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Masaccio, Brancacci Chapel, 1424. "Floating" disk halos in perspective, and a plain halo for Christ.

A halo (Greek: ἅλως; also known as a nimbus, glory, or gloriole) is a ring of light used in religious art, sculpture, and iconography to depict an enlightened figure, holy person, or celestial being. The halo represents an aura or glow of sanctity that was conventionally shown encircling the head.

The use of halos in art has been found in diverse religious traditions including Mithraism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Shintoism. Indeed, the veneration for light is a common mythological theme from Prometheus, to Zoroaster, to biblical accounts of the Star of Bethlehem, and the Hindu festival of Diwali. The symbol of light has been used to depict divine power, clarity, and understanding. It is notable that Moses' only direct encounter with Yahweh in the Bible was in the form of divine Light (fire). Additionally, the worship of divine light is especially evident in the religion of Zoroastrianism, which had a tremendous influence on the Abrahamic faiths. Therefore, it is not surprising that from Roman, through Buddhist to Christian art, revered persons were often depicted with a halo in the form of a golden, yellow, or white circular glow around the head, or a gloriole around the whole body. Thus, as a symbol of divine light, the halo has wide aesthetic appeal and considerable religious meaning.

Yet, even as an almost universal symbol of sanctity, one should still note that the halo still represents different things in specific religious contexts such as the Buddha's Enlightenment, Zoroastrianism's victory of light over darkness, and Christianity's Incarnation as well as saintliness, among other meanings.

In Greco-Roman art

Apollo with a radiant halo in a Roman floor mosaic, El Djem, Tunisia, late second century

The halo first appeared in the culture of Hellenistic Greece and Rome, possibly related to the Zoroastrian hvarena or "divine lustre" imported with Mithraism. Though Roman paintings have largely disappeared, save some fresco decorations, the haloed figure remains a part of Roman mosaics. In a second century C.E. Roman floor mosaic preserved at Bardo, Tunisia,[1] 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 second century C.E. floor mosaic from Thysdrus (El Djem, (illustration, right), Apollo Helios is identified by his effulgent halo. Another haloed Apollo in mosaic, from Hadrumentum, is found in the museum at Sousse.[2] The conventions of this representation, head tilted, lips slightly parted, large-eyed, curling hair cut in locks grazing the neck, were developed in the third century B.C.E. to depict Alexander the Great (Bieber 1964; Yalouris 1980). Some time after this mosaic was executed, the Emperor also began to be depicted with a halo, which continued when the Roman Empire became Christian; initially Christ was only depicted with a halo when shown on a throne as Christ in Majesty.[3]

The Greek poet Homer describes a more-than-natural light around the heads of heroes in battle,[4] and in Aristophanes' Birds the founder of Nephelokokkygia is extravagantly said to outshine the stars and sun.[5] Depictions of Perseus in the act of slaying Medusa, with lines radiating from his head, appear on a white-ground toiletry box, now found in the Louvre, and on a slightly later red-figured vase in the style of Polygnotos, ca. 450-30 B.C.E., in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[6] On painted wares from south Italy, radiant lines or simple halos 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.[7]

In Asian art

The Buddha with a halo, first-second century C.E., Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara.

The halo has been widely used in Indian art, particularly in Buddhist iconography[8] where it has appeared since at least the second century C.E. The halo symbol in art may have originated in Central Asia and spread both east and west.[8] In Zen Buddhism, ink brush paintings also commonly use the halo in depictions of saints such as Bodhidharma. In Pure Land Buddhism, the halo is used in depicting the image of Amitabha (Amida) Buddha. Tibetan Buddhism also uses halos extensively in the Thangka paintings of Buddhist saints such as Milarepa and Padmasambhava. Halos also appear in Hindu sculpture and later, in portraits of Mughal and Rajput rulers.[8]

In Christian art

Nativity and Transfiguration of Christ, with cross halos; the apostles, angels and prophets have plain ones. Cologne 1025-1050

The halo was incorporated into Christian art sometime in the fourth century with the earliest iconic images of Christ. 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 C.E.) 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 birth (the Orthodox view), or acquired at Baptism (the Nestorian view). At this period he is also shown as a child or youth, though this may be a hieratic rather than age-related representation [9]

A cross within, or extending beyond, a halo is used to represent the persons of the Holy Trinity, especially Jesus, and especially in medieval art. In mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore (432-440) 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 halos (as, in a continuation of the Imperial tradition, does King Herod), but not Mary and Joseph. Later, triangular halos are sometimes given to God the Father to represent the Trinity in Western art.[10] Late fifteenth century reliefs by Jacopo della Quercia on the portal of San Petronio, Bologna are an early example of the triangular halo.

Square halos were sometimes used for the living in the first millennium; Pope Gregory the Great had himself depicted with one, according to the ninth-century writer of his vita, John, deacon of Rome.[11] Surviving examples are rare: Bishop Ecclesius had a clear one in older photos of the mosaics in an Vitale, Ravenna, but it appears to have been removed in recent restoration.[12] Other surviving examples include Pope Hadrian I in a mural formerly in Santa Prassede, Rome, donor figures in the church at St. Catherine's Sinai, and two more Roman examples, one of Pope Paschal's mother, the rather mysterious Episcopa Theodora.

