Mandalas take many forms. These circular representations of the Universe are most well developed in Buddhist and Hindu traditions, but they also appear in other realms, some of them quite unexpected. Jung thought that the mandala was an archetype, “the psychological expression of the totality of the self,” a interesting interpretation, albeit one that is perhaps at odds with the self-transcendent meaning seen by many others.
Two mandalas converged in National Academy of Sciences building on the Washington Mall last week. I brought one of them, embedded in the words of The Forest Unseen. I discovered the other mandala as I entered the building and looked up. The dome of the Academy’s Great Hall is representation of the totality of science, with the words “Ages and cycles of nature in ceaseless sequence moving” scribed on its inner rim. Do I hear an echo of Buddhist impermanence here in a space opened in 1924 as a “Temple of Science“?
At the center: the sun. Around: symbols of the various divisions of early Twentieth Century science (information theory, quantum mechanics, and genomics are missing, among others). The artwork was created by Hildreth Meière, one of the most prolific and honored of the Art Deco public artists, and one of America’s most lauded mosaicists. For this project she used tile painted with hot gesso, producing a luminous, textured surface.
For better photos than my cameraphone shot above, see the NAS’s flickr page. NAS also has some excellent information about the meanings of the various elements in the design. If you have an iPad, you can get an app that walks you through the symbolism of the dome, a joy that is not yet available to the unpadded.
As I walked into the building to receive the book’s award and to talk about the forest mandala, my sweaty-palmed tension was eased a little by Meière’s mandala. Science and mandalas can, perhaps, be in fruitful conversation.