Mandalas and Yantras in Eastern Christian Church Worship

Swami Satyavedananda Saraswati (Ekaterini Georgoudaki), Greece

In tantric texts a yantra is defined as a symbol of consciousness which manifests to the conscious level of the mind in the form of various geometrical designs (triangles, circles, hexagons, squares, etc.). Such a manifested design or mystic diagram, which has a presiding deity, is used in meditation to hold or expand consciousness.*1 A mandala, on the other hand, is referred to as a magic circle, a focus of cosmic powers, or the symbol centre of the universe during worship.*2 The central axis of a mandala is its most important point, because it is the point where the energy is concentrated and from which the rest of the mandala emanates.*3

Yantras and mandalas are not connected with oriental esoteric worship only. The state of consciousness which they symbolize and the human needs they express are universal - as Jung claims, mandalas are archetypes which are inherent in the collective unconscious.*4 A close study of the art and worship in the Eastern Christian Church, for instance, proves the wide use of yantras and mandalas from the early years of Christianity to the present.

The magic circle or the square of the mandala have been found on the wall or ceiling paintings of early Christian tombs. A cross, Christ's figure, or Christ's monograph combined with a cross, often occupy the centre of such a circle or square.*5 Systems of octagons or hexagons, octagons combined with crosses, crosses within circles, and diapers of crosses also constitute part of church mosaics or frescoes.*6 Moreover, rosettes and square or circular panels with stars, crosses, intersecting triangles, smaller circles or squares in their centre, can be seen in church ornamental sculpture.*7 Similar mandalas and yantras form part of the elaborate decoration of Byzantine religious manuscripts many of which have been preserved in the Mt. Athos monasteries in Northern Greece.*8

We even find mandalas on textiles- the subjects on silk are generally enclosed in circles, the 'rotae or rotellae', and they form part of a connected network covering the surface. Good examples of this art are the patterns of circles with a cross or Christ's figure in their centre, which we can see on bishop's robes or on Epitaphioi - coverings for the ceremonial bier of Christ used in the Eastern Church on Good Friday.*9 Mandalas are also the round or cruciform fonts, as well as the round or square early movable altars, or the similarly shaped water-fountains at the entrance of churches, where devotees used to wash themselves before going into the church building.*10

The Christian mandalas which capture the devotees' sight, hold and expand their consciousness in the most powerful way are the architectural structures of the various places of worship. The ground plans of numerous early Christian tombs, mausolea, baptisteries and martyria have the circle, square or polygon traditional mandala pattern, or a combination of the three. The function of a mandala as a focus of cosmic powers is particularly seen in the 'centralized' architectural design of several early martyria, that is memorial chapels built around the graves of Christian martyrs.*11 The central location of the martyr's grave in such buildings focused the devotees' consciousness on the facts of suffering and physical death and emphasised their significance as means of attaining eternal life in the divine kingdom of Heaven. Moreover, the various rituals around the grave enabled Christians to attune themselves with a human being in whose life or death God had manifested, to absorb the spiritual vibrations which the martyr's body emanated, and thus to expand and elevate their own consciousness.

In addition to the traditional circle, square, polygon and triangle mandala diagram, the cross becomes very important in the architectural design of Eastern Christian places of worship. Many early basilicas have the form of the Latin cross ( T ); other church buildings have the form of the Greek cross ( + ), with the cross frequently inscribed in a square at the ground level.*12 The spherical dome also becomes an indispensable part of Eastern Christian places of worship, and its cyclical diagram coincides with the centre of the ground plan cross in cruciform churches. The combination of the cross with the dome optically elevates the former; to the devotees this optical elevation is also a symbolic reminder of the significance of the cross as a means of transcendence and ultimate union with the Heavenly forces- the dome symbolizes these forces.

