The almond, the light and the glory.

christ forgiving resurrection 2Until a recent vocabulary expansion, I knew little Italian beyond pizza and zucchini. Now I know mandorla, which means almond. In the language of iconography, it means a background shape, often an almond shape but not always, which conveys meaning having nothing to do with the nut.

In this article “Within a Mandorla” I read that “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.

“Mark says that [Christ] was “carried up into heaven and seated at the right hand of God.” This last formula is a creedal confession – but not an eyewitness description. That Christ was taken up and that He is seated at the right hand of the Father is the faith and dogma of the Church. But the Church knows this in a mystical manner and not in the manner of a newspaper reporter.”

And from a different source:

“Sometimes a star – but the usual elliptical shape gives it the name mandorla, which is Italian for the nut. The almond tree is the first plant to flower in Greece, sometimes as early as mid-January, 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 can represent light that was actually seen by those present at an event, but it often also symbolizes the majesty and glory that is beyond our earthly vision or ability to put into words.

From Wikipedia: “These mandorla will often be painted in several concentric patterns of color which grow darker as they come close to the center. This is in keeping with the church’s use of apophatic theology, as described by Dionysius the Areopagite and others. As holiness increases, there is no way to depict its brightness except by darkness.”

The story of what the disciples of Jesus saw with their own eyes is told in the first chapter of the Book of Acts:

“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

  This year we Orthodox celebrate the Ascension of Christ on June 6.

The Lord has ascended into heaven
that He might send the Comforter to the world.
The heavens prepared His throne, and the clouds His mount.
Angels marvel to see a Man high above them.
The Father receives Him Whom He holds, co-eternal, in His bosom.
The Holy Spirit commands all His Angels:
“Lift up your gates, ye princes!
All ye nations, clap your hands:
for Christ has gone up to where He was before!”

5 thoughts on “The almond, the light and the glory.

  1. This is an interesting insight to symbolism that I have been quite unaware of. I liken it to the literary use of asides e.g. in Shakespeare’s plays, through which the audience becomes aware of events / feelings that the characters on the stage know nothing about at the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rereading your post, Gretchen, I had a little “moment.”  For those of us who have always had trouble with the idea that heaven is UP THERE, this line in the passage that you selected from Acts of the Apostles, which I must not have attended to before, helps to moderate our concern: “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” 

    Being lifted up (the author doesn’t say how far), whether an interior event or even a sort of visual one for observers, is attested to by experience both now and then. In addition, the word “cloud” allows for sideways movement, doesn’t it. Or just plain disappearance, possibly through tears or because of weather conditions.

    Of course Christ did appear and disappear before, evidently many times (after his death). I’m not concerned about that. It’s the thought that heaven is a place, most likely in the heavens, that has been problematic. But no longer– thanks to your invitation to look again  and more closely at scripture.*

    Note:   Did you see that Sister Vassa used a phrase from an ancient hymn to characterize another important element of today’s celebration:  “in nowise departing but remaining without stepping away” **         

    Happy Non-Disappearance Day!

    * Thanks too for the OT story about Aaron and the almonds. I had missed that one completely. And now I understand a little better about icons and theit symbols too.

    ** The full passage is here:

    “When You had fulfilled the dispensation for our sake / and united the earthly to the heavenly: / You ascended in glory, O Christ our God, / in nowise departing but remaining without stepping away, / and crying out to those who love You: // ‘I am with you and no one (prevails) against you.’ ” (Byzantine Kontakion-Hymn of the Ascension)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Isn’t it amazing! And comforting, to be sure. He said He was going away, but that He would be with them (us) always…. Two of our priests spoke at Liturgy today, and they were both so encouraging. Our rector reminded us of our connection to Heaven by way of the Kingdom being within us. And one could go on and on….

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I will have to share this with my youngest son who is a real art appreciator. And I myself will be more aware of that almond shape. Thanks for posting this.

    ( I had to go look up Numbers 17:8 to read that story again. I remembered that the staff flowered but not that almonds appeared).

    Liked by 1 person

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