Pope Paschal I is depicted during his lifetime, so with a square halo, c. 820, Santa Prassede, Rome.

Occasionally other figures have crossed halos, such as the seven doves representing the Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit in the eleventh century Codex Vyssegradensis Tree of Jesse (where Jesse and Isaiah also have plain halos, as do the Ancestors of Christ in other miniatures).[13]

Plain round halos 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 halos were outlined only. This was copied by Ottonian and later Russian rulers.

Beatified figures, not yet canonized as saints, were 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.[14] Mary has, especially from the Baroque period onwards, a special form of halo in a circle of stars, derived from her identification as the Woman of the Apocalypse.

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. Where gold is used as a background in miniatures, mosaics and panel paintings, the halo is just lines inscribed in the gold, often decorated in patterns within the outer radius, and becomes much less prominent. When gold is not being used, Byzantine halos are usually just a circular line, sometimes dotted. Christ's halo is often inscribed with text or letters.

Decline of the halo

Fra Angelico. Coronation of the Virgin. Note the halos 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 halos, 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 the early fifteenth century, Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin largely abandoned their use, although other Early Netherlandish artists continued to use them. In Italy, at around the same time, Pisanello used halos if they did not clash with one of the enormous hats that he liked to paint. Generally halos in painting 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 halos in perspective.

Fra Angelico, himself a monk, was a conservative as far as halos 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.

In the High Renaissance, even most Italian painters dispensed with halos altogether, but in the Mannerist and Baroque periods, 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.

Spiritual Significance in Christianity

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 fourth 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.[15]

Did you know?
Plain round halos typically have been used to signify saints and angels while square halos were sometimes used for the living

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 a popular Byzantine view, the halo symbolizes a window that the Saints and Christ peer through out of heaven. In this sense, the iconographic figure resides in heaven (symbolized by the gold background) and communicates with the viewer through the window that the halo provides.

In less intellectual interpretations of the halos of saints, some see the halo as symbolizing the saint's consciousness as 'radiating' beyond the physical body, and that it serves as a pictorial reminder to the saint's devotees of the saint's transcendence of the physical body. In popular piety, this practice has led to the literal belief that saints have visible halos around their heads, rather than it be understood as a metaphorical representation. Some faithful believe the halo to be equivalent to the Eastern religion aura, and as with the latter, believe that halos are visible to those with spiritual perception.



  1. The Chariot of Poseidon, Bardo Museum.Illustrated. Retrieved December 2, 2007.
  2. Mosaics in Tunisia, Illlustration.
  3. G. Gietmann, Catholic Encyclopedia, XI, Transcribed by Michael C. Tinkler, 1911. Retrieved December 2, 2007.
  4. Iliad 4, ff, (xviii), 203 ff.
  5. A hyperbole that would raise a laugh in fifth-century Athens became a poetic commonplace in the panegyrics of the late Roman Empire.
  6. Marjorie J. Milne, "Perseus and Medusa on an Attic Vase" The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, 4 (5) (January 1946): 126-130, 126)
  7. L. Stephani, "Nimbus und Strahlenkranz in den Werken der Alten Kunst" in Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences de Saint-Petersbourg, Series vi, Volume ix, (noted in Milne 1946: 130).
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Metropolitan Museum of Art: Art of South Asia, "Art of Southeast Asia: Before ca 1500 C.E.", 24. Retrieved December 2, 2007.
  9. G. Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I, (English trans. from German), (London: Lund Humphries, 1971, ISBN 853312702), 135, figs. 150-153, 346-354.
  10. National Gallery of Art, Halo Glossary. Retrieved December 1, 2012.
  11. 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") (Jacques Paul Migne, Patrologiæ Græcæ 75, 231).
  12. James Hall, A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art (London: John Murray, 1983, ISBN 0719539714), 100 & photo 93.
  13. G. Schiller, 1971, figs. 20-22.
  14. The distinction is observed in the Christ Glorified in the Court of Heaven (1423-1424) by Fra Angelico, National Gallery, London, where only the beatified saints at the edges have radiating linear halos.
  15. "Notes on Castelseprio" (1957) in Meyer Schapiro, Selected Papers, Volume 3: Late Antique, Early Christian and Mediaeval Art. (London: Chatto & Windus, 1980, ISBN 0701125144), 117.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cormack, Robin. Byzantine Art. (Oxford History of Art). Oxford University Press, 2000. ISBN 9780192842114
  • Fisher, Sally. The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories That Inspired Them. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1995. ISBN 9780810944633
  • Hall, James. A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art. London: John Murray, 1983. ISBN 0719539714
  • McManners, John. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. (Oxford Illustrated Histories) Oxford University Press, USA: New Ed edition, 2001. ISBN 9780192854391
  • Morson, Caroline and Maurice Dilasser (Ed.), The Symbols of the Church. Liturgical Press, 1999. ISBN 9780814625385
  • Schapiro, Meyer. Selected Papers, Volume 3: Late Antique, Early Christian and Mediaeval Art. London: Chatto & Windus, 1980. ISBN 0701125144
  • Schiller, G. Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I. London: Lund Humphries, 1971. (English trans. from German) ISBN 9780853312703
  • Sill, Gertrude Grace. A Handbook of Symbols in Christian Art. Touchstone, 1996. ISBN 9780684826837


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