Halo: what are the origins and meanings of the golden circle?

The halo, sometimes also called the nimbus , is a figurative attribute used in sacred art, present not only in the Christian religion but also in many others, including Buddhism, to indicate someone’s holiness. It consists of a halo of light that surrounds the head or body: more specifically, the halo is the light that surrounds the body, while the halo is the circle of light that surrounds the head. The combination of the two forms glory , but such a precise distinction is very rare.
In statues the nimbus is usually rendered with a disc or circle (usually in gold or gold color) which is fixed behind the head.

The halo originates from pre-Christian Indo-European religions. In fact, it is found in many mosaics, in ancient Greece for example, a disk of light surrounds the head of the Olympian gods. The halo also appears in Hellenistic funerary steles to express respect for those who belong to the world of the afterlife, or again, on some coins, around the head of the person depicted. A particular type of halo is the radiated one of Sol Invictus, also adopted by Mithraism …

In Christian symbolism, especially Catholic symbolism, it provides a clear graphic illustration representing people or objects of religious significance. The halo is the symbol of divinity and supreme power, the radiant light drawn around the head or body of a saint. Other denominations of the Aureola are:
aura, corona, gloriola, gloria or halo.

The word “aureola” literally means “of gold color”, while its round shape serves to recall the concept of perfection, and therefore of holiness. In general it is possible to distinguish it in this way:

– the nimbus , when the light envelops only the head;
– the halo , when light radiates from the body;
-the almond , the combination of both, used only for Jesus and the Madonna, to symbolize their divine nature.

In Christian representations the use of the halo is governed by very precise rules even if not written. Angels and saints are depicted with the common circular halo. On the other hand, a halo is reserved for Jesus in which a cross is inscribed, usually red and of which only three arms can be seen since the fourth, the lower one, is hidden behind the head of Christ himself. Even God, who is usually represented as an elderly and authoritative person with a beard and long hair, often has a triangular halo. This particular shape is the symbol of the Trinity. For ordinary people, living but already with a reputation for holiness, or for those no longer alive and not yet canonized, the representation with the traditional halo of light in a circle is not allowed. However, starting from the 7th century after Christ, some representations show a square shape for them. This particular shape was dedicated to them because the square symbolizes the earth while the circle the sky.

For the personifications of virtue, polygonal haloes can be used, linked to numerology.
A black halo symbolizes wickedness and is used for the devil or for Judas Iscariot, the traitor of Jesus.

Radiating light has been present in artistic representations since very remote times. As a figurative attribute it has been used in sacred art since the dawn, present in many civilizations and religions, to indicate the divinity of a character, his power, his royalty and subsequently, in the Christian context, holiness. Egyptians, Greeks, and later Romans used a halo of light to emphasize the power of their gods, and later also of their rulers.

The halo has therefore always been understood as a symbol of light and grace conferred directly by God. In the pagan context the halo expressed in a generic way the power, divine, but also human, and this trend continued even in the Christian era, when the halo was used not only to crown the heads of saints and angels, but also of famous people, perhaps rich patrons, or men of intellect, at least until 1600 AD when Pope Urban III categorically forbade that men not yet dead and officially beatified were represented with a halo on their heads.

As we have already seen, the saints were soon awarded the honor of the halo, immediately after Jesus and the Madonna, and with the necessary differences compared to them. The reasons for this honor are obvious. The saints are men and women touched in a special way by divine grace, invested with the love of God, made instruments of His will. The light that they radiate is, therefore, of a dual nature, because on the one hand it springs from their head, from their body, for their own merits, on the other it is the reflection of the divine light that envelops and penetrates them.

The halo on the head of the saints in sacred representations is usually represented as a circle painted in gold or blue. Originally the saints were represented crowned with laurel wreaths, like Roman emperors and Roman personalities, but later the laurel wreath was replaced by a gold crown, and later, by the golden circle. The Holy Apostles were sometimes depicted with a flame on their heads, a symbol of their divine inspiration. Likewise, the Saints Evangelists could be represented as their symbolic animal with the flame around the head. Doctors of the Church and angelic spirits were also sometimes crowned with the flame of Divine inspiration.

The Holy Spirit is not represented with a specific halo as it is usually depicted Himself as light, seven flames or a star ray, symbolizing the seven gifts.

The halo of the Madonna is decorated with 12 stars or a single star, to which are added from one to seven flames.

Throughout the Middle Ages, artists continued to depict round or elliptical haloes, whose representation evolved hand in hand with art itself, adapting to new styles, to new perspective rules. With the Renaissance, the halo went a little out of fashion, because artists began to prefer a more human and carnal dimension of sacred figures. It remains in some works, reduced to a very thin ring of light, almost imperceptible …


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