "mandorla" is still used, despite the fact that few of them are actually almond-shaped. More often they are circular, horseshoe-shaped, fan-shaped or leaf-shaped. Sometimes the mandorla is composed of two overlapping circles, one about the head of the figure and a larger one about its torso. Projecting from the outer edges of many of these mandorlas are representations of tongues of flame.

In Christian art the mandorla occurs most frequently in the Romanesque style and most prominently, perhaps, behind the enthroned "Christ in Glory" on the tympana over the main portals of the cathedrals. It is also a common element in the succeeding style, the Gothic. It gradually gives way in the art of the Renaissance to a small circle of light—a halo—behind the head.

I am aware of no speculation about what the mandorla represents or about its origin. Nor do I know when and where the use of the symbol began. To the student of Theosophy, however, the inescapable notion is that the mandorla probably originated as the representation of the aura, the oval-shaped volume of light surrounding living physical bodies, as described by those with clairvoyant vision.

According to the esoteric tradition, the aura is a composite of the several subtle—astral, mental, and causal—bodies. (This composite does not include the etheric body which is almost entirely confined within the physical body.) Each of these bodies is composed of the matter of the plane on which it serves as the vehicle of consciousness. From the etheric to the causal, these bodies and worlds of matter are successively subtler, with complete interpenetration with one another and with the dense physical.

The human aura is said to be filled with color, with the prevailing brilliance and arrangement of the colors determined by the emotional, mental, and spiritual development of the person. Because the matter of those planes vibrates at very high frequencies, changes in coloration can be rapidly and suddenly brought about by shifting emotional and mental states.

In Man Visible and Invisible, by C. W. Leadbeater, first published in 1925, there are many fascinating color illustrations of auras displaying varying degrees of development, different temperaments, and different emotional-mental states. Leadbeater was an important early leader and teacher in the Theosophical Society who wrote many books and articles. In the course of his work and study, he attained clairvoyant vision through special training. He and his colleague, Dr. Annie Besant, singly and in collaboration through devoted and strenuous work, have given us a rich body of information about the invisible parts of ourselves and our multi-layered environment.

Today there is a growing awareness that what we call the aura, of which the mandorla in religious art is probably a symbol, is not unlike the force fields and energy fields described by modern science. In this context, the rings of fire around Hindu and Buddhist images are particularly significant. It is interesting to note, too, that in the tradition of the metaphysical philosophies, spirit is symbolized by the element of fire.

Fritz Kunz stated that the discovery and study of force fields prove the "existence of the immaterial" and should banish for all time purely materialistic notions about the nature of the universe. We are reminded of these eloquent words from Pitirim Sorokin's essay, "Three Basic Trends of Our Times" (from the journal Main Currents in Modern Thought, 1960): "Around a bend of quantum mechanics and at the foot of the electron ladder the basic notions of materialistic science, such as matter, objective reality, time, space and causality, are no longer applicable, and the testimony of our senses largely loses its significance." The subtle worlds and their contents elude physical vision and the finest instruments of science as well. According to the Ancient Wisdom, the irresistible evolutionary impulse will, in time, and only after the necessary and antecedent spiritual development, unfold all of the latent human cognitive faculties. This will enable human beings to function consciously in those dimensions of their world now largely closed to them.

In the meantime let us give heed to the sages and seers of all ages who teach that the surest and safest way to grow spiritually and expand consciousness is by the path of selfless service and the practice of brotherhood



Two sculptured vertical arcs

meeting in points above and below

--in the shape of the almond--

framing the "Christ in Glory,"

in high relief enthroned

in the tympanum stone

above the cathedral's main portal,

configure the mandorla.

So knew some

in the Romanesque era

of the hidden aura

of light and energy--

of the subtle bodies

the invisible synergy.

Art reaches layers of consciousness that are inaccessible to verbal formulations and rational discourse. I believe that works of art actually emanate energies which have the power of resonating with and drawing responses at spiritual levels. --Burton Callicott

Burton Callicott is an artist and Theosophist who will celebrate his ninety-third birthday this year. This article, describing the mandorla form, is reprinted with slight modifications from The Love of Life, the journal of the Theosophical Order of Service. A painting by Callicott using the mandorla form is on the cover of this issue, whose "Viewpoint" considers the painter and his painting.

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