Halos in Western Art: Horus to Jesus Christ to the X-Men

by Lope

The halo motif has been used in Western art for thousands of years. A halo, also called a nimbus or aureole, is a circular ring of light surrounding the head of a deity or saint.

Like all religious motifs, the halo has gone through periods of popularity and episodes of stagnancy. At its peak during the Egytian and Christian epochs the halo is currently out of vogue in Western culture, its main role having been reduced to Halloween costumes of angels and Sunday-school pageants. This decline in use has been partially compensated by its incorporation into pop culture. This has not been a sudden shift; use of the halo in religious art has been steadily declining for a few hundred years now. The exploration of the rise and fall of the halo in culture is interesting not only because it illustrates how artists adopt and then dispose of symbols, but even more importantly how western values have changed over the last thousand years.

All my research has been done on the Internet, therefore the mistakes on other websites will be my mistakes too. I am not an expert on halos, only interested and curious what other people think about the subject. This is a visual exploration, the words really aren't that important.

What does a halo represent?

Typically surrounding a godly or enlightened person, a halo represents holiness. Christian artists believed that the halo was symbolic of the light of grace bestowed by God. Before the rise of Christianity, pagans used halos to signify not only divine influence but also power, majesty or prominence. In Roman times, emperors were depicted with halos. Even in the Christian Era, the symbols were used for famous personages until 1600 AD when Pope Urban III forbade the use of the nimbus for persons who are not at least beatified. They have also been placed around men of genius, presumably to represent divine inspiration.

It is possible to generalise the halo's symbolization then: the divine, the magnificent in man, the majestic, greatness, the power that comes from within or that inspired from outside, the ideal of glory projected onto a being by the artist. When we talk about the rise and fall of halos then, we are really talking about the rise and fall of the artistic conception of the divine, of glory, spirituality, and of majesty. We are talking about a massive change in zeitgeist using our small example of the halo to illustrate this.

Egyptian Halos

Though the halo is traditionally associated with Christianity, its beginning can be found long before Christ was born. Use of halos seems to have existed hand-in-hand with Egyptian sun and animal worship. Cults that have worshipped bulls have been traced back to as far back 3000 BC. The Apis bull demonstrates early use of a halo-like symbol.

British Museum

Egyptians halos, usually depicted as a large sun-coloured sphere, are different from our modern day conception of the halo: a hollow ring hovering above an angel's head. Egyptian art is filled with halos and finding examples of them is not difficult. The picture on the left is of the Egyptian god Ra. Believed to be self-created and the father of all Gods, Ra was associated with the sun. In the middle is the lion-headed Sekhmet, a deity who was sent forth to chastise mankind when they neglected to hounour the gods. Halos were handy ways to differentiate deities from ordinary mortals in art; note the lack of a halo above the two attendees standing in front of Sekhmet. Buto, the cobra goddess, was a deity of Lower Egypt.

Ra Sekhmet Buta

Says Frederick Goodman in his book Magical Symbols: "The 'halo', which is ultimately derived from the magical symbolism of the Egyptians ... is almost like a sun, and, symbolically speaking, may be considered to be the equivalent of a small and radiant sun, streaming forth spiritual light."

Horus Isis Seker, god of the dead

The Greeks and Romans

Examples of halos abound in Greek culture as well, but are nowhere near as abundant as they were with the Egyptians. The Greek historian Herodotus, who visited the Nile in the fifth century BC, concluded that the Egyptians "were beyond measure religious, more than any other nation." Perhaps this is why halos were so abundant in Egyptian art: Egyptians had a closer affinity with the divine and majestic than most, at least more so than the reason-bound Greeks. Did Greek and Roman use of halos begin spontaneously or did they learn them from Egyptian culture? Given the proximity of these empires it is probable their use in art spread. Whatever the answer, it is interesting that the feelings and motivations underlying use of the halo persisted over several thousand years and over three empires.

Below the Greek god of the Sun, Helios, is depicted with a halo around his head. On the second picture, Helios is depicted with his sister Eos, Goddess of the Dawn, and her son Eosphorous, God of the morning star. Most Greek gods were not depicted with halos; Helios and his offspring seem to be the few who were.

Helios, the Greek sun God
Helios, Eos, and Eosphoros

The Roman Empire, hard on the heels of the Greeks, also adopted the symbol of the halo. On the left is a Roman depiction of Neptune, god of the sea. On the right is a picture of Romulus, the mythic founder of Rome. Romulus' halo is red and star-shaped, difficult to see against the dark background.

Neptune, God of the sea Romulus, founder of Rome

With the ascension of Antoninus Pius around 100 AD, Roman emperors began to use the halo in imperial coins - see the coin on the left and centre. A coin is called 'nimbate' when it is adorned with a halo. The picture in the right is of the emperors Constantius and Galerius, around 300 AD. Later emperors also were depicted with a nimbus, see Theodosius on the bottom.

