Why artists use a halo to depict saints and angels

  • Question from MP, United Kingdom

    Where did the idea of a halo come from?

    The idea that holy figures in Christianity be depicted with a halo (or, more accurately a nimbus) is a direct borrowing from late Roman and Hellenistic art. The ‘disc’ of the sun was frequently used to indicate divinity, initially with the various sun gods, but soon with almost every deity in the pantheon. Roman emperors were usually depicted with the nimbus since the time of Aurelius (AD270-275), indicating their status as divine ‘sons of God’.

    Constantine, prior to his conversion to Christianity, was depicted with the nimbus and the title Sol Invictus (‘invincible sun’), but dropped both the title and the artistic portrayal after establishing Christianity as the official Imperial religion. Around this time the symbology of sun-worship started to be applied to Jesus Christ. Carsten Peter Thiede goes as far as to say: “One connection between Christ and the sun still visible today is the fact that his resurrection is not celebrated on the Sabbath, but on Sun-day, the Dies Solis.” [Heritage of the First Christians, Lion, 1992, p.127] It was then a short step to apply the solar disc to other principal Christian saints.

    A number of varieties of nimbus (halo) exist in Christian art, including triangular ones representative of the Trinity, square ones for ‘living’ saints (who were alive when the picture was drawn) and, in the case of Mary, it is common to find her halo full of stars, symbolising her status as the ‘Queen of Heaven’.

     The contemporary cultural depiction of the halo as a sort of hovering frisbee above the heads of dead people in heaven or angels, is therefore a continuation of Greco-Roman Pagan art dating back thousands of years. As with those original artists, the halo is an easy illustrator’s short cut to set the scene or characterise a person as good, although perhaps not quite divine.

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