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The halo is a very effective visual device for picking out individuals of particular reverence within a composition. But when you stop and think about it, its also a little arcane and unwieldy, and not just a little bit weird.
The Inquisition set out to find the earliest use of a halo or aura as a visual device, but eventually had to give it up as a bad job; halos existed before they can be truly understood as such. Figures exist with light radiating from their heads in South American cultures, while the Egyptians placed complete and unbroken discs above the heads of their representations.
Before getting into the historical context it might be best to define a halo, its meaning and conceptual origins.
According to the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, “the halo, or nimbus, is a solar image which possesses much the same significance as the crown and specifically the kingly crown. It is displayed by a radiance around the head and sometimes around the whole body (a mandorla or aureola). This originally solar radiance is a sign of holiness, of sanctity and of the divine. It is a manifestation of the aura.” It goes on to clearly state that the halo is a representation of the emission of light.
The halo is familiar in western iconography and culture as anything from a thin elliptical gold band encircling rapturous ladies in traditional painting, to golden crowns of monarchs (and Jesus’ crown of thorns), to monks’ tonsures to currently being a much-used framing device in less than reverend photography. In short it is a signifier of the bearer’s possession of unique, divine or spiritual qualities.
The halo varies in depiction from the aforementioned ethereal orbits to almost corporeal supra-cranial discs. It has had crosses incorporated in both Byzantine and Celtic contexts to represent the Trinity – the single but divided whole. It has been a soft focus glow, radiating rays and even triangles.
Well, its frankly impossible to directly attribute the halo’s inception to a certain culture, but it would seem the Egyptians were, if not the originators, then at least, among the earliest adopters. The Egyptian god Ra has the head of a falcon and the sun-disk of Wadjet above his head, in a very early form of halo.
This would tie-in with the area’s familiarity with Zoroastrianism’s emphasis on flames and light as representative of divinity. The Hellenistic and Roman worlds retained the halo for their iconography. This was not just in their visual art – in the Illiad Homer described a supernatural light that frames the head sof warriors in battle. Of course that might just have been huge spatters of blood and gore, but who am I to doubt the veracity of a visual description made by a blind bronze age storyteller?
Interestingly, there exist many Asian representations of Buddha with a halo which are concurrent with Roman imagery, and are aesthetically closer to more modern interpretations. Although much later in date, masks in South America, as shown above also echo the halo. It is highly improbable these could have been influenced through pre-columbian contact.
As is the case with such matters of art, time and subjectivity, at least one other theory abounds, and it is a lovely one. The idea is put forward that the halo is actually a very functional and utilitarian device; it was put on Greek sculpture to prevent birds shitting on their heads.
Unfortunately, due to earlier painted imagery using the halo, or variations of it, this thesis sounds unlikely.
Dictionary of Symbols, Jean Chevalier and Alain Gheerbant, Penguin, 1969
This article was posted by Ronan McDonnell on
Monday, April 19th, 2010 at
It is archived in Art, Culture, History, Myth, Religion and tagged ancient greece, Art, Culture, History, Myth, painting, Roman, sculpture, visual art.
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