Halo (religious iconography)

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Standing Buddha with a halo, 1st-2nd century AD (or earlier), Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara. Gandhara Buddha (tnm).jpeg
Standing Buddha with a halo, 1st–2nd century AD (or earlier), Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara.
Jesus and nine of the Twelve Apostles depicted with "Floating" disk haloes in perspective (detail from The Tribute Money, illustrating Matthew 17:24-27, by Masaccio, 1424, Brancacci Chapel). Masaccio chapelle Brancacci.png
Jesus and nine of the Twelve Apostles depicted with "Floating" disk haloes in perspective (detail from The Tribute Money , illustrating Matthew 17:24–27, by Masaccio, 1424, Brancacci Chapel).

A halo (from Greek ἅλως, halōs; [1] also known as a nimbus, aureole , glory, or gloriole) is a crown of light rays, circle or disk of light [2] that surrounds a person in art. It has been used in the iconography of many religions to indicate holy or sacred figures, and has at various periods also been used in images of rulers or heroes. In the religious art of Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, among other religions, sacred persons may be depicted with a halo in the form of a circular glow, or flames in Asian art, around the head or around the whole body—this last one is often called a mandorla. Halos may be shown as almost any colour or combination of colours, but are most often depicted as golden, yellow or white when representing light or red when representing flames.


Ancient Greek world

Octadrachm of Ptolemy III Octadrachm Ptolemy III BM CMBMC103.jpg
Octadrachm of Ptolemy III

Sumerian religious literature frequently speaks of melam (loaned into Akkadian as melammu), a "brilliant, visible glamour which is exuded by gods, heroes, sometimes by kings, and also by temples of great holiness and by gods' symbols and emblems." [3]

Homer describes a more-than-natural light around the heads of heroes in battle. [4] Depictions of Perseus in the act of slaying Medusa, with lines radiating from his head, appear on a white-ground toiletry box in the Louvre and on a slightly later red-figured vase in the style of Polygnotos, c. 450–30 BC, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [5] On painted wares from south Italy, radiant lines or simple haloes appear on a range of mythic figures: Lyssa, a personification of madness; a sphinx; a sea demon; and Thetis, the sea-nymph who was mother to Achilles. [6] The Colossus of Rhodes was a statue of the sun-god Helios and had his usual radiate crown (copied for the Statue of Liberty). Hellenistic rulers are often shown wearing radiate crowns that seem clearly to imitate this effect. [7]

In Asian art

Coin of Indo-Greek king Menander II (90-85 BCE), displaying Nike with a halo on the reverse. Menander II with nimbate Nike.jpg
Coin of Indo-Greek king Menander II (90–85 BCE), displaying Nike with a halo on the reverse.

In India, use of the halo might date back to the second half of the second millennium BC. Two figures appliqued on a pottery vase fragment from Daimabad's Malwa phase (1600–1400 BC) have been interpreted as a holy figure resembling the later Hindu god Shiva and an attendant, both with halos surrounding their heads, [8] Aureola have been widely used in Indian art, particularly in Buddhist iconography [9] where it has appeared since at least the 1st century AD; the Kushan Bimaran casket in the British Museum is dated 60 AD (at least between 30BC and 200 AD). The rulers of the Kushan Empire were perhaps the earliest to give themselves haloes on their coins, and the nimbus in art may have originated in Central Asia and spread both east and west. [9]

In Chinese and Japanese Buddhist art the halo has also been used since the earliest periods in depicting the image of Amitabha Buddha and others. Tibetan Buddhism uses haloes and aureoles of many types, drawing from both Indian and Chinese traditions, extensively in statues and Thangka paintings of Buddhist saints such as Milarepa and Padmasambhava and deities. Different coloured haloes have specific meanings: orange for monks, green for the Buddha and other more elevated beings, [10] and commonly figures have both a halo for the head, and another circular one for the body, the two often intersecting somewhere around the head or neck. Thin lines of gold often radiate outwards or inwards from the rim of the halo, and sometimes a whole halo is made up of these. [11]

In India the head halo is called Prabhamandala or Siras-cakra, while the full body halo is Prabhavali. [12] Elaborate haloes and especially aureoles also appear in Hindu sculpture, where they tend to develop into architectural frames in which the original idea can be hard to recognise. Theravada Buddhism and Jainism did not use the halo for many centuries, but later adopted it, though less thoroughly than other religious groups.

