Human Flower Project

Mandorla: Intersecting Worlds

​With a tragedy in Russia, mourners and their florists turn to an old figure of Eastern Orthodox iconography, shaped like a seed.

A Russian Orthodox priest blesses graves outside Krymsk.

Overnight floods in Krymsk, a southern Russia city east of the Black Sea, killed at least 172 people early Sunday morning. There had been no warning, even though authorities later admitted having  known by 10 p.m. Saturday that heavy rains threatened to inundate the town.

Some of the survivors (more than 25,000 lost their homes and belongings) say they believe that along with flooded natural waterways, more water was actually released from a reservoir above the city, “a theory rebutted by scientists from Russia’s environmental monitoring service, who said Friday’s rains swelled nearby rivers with the equivalent of six months’ average precipitation.”

Recriminations have been mounting. And so have floral tributes to the dead. Thanks to Craig Cramer of Ellis Hollow for alerting us to these striking images taken in a makeshift graveyard outside Krymsk.

A Ukrainian florist advertises various designs for wreaths, most of them variations on the tear-drop form of the mandorla.

How different these sympathy arrangements are from the circular wreaths and sprays we’re accustomed to. All morning we’ve been searching for clues as to their distinctive shape. Egg? Seed? Womb? Teardrop?

After browsing through Russian and Ukrainian florists websites, we’re still not certain why this form of tribute is such a consistent floral presence at funerals in the region. We’ve read that even-numbered flowers are preferred (even required) at times of mourning and that yellow blooms are unwelcome at happy or sad occasions alike.

Having read up on Russian funeral  customs and dipped into church symbolism, we’ve come to think that the massive oval-shaped arrangements follow an iconic shape in Eastern Orthodoxy—the mandorla.

This encapsulating form recurs in Christian imagery, a kind of radiant bubble that surrounds divine figures when they appear to humankind. 

One of the earliest such images is this Apse mosaic of the Transfiguration, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, c. 550-565

“The term refers to the almond like shape: “mandorla” means almond nut in Italian. In icons of the Eastern Orthodox Church, the mandorla is used to depict sacred moments which transcend time and space, such as the Resurrection, Transfiguration, and the Dormition of the Theotokos.”

In Pythagorean symbolism and pre-Christian art, the mandorla shape was conceived as two intersecting circles, alluding again to a kind of “eclipse,” when two different dimensions coalesce; momentarily, there’s a keyhole that makes it possible to see a more essential reality than we know in everyday life.

These pendulous wreaths, often fashioned with concentric rings of flower-color, remind us of the luminous cloud around our Lady of Guadalupe, a form that both protects and projects the power residing inside.

A soldier digs a grave outside Krymsk, Russia. More than 170 residents of the town died in early morning floods Sunday July 8.

Photo: Sergey Ponomarev, for AP

The intersection of opposites certainly comes through in Sergey Ponomarev’s astonishing photo from the Krymsk cemetery. A pale young man (or is it a girl?) shovels inside a grave, a black block surrounded with mud, while on the ground above scores of the bright egg-shaped arrangements lie across fresh gravemounds; all the way to the horizon, they shine back at the sky.


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