Symbols and Meaning: Vesica Piscis
The Vesica Piscis is a rudimentary geometric shape used by cultures throughout time to convey spiritual understanding. The symbol is found in ancient Greek, Christian, Indian, Mesopotamian, African and Asian civilizations. To this day, the vesica piscis is in art, architecture, as well as logos of corporations.
The shape is formed from the intersection of two circles of the same radius when the center of each circle aligns with the perimeter of the other. A third almond-shape is created by the radii of the two overlapping circles. The form of a vesica piscis is only expressed when there is a precise alignment of these forms. A form of unaligned circles or circles with dissimilar radii will not create the correct mathematical or visual relationship.
The origin of the vesica piscis is unknown due to the omnipresence of this symbol in higher cultures throughout time. Much of the meaning associated with this symbol comes from Christian and Pythagorean knowledge, the vesica piscis predates the church by thousands of years. It is assumed that the symbol represented equal meaning to cultures which have since been lost to the ages.
Translated from Latin “vesica piscis” means “bladder of a fish”, named for the resemblance it has to the conjoined dual air bladders found in most fish. In the Christian world, the vesica piscis has come to be an expression of Christ. The ‘piscis’ or fish symbol is created by extending the two radii from one of the convergence points of the inner “almond” or “mandorla” shape. The resulting modification creates yet a third form in the shape of a fish. The name of this symbol is the ichthys from Greek means “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour”, or referred to as a “Jesus fish” or “sign of the fish”.
The internal third-form of the vesica piscis is referred to in other cultures as the mandorla. Translated from Italian, “mandorla” means “almond. Early medieval artwork uses the mandorla as an aureola to form a frame inside which are figures of Christ and the virgin Mary. The Mandorla, almond shape, in these works is used to depict sacred moments such as the resurrection and the transfiguration of Christ. Moments which, according to Christian belief, transcend our conception of space and time.
“As a symbol, it was frequently employed as a church decoration by the Freemasons of the Middle Ages. The seals of all colleges, abbeys, and other religious communities, as well as of ecclesiastical persons, were invariably made of this shape. Hence, in reference to the religious character of the Institution, it has been suggested that the seals of Masonic Lodges should also have that form, instead of the circular one now used.” – Albert G. Mackey, Encyclopedia of Freemasonry
The mathematical ratio of the mandorla, measured from it’s width to height expressed as a fraction, 265:153 was believed to be a holy number. One-hundred fifty-three is referred to as “the measure of the fish”, it is the same number of fish caught by Apostle Peter as recorded in the Gospel of John (21:11). Acting as an epilogue, this chapter details the redemption of Apostle Peter. “Simon Peter went up and dragged the net to land, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not broken.”
Although the actual and more precise measure of the mandorla is equal to the square root of three. The ratio 265:153 is an acceptable approximation for the square root of three accurate to four decimal places or within 99.99%. It has been the subject of speculation that the reference of these numbers is a coded reference to Pythagorean knowledge.
This allusion to Pythagorean numerology is a window to the interpretation of forms, and symbols in which meaning is obscured and deeper knowledge can be obtained. Pythagorean thought puts forward the belief of a universal system of principles which exists within numbers. Although expressed mathematically, many of these theorems are philosophical in nature. One of these notions revolves around the symbology and beauty associated with divine proportion.
An example of this understanding is a concept which proposes that the essence of a circle is that of its center point. In this example, the center point is the origin, and the radius is an expression of the center point. Concluding that nothing exists without an essence, or center philosophers started with a point and drew a perfect circle around it. A similar expression from a point to other shapes was not possible. So it was found that the circle is a perfect expression of a point onto which all other shapes must originate.
From nothing, a point is created, then expressed as a radius, onto that radius, another point and the expression of another radius. This is the way in which the vesica piscis is created, more importantly, it is the manner in which Pythagoreans understand the universe to have been created. Within this framework, the vesica piscis is the foundational shape from which all other forms are brought into creation. The triangle, square, pentagon, and more can be subsequently produced in perfect geometric proportion and in perfect logical sequence.
“The vesica is “a universal exponent of architecture or Masonry and the original source or fountain from which its signs and symbols are derived – it constituted the great and enduring secret of our ancient brethren” – George Oliver, Discrepancies of Masonry
The vesica piscis has represented the feminine, genesis or birth. These concepts share the trait of a passage from which forms of greater complexity emerge. In one instance, depictions of Christ contained within a mandorla passage signify a transcendental gateway through normal space and time. There is also a visual similarity of the mandorla shape to female anatomy, a gateway for life into the physical realm. Yet another, the “Jesus fish” signifies a passage from which mortal sin may be redeemed. Lastly, the Pythagorean understanding of universal creation. When expressed in mathematical principles, plots geometric forms which acts as a visual metaphor for the philosophical principle on which it is based. A framework from which subsequent forms of increasing complexity are created.
Historically the vesica piscis has been imbued with spiritual and universal meaning. Conveying the understanding of a transcendental gateway from which creation of higher forms miraculously emerges. It has been employed in great works of art, architecture, philosophy, logic and mathematics. In the current year this form perseveres as a gateway to higher knowledge, it is also seen is used as a visual basis for corporate logos.
Whether the corporation, designer or audience of modern logotypes which use the vesica piscis symbol is aware of the forms meaning is unanswerable. For those who do possess an understanding of the symbols historical significance and meaning, the forms express more meaning than their owners may intend them too. Or perhaps the express precisely what is intended. We may never know, but now you too may also speculate.