Muhammad leads Abraham, Moses, Jesus and others in prayer. Persian miniature Medieval Persian manuscript Muhammad leads Abraham Moses Jesus.jpg
Muhammad leads Abraham, Moses, Jesus and others in prayer. Persian miniature

In Asian art, the nimbus is often imagined as consisting not just of light, but of flames. This type seems to first appear in Chinese bronzes of which the earliest surviving examples date from before 450. [13] The depiction of the flames may be very formalized, as in the regular little flames on the ring aureole surrounding many Chola bronzes and other classic Hindu sculptures of divinities, or very prominent, as with the more realistic flames, and sometimes smoke, shown rising to a peak behind many Tibetan Buddhist depictions of the "wrathful aspect" of divinities, and also in Persian miniatures of the classic period. Sometimes a thin line of flames rise up from the edges of a circular halo in Buddhist examples. [14] In Tibetan paintings the flames are often shown as blown by a wind, usually from left to right. [15] This type is also very rarely found, and on a smaller scale, in medieval Christian art. [16] [ page needed ]

Halos are found in Islamic art from various places and periods, especially in Persian miniatures and Moghul and Ottoman art influenced by them. Flaming halos derived from Buddhist art surround angels, and similar ones are often seen around Muhammad and other sacred human figures. From the early 17th century, plainer round haloes appear in portraits of Mughal Emperors and subsequently Rajput and Sikh rulers; [9] despite the more local precedents art historians believe the Mughals took the motif from European religious art, though it expresses a Persian idea of the God-given charisma of kingship that is far older. [17] The Ottomans avoided using halos for the sultans, despite their title as Caliph, and they are only seen on Chinese emperors if they are posing as Buddhist religious figures, as some felt entitled to do. [18]

Egypt and Asia

In Roman art

Apollo with a radiant halo in a Roman floor mosaic (late 2nd century, El Djem, Tunisia) Apollo1.JPG
Apollo with a radiant halo in a Roman floor mosaic (late 2nd century, El Djem, Tunisia)

The halo represents an aura or the glow of sanctity which was conventionally drawn encircling the head. It first appeared in the culture of Hellenistic Greece and Rome, possibly related to the Zoroastrian hvarena – "glory" or "divine lustre" – which marked the Persian kings, and may have been imported with Mithraism. [20] Though Roman paintings have largely disappeared, save some fresco decorations, the haloed figure remains fresh in Roman mosaics. In a 2nd-century AD Roman floor mosaic preserved at Bardo, Tunisia, [21] a haloed Poseidon appears in his chariot drawn by hippocamps. Significantly, the triton and nereid who accompany the sea-god are not haloed.

In a late 2nd century AD floor mosaic from Thysdrus, El Djem, (illustration) Apollo Helios is identified by his effulgent halo. Another haloed Apollo in mosaic, from Hadrumentum, is in the museum at Sousse. [22] The conventions of this representation, head tilted, lips slightly parted, large-eyed, curling hair cut in locks grazing the neck, were developed in the 3rd century BC to depict Alexander the Great (Bieber 1964; Yalouris 1980). Sometime after this mosaic was executed, the Emperor began to be depicted with a halo, [23] which was not abandoned when they became Christian; initially Christ only had one when shown on a throne as Christ in Majesty. [24]

In Christian art

Early pre-4th century Mosaic of Sol Invictus in Mausoleum M in the pre-4th-century necropolis beneath St Peter's Basilica - interpreted by many as representing Christ. ChristAsSol.jpg
Early pre-4th century Mosaic of Sol Invictus in Mausoleum M in the pre-4th-century necropolis beneath St Peter's Basilica – interpreted by many as representing Christ.

The halo was incorporated into Early Christian art sometime in the 4th century with the earliest iconic images of Christ, initially the only figure shown with one (together with his symbol, the Lamb of God). Initially the halo was regarded by many as a representation of the Logos of Christ, his divine nature, and therefore in very early (before 500) depictions of Christ before his Baptism by John he tends not to be shown with a halo, it being a matter of debate whether his Logos was innate from conception (the Orthodox view), or acquired at Baptism (the Nestorian view). At this period he is also shown as a child or youth in Baptisms, though this may be a hieratic rather than an age-related representation. [26]

Nativity and Transfiguration of Christ, with cross haloes; the apostles, angels and prophets have plain ones. (1025-50, Cologne). Kolner Meister eines Evangelienbuches 001.jpg
Nativity and Transfiguration of Christ, with cross haloes; the apostles, angels and prophets have plain ones. (1025–50, Cologne).