Antoninus Pius Constantius and Galerius

Theodisius

The adoption of the halo by Roman emperors is important because it represents a movement away from deity-only use of halos to their assumption by normal humans. Imagine the power and gall of the Roman emperors to co-opt this symbol away from their traditional use! This movement away from religious use of the halo occurs again in the 1800s AD.

Early Christianity

With the rise of Christianity the halo was reborn again, its use as prevalent among Christian artists as their Egyptian predecessors. Jesus Christ began to be portrayed with a nimbus in the fourth century AD. By the end of the sixth century the use of this symbol became as general as it had been in pagan art. Soon saints, martyrs, royal persons, and the Virgin Mary also started to be portrayed with halos.

Use of the halo became increasingly formalized among Christian artists. Formalization of symbols is called iconography; a readily recognizable system of images or visual symbols used to stand for a specific idea important to a culture or religion. Saints, for instance, were commonly given circular halos. Jesus Christ was usually painted with a cross proscribed by a circular halo. The picture above on the left illustrates this best: the holy superior of a monastery on one side, Jesus on the other. Around 600, Gregory the Great permitted himself to be portrayed with a square halo. In general living people destined to become saints were represented in art with square halos. The aureole, sometimes called a mandorla, is a full body halo, often used in illustrations of the Virgin Mary. The mandorla is portrayed below in the middle.

Later Christianity

With the Renaissance the halo became more lightly fashioned and in many cases was entirely omitted. According to Leonard Shlain in his book Art & Physics, Italian painter Giotto, born in 1267 AD, was responsible for this change. Giotto began to experiment with perspective, returning to the same line of thought left by Greek mathemeticians who had studied geometry over a thousand years before. "As a result," says Shlain, "the flat picture writing that had been the style for a thousand years suddenly acquired the third dimension of depth." This new emphasis on perspective conflicted wildly with the old stylistic use of halos. In Giotto's Last Supper, below, the disciples are seated according to the laws of perspective, yet the inclusion of the traditional halo is obsurd - the disciples with their backs to us are forced to eat supper throught a ring of light!


The Last Supper - L'Ultima Cena, 1305-1306

Here are some solutions to Giotto's dilemma. Rogier van der Weyden in 1450 painted a luminious halo that allowed for a background to appear.


Triptyque de la famille Braque 1450

Later, Piero della Francesca chose to apply the rules of perspective by tilting the traditional halo sideway so it hovered behind the head.


St. Julian 1455-1460

In 1501, Raphael took Francesca's tilt even further and painted a hollow halo that allowed the viewer to see the background of the painting, solving the problem of perspective. This is similiar to our modern conception of what a halo should look like.

1501-1502 Saint Sébastien 1505 portion of Madonna of the Meadow

From Weyden to Raphael the halo was becoming evermore amorphous and irrelevant. Leonardo da Vinci completely disregarded the halo, even in representations of Jesus and the disciples. In the Last Supper below, Jesus lacks a halo, a revolutionary change considering that all depictions of Jesus had been painted with halos for some 1000 years. By now artists were trying to convey the inner radiance through careful and accurate representation. The halo seems to have lost its place in Western art.


The Last Supper 1498

Shlain notes that the increased focus on perspective anticipated Western culture's entrance into the Renaissance and the age of rationalism. In a rational environment, motifs such as halos, which cannot actually be seen in reality, no longer have any authority. Perspective demands close adherence to objective reality, not the imagination or spiritual.

Some people claim that halos did not entirely disappear; they only disguised themselves as hats or arches. In Da Vinci's Last Supper, the halo seems to be hidden, now represented by an arch in the background. It is said that Vermeer used picture frames in the background of his paintings to add a halo effect, and others have used hats or folds in clothing to approximate a halo.

Vermmer 1673 Lady Sitting at the Virginal Vermeer 1673 Lady Standing at the Virginal

The Reaction to Rationalism

Use of the halo in mainstream of Western art was declining; from Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, to Velasquez, the once common symbol rarely appears. William Blake reacted against this environment of rationality, and in his highly symbolic art the halo again makes a comeback. Blake longed for an age where imagination was again supreme over rationalism, and in his art seeks to express the godlike characterstics that resided in man. Blake was prolific in the late 1700s and early 1800s, yet never achieved fame during his lifetime.

Urizen, from the First Book of Urizen 1794 Albion and Jeruslam reunited in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion 1804 Urizen again, 1794

In the late 1800s several artists broke violently from the past, helping to spawn a new art movement called Impressionism. Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh were both influenced by the impressionsists. Van Gogh created a style consisting of wild, colourful brush strokes. He showed a preference for painting self-portraits; indeed some 30 finished paintings are still in existence. Though many of these self-portraits convey Van Gogh's anguish (due to a combination of poor health and lack of success), some have halos that seem to convey the artist's inner spirit. In September 1888, van Gogh wrote: "I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symolize... Ah! portraiture, portraiture with the thoughts, the soul of the model in it, that is what I think must come." With Van Gogh the halo returned, and with it the idea of the majestic in man, the unseen spirit that resides within.

