While mandalas are typically associated with Buddhism and other Eastern religions, the circular shape is equally important in just about all cultures and religious traditions around the world. In Christianity, there are a number of sacred images and ritual décor that use the circular shape to connect the spiritual realm with the earthly realm.
History of Christian Mandalas
It is perhaps the magnificent windows that decorate the world’s churches and cathedrals that best exemplify the mandala’s use in Christianity. While large, colored glass windows were developed in these spaces, the earliest examples of Christian architecture use a simple round shape – or oculus – that was cut out of the top of a building’s dome. The oculus was first found in Roman structures, and served the main purpose of letting in light and air. However, because they also opened to the sky, oculi further represented a direct connection with the spiritual realm.
Designs of Christian Mandalas
On its most basic level, a mandala is a circular form with geometric patterns that builds off of a central point, most often used to connect with a spiritual power through meditation and contemplation.
Therefore, some of the most common Christian symbols and ritual tools are actually mandalas, including rosaries. The process of contemplating rosary beads – which are held together in a circular shape – includes meditating on each bead in a rotating circle, a use of the mandala that is common to almost all cultures.
Other typical mandala designs and circular symbols in Christianity include:
- The crown of thorns
- The halo or aureole
- The Celtic cross
- The rosy cross
- The apse part of a church, particularly during Gothic periods
- Some baptismal font designs
- Communion wafers
Symbolism of Christian Mandalas
As in other cultures, the round shape in Christianity represents the universe, and therefore, is seen as a way to connect the earthly and spiritual realms. Whether in the form of windows in a church or as a rosary, mandalas are used to take the time to contemplate the self and the divine.
Where Christian Mandalas can be Seen
Perhaps the most iconic representation of the Christian mandala is in the majestic stained glass windows that decorate nearly every church and cathedral. While some of these are on a far grander scale than others, the stained glass window is often made up of a central point – often the figure or scene being depicted – which is surrounded by a design that is inherently geometric due to the fact that it is made up of hard-edge pieces of glass.
Some of the world’s oldest cathedrals are home to rose windows – also known as Catherine windows. The rose window is one of the most classic examples of the mandala in Christianity, and their origins trace back to the Roman oculi. These windows are created using geometric segments, and can contain extremely intricate patterns made from different colors of glass, all of which extend out from a central starting point in the middle of the circle.
Some of the world’s oldest and most famous examples of Christian circular and rose windows include:
- Basilica of Saint-Denis: 12th Century, Saint-Denis, France
- Chartres Cathedral: 13th Century, Chartres, France
- Notre Dame: 13th Century, Paris, France
- Milan Cathedral: 13th Century, Milan, Italy
- Westminster Abbey: 16th Century, London, England