A cruciform halo, that is to say a halo with a cross within, or extending beyond, the circle is used to represent the persons of the Holy Trinity, especially Jesus, and especially in medieval art. In Byzantine and Orthodox images, inside each of the bars of the cross in Christ's halo is one of the Greek letters Ο Ω Ν, making up ὁ ὢν —"ho ōn", literally, "the Existing One"—indicating the divinity of Jesus. [27] At least in later Orthodox images, each bar of this cross is composed of three lines, symbolising the dogmas of the Trinity, the oneness of God and the two natures of Christ.

In mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore (432–40) the juvenile Christ has a four-armed cross either on top of his head in the radius of the nimbus, or placed above the radius, but this is unusual. In the same mosaics the accompanying angels have haloes (as, in a continuation of the Imperial tradition, does King Herod), but not Mary and Joseph. Occasionally other figures have crossed haloes, such as the seven doves representing the Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in the 11th century Codex Vyssegradensis Tree of Jesse (where Jesse and Isaiah also have plain haloes, as do the Ancestors of Christ in other miniatures). [28]

Later, triangular haloes are sometimes given to God the Father to represent the Trinity. [29] When he is represented by a hand emerging from a cloud, this may be given a halo.

Plain round haloes are typically used to signify saints, the Virgin Mary, Old Testament prophets, angels, symbols of the Four Evangelists, and some other figures. Byzantine emperors and empresses were often shown with them in compositions including saints or Christ, however the haloes were outlined only. This was copied by Ottonian and later Russian rulers. Old Testament figures become less likely to have haloes in the West as the Middle Ages go on. [30]

Pope Paschal I is depicted during his lifetime, so with a square halo, c. 820, Santa Prassede, Rome. Pope Paschalis I. in apsis mosaic of Santa Prassede in Rome.gif
Pope Paschal I is depicted during his lifetime, so with a square halo, c. 820, Santa Prassede, Rome.

Beatified figures, not yet canonised as saints, are sometimes shown in medieval Italian art with linear rays radiating out from the head, but no circular edge of the nimbus defined; later this became a less obtrusive form of halo that could be used for all figures. [31] Mary has, especially from the Baroque period onwards, a special form of halo in a circle of twelve stars, derived from her identification as the Woman of the Apocalypse.

Square haloes were sometimes used for the living in donor portraits of about 500–1100 in Italy; [32] Most surviving ones are of Popes and others in mosaics in Rome, including the Episcopa Theodora head of the mother of the Pope of the day. They seem merely an indication of a contemporary figure, as opposed to the saints usually accompanying them, with no real implication of future canonization. A late example is of Desiderius, Abbot of Monte Cassino, later Pope, from a manuscript of 1056–86; [33] Pope Gregory the Great had himself depicted with one, according to the 9th-century writer of his vita , John, deacon of Rome. [34] A figure who may represent Moses in the 3rd century Dura Europos Synagogue has one, where no round halos are found. [35] Personifications of the Virtues are sometimes given hexagonal haloes. [36] Scalloped haloes, sometimes just appearing as made of radiating bars, are found in the manuscripts of the Carolingian "Ada School", such as the Ada Gospels.

The whole-body image of radiance is sometimes called the 'aureole' or glory; it is shown radiating from all round the body, most often of Christ or Mary, occasionally of saints (especially those reported to have been seen surrounded by one). Such an aureola is often a mandorla ("almond-shaped" vesica piscis), especially around Christ in Majesty, who may well have a halo as well. In depictions of the Transfiguration of Jesus a more complicated shape is often seen, especially in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, as in the famous 15th century icon in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. [37]

Where gold is used as a background in miniatures, mosaics and panel paintings, the halo is often formed by inscribing lines in the gold leaf, and may be decorated in patterns (diapering) within the outer radius, and thus becomes much less prominent. The gold leaf inside the halo may also be burnished in a circular manner, so as to produce the effect of light radiating out from the subject's head. In the early centuries of its use, the Christian halo may be in most colours (though black is reserved for Judas, Satan and other evil figures) or multicoloured; later gold becomes standard, and if the entire background is not gold leaf, the halo itself usually will be. [38]

Decline of the halo

Fra Angelico. Coronation of the Virgin. Note the haloes of the kneeling figures at the front, seen from behind. Fra Angelico 082.jpg
Fra Angelico. Coronation of the Virgin . Note the haloes of the kneeling figures at the front, seen from behind.