Research has proved the influence of monasticism and Christian mysticism on the gradual shaping of a special church architecture in the Eastern Christian countries.*13 The tantric view of a yantra as a manifested design with a presiding deity and the view of a mandala as the symbolic centre of the cosmos during worship have their counterpart in the early Christian view of a church building as the visible form of the invisible Heavenly Church, or as a symbol of the cosmos; the bema, or sanctuary, stands for the invisible part of Heaven with God's throne (the altar) in it- the altar also symbolizes Christ's tomb, Golgotha, and the habitation of saints as guards of the sanctuary; the central dome represents the visible part of Heaven with Christ Pantokrator at its summit as the presiding deity; the figures of the Evangelists or archangels appear on the pendentives - the spherical triangles by which the dome is joined to the arches beneath - and symbolically join Heaven and earth. The several lamps suspending from the roof represent the stars. The floor of the church, and the narthex stand for the earth, or the sensible world. The walls of the church defend the devotees against the attacks of demonic forces. The protection becomes more effective when the church design is that of a cross.*14

The power diagram of the church building corresponds to the tantric mandala and yantra. The priest and congregation chanting, on the other hand, corresponds to the tantric mantra incantation, and generates a dynamic energy pattern. The combination of the Christian mandala, yantra and mantra performs a function similar to the tantric one; it becomes the receptacle for higher powers during worship, and especially during the Liturgy. The continuous interaction, during the Liturgy, between those higher powers (Heavenly Church) and the congregation (visible, earthly church), between the suprasensible and sensible elements of the cosmos, culminate in their harmonious union. At that moment the congregation potentially experiences a divine epiphany and a direct communion with the Holy Spirit; this brings about a feeling of transcendence and liberation, and the transformation of the devotees' consciousness.


*1. Sw. Satyananda Saraswati, Sure Ways to Self Realization, comp. Sw. Gaurishankara Saraswati (Munger, 1980), p. 3.
*2. Sw. Satyananda Saraswati, A Systematic Course in the Ancient Tantric Techniques of Yoga and Kriya (Munger, 1980), p. 335.
*3. Sw. Yogabhakti Saraswati (M. Flak), "Mandala: An Energy Diagram" Yoga, 19, No. 10 (1981), 15.
*4. Jung, G.G.: Psychology and Alchemy, trans. R.F.C. Hull, Vol. 12 of The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Boilingen Series XX (Princeton Univ. Press., 1969), p. 221.
*5. Sotiriou, G.: Christian and Byzantine Archaeology,Vol. I (Athens, 1942), pp. 82, 101.
*6. Dalton, O.: East Christian Art (Oxford Univ. Press, 1925), p.282; both this book and the book mentioned in note 5 make a detailed description of Christian church art in connection with religious worship in Asia Minor, Armenia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Roumania, Russia, etc.
*7. Meyer, F.S.; Handbook of Ornament (Dover, 1957), pp. 182, 250-61. Meyer defines a rosette as an artificial rose but also as any ornament of a circular shape which radiates from a centre; in other words, a rosette is a kind of mandala.
*8. Pelekanides S. et al.: The Treasures of Mt. Athos: Illustrated Manuscripts, Vol. 1 (Athens Ekdotike, 1973).
*9. Dalton,p. 354. John Beckwith, Early Christian and Byzantine Art (Penguin, 1970), Plates 298 and 300. Christos Enislides, Priestly Vestments (Athens, 1981), pp.52, 101.
*10. Dalton, p. 108. Sotiriou, pp. 182,219.
*11. Sotiriou, pp. 64-76, 171, 324-334. Panagiotis S. Papaevangelou, The Christian Church from an Orthodox Viewpoint (Thessaloniki, 1970), pp. 61-62.
*12. Dalton, pp. 100-101.
*13. Papaevangelou, pp. 48-82.
*14. Dalton, pp. 243, 268. Papaevangelou, pp. 85, 91-96, 104-106. Sotiriou, pp. 180, 343. P.A. Michelis, Architecture as Art, 3rd ed. (Athens, 1965), p. 147. Michelis points out the aesthetic contrast between the various elements in the design of church building, the dominant position of the dome, and the feeling of harmony conveyed by the synthesis of the various contrasting elements. He also stresses the symbolic meaning of the dome and the church building as a whole.