Is there a Christian equivalent for the use of a mandala (word or symbol) in Church architecture?
Some Christians simply call them mandalas. Different denominations have adopted different terms for them, according to their usage.
Simply put, Christians added beauty to their churches in various ways and mandalas are simply one of those options.
For example in many Catholic Churches, they are called rose windows if made out of stained glass. This type of architecture is quite common in larger churches and cathedrals.
Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, and the great psychologist Carl Jung called it an “archetype of wholeness.” Archetypes are those basic patterns and symbols that repeat across cultures and traditions, emerging from a collective unconscious or shared well of images. Jung saw mandalas as expressions of the deep self’s longing for integration and a visual map toward our own spiritual centers. He would spend time each morning creating mandalas in response to his dreams and advised his patients to do the same.
The circle is a universal symbol appearing in nature -- think of the shape of the planets, moon, and sun. It is also found across religions -- think of the ancient stone circles found across Ireland or the intricate sand mandalas that Tibetan Buddhist monks create. We find it in the Catholic tradition as well. Consider the communion wafers we partake of each week or the wedding bands that symbolize the eternal nature of that sacramental commitment as elemental expressions of the mandala form.
In churches we often find the more stunning displays of mandalas: the rose window. The first rose window was created about the year 1200 originating in France and then spreading throughout European churches. Considered part of French Gothic architecture, they are fairly characteristic of medieval churches.
The rose window functions on several different levels at once. Think about a time when you were inside a church and sunlight spilled through a stained glass window casting colored beams across the sacred space. This interaction between light, glass, and color sparks something transcendent within us. Our hearts feel lifted in their longings for the holy.
In rose windows, typically Christ or the Virgin Mary appears in the central rosette as the center point -- an expression of our desire for and movement toward holiness. In the petals surrounding the center may be images from the liturgical cycles and seasons of the year, the Saints and Apostles, the virtues, or sometimes the Zodiac. These petals act as paths guiding our eyes always back to the center. It is meant to be a symbol of our own spiritual journey and how to return back to that which is most important to us.
Domed ceilings in churches are another architectural expression of this sacred form, usually having a window up to the sky in the center, allowing the light to radiate into the building. Monasteries were often built around central cloisters. These were usually square in shape because of the building wall structure, but in the center there was often a lush garden or sometimes a fountain as an expression of God’s abundance and dwelling place at the center of monastic life.
Labyrinths are sacred circle forms being rediscovered today, with the most famous one at Chartres Cathedral in France. They contain a circuitous path that eventually leads to the center and are symbolic of the soul’s journey to the divine center within. In the middle ages, labyrinths were used as metaphorical pilgrimages for those who could not journey to the holy city of Jerusalem. Walking a labyrinth is a profoundly meditative experience, in part because the circular journey helps to integrate both sides of the brain in prayer and so frees the mind from a strictly linear way of approaching God.
Rosaries are also examples of the sacred circle as a form to support prayer. The word “rosary” comes from the Latin for “garland of roses.” In Catholicism the rose symbolizes the Virgin Mary and the layers of petals draw our awareness toward the center. Praying the rosary is a kinesthetic experience of holding each of the round beads between our fingers and repeating our prayers as our hands also move around the circle, offering us an experience of wholeness through both word and body.
Mandalas or sacred circles offer us a template for the interior journey to the heart of ourselves where we encounter the heart of God present as well.
Mandalas in the form of a labyrinth within church architecture may symbolize either Hell or the Pilgrim's Way depending on its usage.
Though originally seen as metaphors for the dark powers of Hell and our need to rely on Our Lady to show us her Son, over time labyrinths came to be seen quite differently. During the Crusades when Christians couldn't make visits to the Holy Land, and in the same manner that the Way of the Cross devotion developed as a sort of substitute "pilgrimage" to the Holy City, labyrinths came to be used as substitute "Chemins de Jerusalem." Christians, barred from earthly Zion, would walk the labyrinths, often on their knees in penance, meditating on the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Sound easy? The paths of the Chartres labyrinth, for example, make for a journey of 858 feet. Imagine walking on your knees on cold, hard marble for almost the length of three football fields!
Plan of the labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral
Walking the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral
Forms which are evocative of mandalas are prevalent in Christianity: the Celtic cross; the rosary; the halo; the aureole; oculi; the Crown of Thorns; rose windows; the Rosy Cross; and the dromenon on the floor of Chartres Cathedral. The dromenon represents a journey from the outer world to the inner sacred centre where the Divine is found.
The Cosmati pavements, including that at Westminster Abbey, are geometric mandala-like mosaic designs from thirteenth century Italy. The Great Pavement at Westminster Abbey is believed to embody divine and cosmic geometries as the seat of enthronement of the monarchs of England. - Wikipedia
Cosmati pulpit in Santa Maria Assunta in Lugnano in Teverina