With increasing realism in painting, the halo came to be a problem for artists. So long as they continued to use the old compositional formulae which had been worked out to accommodate haloes, the problems were manageable, but as Western artists sought more flexibility in composition, this ceased to be the case. In free-standing medieval sculpture, the halo was already shown as a flat disk above or behind the head. When perspective came to be considered essential, painters also changed the halo from an aura surrounding the head, always depicted as though seen full-on, to a flat golden disk or ring that appeared in perspective, floating above the heads of the saints, or vertically behind, sometimes transparent. This can be seen first in Giotto, who still gives Christ the cruciform halo which began to be phased out by his successors. In northern Europe the radiant halo, made up of rays like a sunburst, came into fashion in French painting around the end of the 14th century. [39]

In the early 15th century Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin largely abandoned their use, although some other Early Netherlandish artists continued to use them. [40] In Italy at around the same time, Pisanello used them if they did not clash with one of the enormous hats he liked to paint. Generally they lasted longer in Italy, although often reduced to a thin gold band depicting the outer edge of the nimbus, usual for example in Giovanni Bellini. Christ began to be shown with a plain halo.

Leonardo da Vinci (attributed), Benois Madonna. Floating semi-transparent haloes in perspective. Madonna Benois.jpg
Leonardo da Vinci (attributed), Benois Madonna . Floating semi-transparent haloes in perspective.

Fra Angelico, himself a monk, was a conservative as far as haloes are concerned, and some of his paintings demonstrate the problems well, as in several of his more crowded compositions, where they are shown as solid gold disks on the same plane as the picture surface, it becomes difficult to prevent them obstructing other figures. At the same time they were useful in crowded narrative scenes for distinguishing the main, identifiable, figures from the mass of a crowd. Giotto's Lamentation of Christ from the Scrovegni Chapel has eight figures with haloes and ten without, to whom the viewer knows they are not meant to attach a specific identity. In the same way, a Baptism of Christ by Perugino in Vienna gives neither Christ nor John the Baptist haloes, as sufficiently recognisable without them, but a saint in the background, not usually present in this scene, has a ring halo to denote his status. [41]

In the High Renaissance, even most Italian painters dispensed with haloes altogether, but in the Church's reaction to the Protestant Reformation, that culminated in the decrees on images of the Council of Trent of 1563, their use was mandated by clerical writers on religious art such as Molanus and Saint Carlo Borromeo. Figures were placed where natural light sources would highlight their heads, or instead more discreet quasi-naturalistic flickering or glowing light was shown around the head of Christ and other figures (perhaps pioneered by Titian in his late period). Rembrandt's etchings, for example, show a variety of solutions of all of these types, as well as a majority with no halo effect at all. The disk halo was rarely used for figures from classical mythology in the Renaissance, although they are sometimes seen, especially in the classical radiant form, in Mannerist and Baroque art.

By the 19th century haloes had become unusual in Western mainstream art, although retained in iconic and popular images, and sometimes as a medievalising effect. When John Millais gives his otherwise realist St Stephen (1895) a ring halo, it seems rather surprising. [42] In popular graphic culture, a simple ring has become the predominant representation of a halo since at least the late 19th century, as seen for example in the logo for the Simon Templar ("The Saint") series of novels and other adaptations.

Spiritual significance in Christianity

Eastern Orthodox icon of Christ "Not Made by Hand" with the Greek letters O o N. Simon Ushakov, 17th century. Ushakov Nerukotvorniy.jpg
Eastern Orthodox icon of Christ "Not Made by Hand" with the Greek letters ΟΝ. Simon Ushakov, 17th century.

The early Church Fathers expended much rhetorical energy on conceptions of God as a source of light; among other things this was because "in the controversies in the 4th century over the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son, the relation of the ray to the source was the most cogent example of emanation and of distinct forms with a common substance" – key concepts in the theological thought of the time. [43]

A more Catholic interpretation, less dualistic in its assumptions, is that the halo represents the light of divine grace suffusing the soul, which is perfectly united and in harmony with the physical body.

In the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church, an icon is a "window into heaven" through which Christ and the Saints in heaven can be seen and communicated with. The gold ground of the icon indicates that what is depicted is in heaven. The halo is a symbol of the Uncreated Light (Greek: Ἄκτιστον Φῶς) or grace of God shining forth through the icon. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in his Celestial Hierarchies speaks of the angels and saints being illuminated by the grace of God, and in turn illumining others.

Origins and usage of the different terms

Late Byzantine/Russian icon of the Transfiguration. Christ is shown surrounded by a light blue aureole with white flashes of lightning (15th century, attributed to Theophanes the Greek, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow). Preobrazhenie.jpeg
Late Byzantine/Russian icon of the Transfiguration. Christ is shown surrounded by a light blue aureole with white flashes of lightning (15th century, attributed to Theophanes the Greek, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).

