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This article is about the religious symbol. See Halo (disambiguation) for other uses of the term, including the video game.

In Christian sacred art (Eastern and Western churches), holy persons (saints) are depicted with a halo, a golden, yellow or white circular glow, around the head. It is sometimes called a nimbus as well. See iconography.

The halo appears in the art of ancient Greece and Rome, and was incorporated into Christian art sometime in the 4th century. Round halos are used to signify saints. A cross within a halo is used to represent Jesus. Triangular halos are used for representations of the Trinity. Square halo are used to depict unusually saintly living personages.

The use of halos to designate Christian saints presented a problem in the translation of the Hebrew Bible. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying the tablets of the law, he is said in the Hebrew text (Exodus 34,29) to have a glowing or radiant face. However, this would have implied a halo, which was reserved for Christian-era saints. Jerome avoided this by translating the phrase into Latin as "cornuta esset facies sua" (his face was horned). This description was taken literally by Medieval and Renaissance artists, who depicted Moses with small horns growing from his forehead. Especially noteworthy in this respect is Michelangelo Buonarroti's statue in San Pietro in Vincoli.

In popular piety, this practice has led to the belief that saints during their earthly life actually walked around with a halo around their head. Of the many wonderful stories about saints, some contemporaries report that a saint was literally glowing. This is called the aureole, a lemon-drop-shaped item that appears to radiate from the entire body of the holy being. Finally, there is also "glory," a glowing effusion used to cover up depictions of genitalia.

The halo underwent an interesting transformation during the Renaissance. Originally, the halo represented a glow of sanctity emanating from the head. Since it was conventionally drawn as a circle, during the Renaissance, when perspective became more important in art, the halo was changed from an aura surrounding the head to a golden ring that appeared in perspective, mysteriously floating above the heads of the saints. This form of halo is still used in many popular depictions of angels and of blessed souls in heaven.

Buddhist Iconography

The halo is widely used in Buddhist iconography as well. Halos are found in Buddhist sculpture and painting from the Gandharan period, influenced by Greek artists brought to India with the army of Alexander the Great. 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 Amida Buddha. Tibetan Buddhism uses halos extensively in the Thangka paintings of Buddhist saints such as Milarepa and Padmasambhava.

Spiritual Significance of the Halo

Some think the halo symbolizes 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.

John 117

Last updated: 05-15-2005 13:39:00