1889 Self-Portrait 1887-88Self Portrait in Felt Hat

Paul Gauguin spent several weeks living with Van Gogh in the town of Arles in France. The halo he placed over his head in the portrait below is more obviously a halo than Van Gogh's, yet does not convey the same energy. The interesting contribution of Van Gogh and Gauguin is to associate the self with the halo. In times past, only the divine, the powerful, saints, martyrs, and gods had been painted with halos. In their close observation of their own selves, Van Gogh and Gauguin were able to see the divine within their souls, and had no trepidation about painting this. Such a statement five hundred years before would probably have been punished as heresy.


Self Portrait with Halo, 1889

The halo also appears in the Art Noveau movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Alphonse Mucha, one of the most well known artists in the movement, used his skills in both the decorative arts and advertising.

Alphonse Mucha Zodiac Panneau Mucha 1900Self Portrait in Felt Hat

Art changed radically in the twentieth century as different schools sprung up; the fauvists, expressionists, cubists, surrealists, abstract expressionists were only some of them. The halo found its way into the art of many of these schools. Marcel Duchamp, usually associated with either the cubists, surrealists, or dadaists used the halo in his piece below. The halo, hardly recognizable, is the cloud at the top of the picture, which emanates from the bride. Dali, the most popular of the Surrealists, also used a halo in his Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Famous pop artist Andy Warhol used silk screening techniques on his version of the Last Supper. Warhol's halo is a diamond shaped, a far cry from the Egyptian halo of old.

Duchamp 1924 The Bride Stripped Bare By Her
Bachelors, Even
1959Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus 1959, Warhol's The Last Supper

Pop-Culture

Comic books are the contemporary art-form that make the most use of the halo. In Christian times, the halo represented power or glory inspired by God. The comic book halo represents power or energy not inspired by God but earned through some sort mutation, purposeful enhancement, or accident. The X-Men, for instance, are mutants who represent the next stage in mankind's evolution. When they use their mutant powers the energy given off is often represented as a halo or mandorla, a full-body halo.

Psylocke of the X-Men with Ghostrider Havok Professor X Phoenix

Many other examples of halos can be found. Spiderman earned his powers when he was accidentaly bitten by a radiactive spider. Whenever he senses danger, his spider sense tingles, represented as a halo. The elves in Elfquest communicate with each other psychically. Wendy Pini, the artist, represents this psychic bond as a halo. The Spectre is drawn with a halo-like shape below.

Spiderman Elfquest, Cutter & Strongbow The Spectre

The halo has also made its way into advertising. In the case of cleaning products, it represents many of the same ideas it did in a religious context many centuries ago - brilliance, light, and the ideal.

Many brands use a human face as a logo. Often a halo surrounds the face, giving the logo an aura of respectability, trustworthiness, and desirability. Uncle Ben comes off looking like a saint, and the Sunmaid like the Virgin Mary. Advertisers using the halo are attempting to capture the same sort of emotions artists have sought to incorporate into pictures of divinities for thousands of years.

The significance of equating products with the halo is important. In the past halos represented the divine, or in the Van Gogh example, the inner soul of man. Advertisers sought to put halos on the products they were selling, in essence shifting the divine away from religion and the self into the realm of material goods. In the 21st century, spirit now seems to reside in that which we buy.

Internet Explorer Logo Cineplex Odeon Hewlett Packard

Summary

Through the millenia the halo has been constantly in use by artists. Because it represents spirituality, the halo have been most prolific in religious art. Christianity was one of the high points for use of the symbol, a halo finding its way onto a vast number of works and a formal iconography developing to guide its use. As Europe slowly turned its eye from God to science though, the halo slowly but steadily lost its place in Western Art.

Have artists lost their ability to paint the spiritual? Has the audience lost its desire to view the inner glory of man? Not at all. The adoption of halos in self-portraits by men like Van Gogh and Gauguin show that the search for the spiritual has been re-routed from God and Jesus towards the self. The halo-wearing individual is now the origin of glory, Gods and dieties are only secondary. The use of halos in advertising represents the idealization of material values, the location of the sublime in products. The Uncle Bens and Mr Cleans of the world are now our angels. They bless us with the goods they stand for. Halos in comic book art also represent a significant shift. In Christian times the halo was inspired by God; in comic books the halo is inspired by the character's own powers. The source of these powers vary incredibly: scientific error, evolutionary progress, alien intrusion on earth, mysterious objects, mythological gods, or single-minded dedication to a cause. If comic books are any indication, the search for and representation of the divine and majestic has moved far beyond God. We are frantically looking for it everywhere.

Some Other Halos

Here is an assortment of images with halos I couldn't quite fit into the essay. Note that Hindu and Buddhist art is also filled with halos, I've included a few images for illustration.

Hare Krishna Buddha Buddha statue
Statue of Liberty Che Guevara Masonic Pyramid on the dollar bill

 © JPK and Lope
2002