The distinction between the alternative terms in English is rather unclear. The oldest term in English is "glory", the only one available in the Middle Ages, but now largely obsolete. It came from the French "gloire" which has much the same range of meanings as "glory". "Gloriole" does not appear in this sense until 1844, being a modern invention, as a diminutive, in French also. "Halo" is first found in English in this sense in 1646 (nearly a century after the optical or astronomical sense). Both "halos" and "haloes" may be used as plural forms, and halo may be used as a verb. [44] Halo comes originally from the Greek for "threshing-floor" – a circular, slightly sloping area kept very clean, around which slaves or oxen walked to thresh the grain. In Greek, this came to mean the divine bright disk.

Nimbus means a cloud in Latin and is found as a divine cloud in 1616, whereas as "a bright or golden disk surrounding the head" it does not appear until 1727. The plural "nimbi" is correct but "rare"; "nimbuses" is not in the OED but sometimes used. "Nimb" is an obsolete form of the noun, but not a verb, except that the obsolete "nimbated", like the commoner "nimbate", means "furnished with a nimbus". It is sometimes preferred by art-historians, as sounding more technical than halo. [45]

"Aureole", from the Latin for "golden", has been used in English as a term for a gold crown, especially that traditionally considered the reward of martyrs, since the Middle Ages (OED 1220). But the first use recorded as a term for a halo is in 1848, very shortly after which matters were greatly complicated by the publication in 1851 of the English translation of Adolphe Napoléon Didron's important Christian Iconography: Or, The History of Christian Art in the Middle Ages. This, by what the OED calls a "strange blunder", derived the word from the Latin "aura" as a diminutive, and also defined it as meaning a halo or glory covering the whole body, whilst saying that "nimbus" referred only to a halo around the head. This, according to the OED, reversed the historical usage of both words, but whilst Didron's diktat was "not accepted in France", the OED noted it had already been picked up by several English dictionaries, and influenced usage in English, which still seems to be the case, as the word "nimbus" is mostly found describing whole-body haloes, and seems to have also influenced "gloriole" in the same direction. [46]

The only English term that unequivocally means a full-body halo, and cannot be used for a circular disk around the head is "mandorla", first occurring in 1883. However, this term, which is the Italian word for "almond", is usually reserved for the vesica piscis shape, at least in describing Christian art. In discussing Asian art, it is used more widely. [47] Otherwise, there could be said to be an excess of words that could refer to either a head-disk or a full-body halo, and no word that clearly denotes a full-body halo that is not vesica piscis shaped. "Halo" by itself, according to recent dictionaries, [48] means only a circle around the head, although Rhie and Thurman use the word also for circular full-body aureoles. [49]

See also


  1. Harper, Douglas. "halo". Online Etymology Dictionary . ἅλως . Liddell, Henry George ; Scott, Robert ; A Greek–English Lexicon at the Perseus Project.
  2. "halo – art". britannica.com.
  3. J. Black and A. Green, Gods, Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotmia (Austin, 1992) p. 130.
  4. Iliad v.4ff, xviii.203ff.
  5. Marjorie J. Milne, "Perseus and Medusa on an Attic Vase" The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin New Series, 4.5 (January 1946, pp. 126–130) 126.p.) JSTOR   3257993
  6. L. Stephani, Nimbus und Strahlenkranz in den Werken der Alten Kunst" in Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences de Saint-Petersbourg, series vi, vol. vol ix, noted in Milne 1946:130.
  7. Stevenson, Gregory M. (1995). "Conceptual Background to Golden Crown Imagery in the Apocalypse of John (4:4, 10; 14:14)". Journal of Biblical Literature. 114 (2): 257–272. doi:10.2307/3266939. ISSN   0021-9231.
  8. Sali, S. A. "Daimabad : 1976–79". INDIAN CULTURE. p. 499. Retrieved 12 August 2020.
  9. 1 2 3 "Metropolitan Museum of Art: Art of South Asia" (PDF). metmuseum.org.
  10. including the Qianlong Emperor – see note below. Rhie, Marylin and Thurman, Robert (eds):Wisdom And Compassion: The Sacred Art of Tibet, p. 99, & passim, 2000, 1991, ISBN   0-8109-2526-5
  11. Rhie and Thurman, pp 77, 176, 197 etc.
  12. Gopinatha Rao, T. A. (1985). Elements of Hindu Iconography. pp. 31–32. Motilal Banarsidass. ISBN   9788120808782
  13. No doubt, as later, the same motif appeared in paintings, but none survive from this early. L Sickman & A Soper, "The Art and Architecture of China", Pelican History of Art, 3rd ed 1971, pp. 86–7, Penguin (now Yale History of Art), LOC 70-125675
  14. Often in paintings from the Dunhuang caves, see Anne Farrer (ed), "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas", 1990, British Museum publications, nos 42, 53, 54 etc, ISBN   0-7141-1447-2
  15. Rhie and Thurman, p. 161
  16. See Didron
  17. Crill & Jariwala, 29 and note
  18. Such as the Qianlong Emperor the Qianlong Emperor in Buddhist Dress, and his father.
  19. The ring of fire is ascribed other meanings in many accounts of the iconography of the Nataraja, but many other types of statue have similar aureoles, and their origin as such is clear.
  20. Ramsden, E. H. (1941). "The Halo: A Further Enquiry into Its Origin". The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs. 78 (457): 123–131. JSTOR   868232.
  21. Illustrated.
  22. "Illustration". Archived from the original on 8 July 2008.
  23. Initially only dead and therefore deified Emperors were haloed, later the living Catholic Encyclopedia
  24. "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Nimbus". www.newadvent.org.
  25. According to the 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia, a standard library reference, in an article on Constantine the Great : "Besides, the Sol Invictus had been adopted by the Christians in a Christian sense, as demonstrated in the Christ as Apollo-Helios in a mausoleum (c. 250) discovered beneath St. Peter's in the Vatican."
  26. G Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I, 1971 (English trans. from German), Lund Humphries, London, p. 135, figs 150-53, 346–54. ISBN   0-85331-270-2
  27. "Early Christian Symbols" (PDF). Catholic Biblical Association of Canada. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 December 2011. Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  28. G Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I, 1971 (English trans. from German), Lund Humphries, London, figs 20–22, ISBN   0-85331-270-2
  29. Nationalgallery.org.uk Archived 23 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine , Late 15th century reliefs by Jacopo della Quercia on the portal of San Petronio, Bologna are an early example of the triangular halo. According to Didron, Adolphe Napoléon: Christian Iconography: Or, The History of Christian Art in the Middle Ages, London, 1851, Vol 2, p30, this is "extremely rare in France, but common enough in Italy and Greece
  30. Didron, Vol 2, pp. 68–71
  31. The distinction is observed in the Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven (1423–4) by Fra Angelico, National Gallery, London, where only the beatified saints at the edges have radiating linear haloes.
  32. only in Italy, according to Didron, Vol 2 p. 79.
  33. see Didron, Vol 2 p. 79 and Dodwell, C.R.; The Pictorial arts of the West, 800–1200, 1993, Yale UP, ISBN   0-300-06493-4, p. 170
  34. Johannes Diaconus gives the reason: circa verticem tabulae similitudinem, quod viventis insigne est, preferens, non-coronam ("bearing around his head the likeness of a square, which is the sign for a living person, and not a crown") (Migne, Pat. Lat. 75, 231). The deacon of Rome was unaware of the Eastern tradition of depicting the emperor with a halo. Surviving examples are rare, and seem to be becoming rarer; Bishop Ecclesius has a clear one in older photos of the mosaics in San Vitale, Ravenna, which appears to have been removed in recent restoration Cupola of the choir – see: James Hall, A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art, p100 & photo p. 93, 1983, John Murray, London, ISBN   0-7195-3971-4. Other surviving examples are Pope Hadrian I in a mural formerly in Santa Prassede, Rome, donor figures in the church at Saint Catherine's Monastery and two more Roman examples – items 3 and 5 Archived 30 June 2007 at the Wayback Machine , one of Paschal's mother, the rather mysterious Episcopa Theodora. see also: Fisher, Sally. The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories that Inspired Them. Edited by Harriet Whelchel, Harry N Abrams, Inc., 1995
  35. Becklectic, made by photographer. "Joshua. Fresco from the Dura Europos synagogue (Jewish Art, ed. Cecil Roth, Tel Aviv: Massadah Press, 1961, cols. 203–204: "Joshua")" via Wikimedia Commons.
  36. As in the frescoes by the workshop of Giotto in the lower church at Assisi. James Hall, A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art, p202, 1983, John Murray, London, ISBN   0-7195-3971-4
  37. Didron, Vol 2, pp. 107–126
  38. Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art, p. 112, 2000, Routledge, ISBN   0-415-20454-2
  39. Tait, Hugh. Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum, p. 43, 1986, British Museum Press, ISBN   978-0-7141-0525-3
  40. Haloes were also often added by later dealers and restorers to such works, and indeed sometimes used to convert portraits into "saints". Intentional Alterations of Early Netherlandish Painting, Metropolitan Museum
  41. If not their identity. The painting has been partly repainted, and the current appearance may not be the original one. Vienna Perugino
  42. Tate. "'Saint Stephen', Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, 1895 – Tate". tate.org.uk.
  43. Notes on Castelseprio (1957) in Meyer Schapiro, Selected Papers, volume 3, p117, Late Antique, Early Christian and Mediaeval Art, 1980, Chatto & Windus, London, ISBN   0-7011-2514-4
  44. OED original edition for "glory", "gloriole" and "halo".
  45. OED original edition for "nimbus" etc.
  46. OED original edition for "aureole".
  47. For example by Sickman and Soper, op. cit.
  48. Concise Oxford Dictionary, 1995, and Collins English Dictionary.
  49. op & pages cit. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911 (link above) has a further set of meanings for these terms, including glory.

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A Madonna is a representation of Mary, either alone or with her child Jesus. These images are central icons for both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The word is from Italian ma donna 'my lady'. The Madonna and Child type is very prevalent in Christian iconography, divided into many traditional subtypes especially in Eastern Orthodox iconography, often known after the location of a notable icon of the type, such as the Theotokos of Vladimir, Agiosoritissa, Blachernitissa, etc., or descriptive of the depicted posture, as in Hodegetria, Eleusa, etc.

Depiction of Jesus Christian icons or images depicting Jesus

There is only one description of the physical appearance of Jesus given in the New Testament, which is in the book of Revelation 1:12-15. The depiction of Jesus in pictorial form was controversial in the early Church. The depiction of him in art took several centuries to reach a conventional standardized form for his physical appearance, which has subsequently remained largely stable since that time. Most images of Jesus have in common a number of traits which are now almost universally associated with Jesus, although variants are seen.


An aureola or aureole is the radiance of luminous cloud which, in paintings of sacred personages, surrounds the whole figure.

Early Christian art and architecture

Early Christian art and architecture or Paleochristian art is the art produced by Christians or under Christian patronage from the earliest period of Christianity to, depending on the definition used, sometime between 260 and 525. In practice, identifiably Christian art only survives from the 2nd century onwards. After 550 at the latest, Christian art is classified as Byzantine, or of some other regional type.

Iconography Branch of art history

Iconography, as a branch of art history, studies the identification, description and interpretation of the content of images: the subjects depicted, the particular compositions and details used to do so, and other elements that are distinct from artistic style. The word iconography comes from the Greek εἰκών ("image") and γράφειν.


A mandorla is an almond-shaped aureola, i.e. a frame that surrounds the totality of an iconographic figure. It is usually synonymous with vesica, a lens shape. Mandorlas often surround the figures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary in traditional Christian iconography. It is distinguished from a halo in that it encircles the entire body and not just the head. It is commonly used to frame the figure of Christ in Majesty in early medieval and Romanesque art, as well as Byzantine art of the same periods. It is the shape generally used for mediaeval ecclesiastical seals, secular seals generally being round.

<i>Arma Christi</i> Objects associated with the Passion of Jesus Christ in Christian symbolism and art

Arma Christi, or the Instruments of the Passion, are the objects associated with the Passion of Jesus Christ in Christian symbolism and art. They are seen as arms in the sense of heraldry, and also as the weapons Christ used to achieve his conquest over Satan. There is a group, at a maximum of about 20 items, which are frequently used in Christian art, especially in the Late Middle Ages. Typically they surround either a cross or a figure of Christ of the Man of Sorrows type, either placed around the composition, or held by angels.

Santa Pudenziana

Santa Pudenziana is a church of Rome, a basilica built in the 4th century and dedicated to Saint Pudentiana, sister of Saint Praxedes and daughter of Saint Pudens. It is one of the national churches in Rome, associated with Filipinos.

<i>Poor Mans Bible</i>

The term Poor Man's Bible has come into use in modern times to describe works of art within churches and cathedrals which either individually or collectively have been created to illustrate the teachings of the Bible for a largely illiterate population. These artworks may take the form of carvings, paintings, mosaics or stained-glass windows. In some churches a single artwork, such as a stained-glass window has the role of Poor Man's Bible while in others, the entire church is decorated with a complex biblical narrative that unites in a single scheme.

Christ in Majesty Theme in Christian iconography

Christ in Majesty or Christ in Glory is the Western Christian image of Christ seated on a throne as ruler of the world, always seen frontally in the centre of the composition, and often flanked by other sacred figures, whose membership changes over time and according to the context. The image develops from Early Christian art, as a depiction of the Heavenly throne as described in 1 Enoch, Daniel 7, and The Apocalypse of John. In the Byzantine world, the image developed slightly differently into the half-length Christ Pantocrator, "Christ, Ruler of All", a usually unaccompanied figure, and the Deesis, where a full-length enthroned Christ is entreated by Mary and St. John the Baptist, and often other figures. In the West, the evolving composition remains very consistent within each period until the Renaissance, and then remains important until the end of the Baroque, in which the image is ordinarily transported to the sky.

Coronation of the Virgin subject in Christian art

The Coronation of the Virgin or Coronation of Mary is a subject in Christian art, especially popular in Italy in the 13th to 15th centuries, but continuing in popularity until the 18th century and beyond. Christ, sometimes accompanied by God the Father and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, places a crown on the head of Mary as Queen of Heaven. In early versions the setting is a Heaven imagined as an earthly court, staffed by saints and angels; in later versions Heaven is more often seen as in the sky, with the figures seated on clouds. The subject is also notable as one where the whole Christian Trinity is often shown together, sometimes in unusual ways. Although crowned Virgins may be seen in Orthodox Christian icons, the coronation by the deity is not. Mary is sometimes shown, in both Eastern and Western Christian art, being crowned by one or two angels, but this is considered a different subject.

Nativity of Jesus in art Artistic depictions of the Nativity or birth of Jesus, celebrated at Christmas

The Nativity of Jesus has been a major subject of Christian art since the 4th century.

A religious image, sometimes called a votive image, is a work of visual art that is representational and has a religious purpose, subject or connection. All major historical religions have made some use of religious images, although their use is strictly controlled and often controversial in many religions, especially Abrahamic ones. General terms associated with religious images include cult image, a term for images, especially in sculpture which are or have been claimed to be the object of religious worship in their own right, and icon strictly a term for Eastern Orthodox religious images, but often used more widely, in and outside the area of religion.

Lamentation of Christ Subject in Christian art

The Lamentation of Christ is a very common subject in Christian art from the High Middle Ages to the Baroque. After Jesus was crucified, his body was removed from the cross and his friends mourned over his body. This event has been depicted by many different artists.

Hand of God (art)

The Hand of God, or Manus Dei in Latin, also known as Dextera domini/dei, the "right hand of God", is a motif in Jewish and Christian art, especially of the Late Antique and Early Medieval periods, when depiction of Jehovah or God the Father as a full human figure was considered unacceptable. The hand, sometimes including a portion of an arm, or ending about the wrist, is used to indicate the intervention in or approval of affairs on Earth by God, and sometimes as a subject in itself. It is an artistic metaphor that is generally not intended to indicate that a hand was physically present or seen at any subject depicted. The Hand is seen appearing from above in a fairly restricted number of narrative contexts, often in a blessing gesture, but sometimes performing an action. In later Christian works it tends to be replaced by a fully realized figure of God the Father, whose depiction had become acceptable in Western Christianity, although not in Eastern Orthodox or Jewish art. Though the hand of God has traditionally been understood as a symbol for God's intervention or approval of human affairs, it is also possible that the hand of God reflects the anthropomorphic conceptions of the deity that may have persisted in late antiquity.

God the Father in Western art

For about a thousand years, in obedience to interpretations of specific Bible passages, pictorial depictions of God in Western Christianity had been avoided by Christian artists. At first only the Hand of God, often emerging from a cloud, was portrayed. Gradually, portrayals of the head and later the whole figure were depicted, and by the time of the Renaissance artistic representations of God the Father were freely used in the Western Church.


The Hetoimasia, Etimasia, prepared throne, Preparation of the Throne, ready throne or Throne of the Second Coming is the Christian version of the symbolic subject of the empty throne found in the art of the ancient world, whose meaning has changed over the centuries. In Ancient Greece it represented Zeus, chief of the gods, and in early Buddhist art it represented the Buddha. In Early Christian art and Early Medieval art it is found in both the East and Western churches, and represents either Christ, or sometimes God the Father as part of the Trinity. In the Middle Byzantine period, from about 1000, it came to represent more specifically the throne prepared for the Second Coming of Christ, a meaning it has retained in Eastern Orthodox art to the present.

Last Supper in Christian art

The Last Supper of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles has been a popular subject in Christian art, often as part of a cycle showing the Life of Christ. Depictions of the Last Supper in Christian art date back to early Christianity and can be seen in the Catacombs of Rome.

Transfiguration of Jesus in Christian art

The Transfiguration of Jesus has been an important subject in Christian art, above all in the Eastern church, some of whose most striking icons show the scene.

The Trinity in art

The Trinity is most commonly seen in Christian art with the Holy Spirit represented by a dove, as specified in the gospel accounts of the baptism of Christ; he is nearly always shown with wings outspread. However depictions using three anthropomorphic figures appear occasionally in most periods of art.


Further reading