Lights shining in the darkness

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | November 1, 2017

Many halos seen on sacred art, but not all mean the same thing

November is the cloudiest month of the year in the Upper Midwest. The Weather Channel and both note that November averages only 25 to 35 percent of its possible sunshine.

Maybe that’s why November begins with the feast of All Saints, and includes so many saints’ feast days, including Martin of Tours on Nov. 11, Cecilia on Nov. 22 and Andrew to close the month on Nov. 30. The light of Christ shone in the lives of each of these men and women, as it is meant to shine through each of us.

One way we remind ourselves of this is in art: depicting saints with halos.

Not all Christian

Not only Christians depict saints with halos or surrounded by glowing auras. Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus all use halos of some sort in their art — from a disc around the head of Buddha to show enlightenment, to a shining ring of fire encircling Shiva to depict life and death.

Nor were Christians the first to use halos. Egyptian pharaohs had halos, while ancient Romans and Greeks used them for emperors and deities. Mostly these halos were meant to show power not holiness.

In fact, these pagan connotations kept Christians from using halos in art at first. The “Catholic Encyclopedia” notes that, since Christians didn’t want to imitate pagan art, they first used crowns or garlands of flowers to show saints as rewarded by God “either spiritually in this life or in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In those early days, the encyclopedia adds, if a halo — more often called “a nimbus” — was shown, it was “in the form of a shield to emphasize the idea of divine protection.”

It really wasn’t until close to the fourth century, when Christianity became an officially recognized religion in the Roman Empire, that halos came into style — slowly. In the art of the catacombs, the halo appears on Christ, but only when he is shown with divine power, as when seated on a throne or as the Lamb of God.

Of course, this fit in the Gospel record of Christ’s Transfiguration, where Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes were like light. This would have been the first “halo” Christians knew.


The next halo or nimbus that early Christians would have recognized was rainbow-colored. In the Book of Revelation — written toward the end of the first century — God is said to sit on a throne with “a rainbow encircling the throne, and this looked like an emerald” (4:3).

One of the oldest halos in Christian art is not the ring around the head, but the almond-shaped mandorla (from the Italian word for “almond”) around the body. The shape is formed by the intersection of two entwined circles. When shown around Christ, the shape attests to his two natures — human and divine.

The Icon Reader blog ( notes that “the mandorla is the most concise way to express Christ’s majesty, glory and divinity in holy icons. It is found surrounding Jesus Christ in icons of his Resurrection, Transfiguration, Ascension, the Dormition and of Christ in Glory.”

Only Mary, as Mother of God, was depicted with almond-shaped or rainbow halos.

The mandorla around Christ is most often seen in Eastern Orthodox and Catholic icons. It is sometimes star-shaped and may emit rays of light. However, the mandorla in icons is often not light-colored, but dark. (If the hand of God or the dove is seen in an icon, they are often surrounded by a dark halo.)

The Icon Reader blogger says this darkness reminds viewers of the cloud that “overshadowed” Christ at his baptism and Transfiguration (as well as Mary’s Annunciation). This halo can be darker near Christ’s body in an icon. This, the blog writer said, is because “we must pass through stages of what seem like increasing mystery and unknowing, in order to encounter Jesus Christ.”

As noted, the almond-shape may be seen around images of the Virgin Mary. A good example in a non-Eastern-style icon is Our Lady of Guadalupe. Sometimes the aureole around Mary seems like flames of fire, as with Guadalupe, again showing her special relationship with God. This can also remind us of another place where flames adorn art: the golden monstrance, the vessel that holds the Blessed Sacrament during adoration.

By the fifth century, once Christianity was the religion of the Roman Empire, any reluctance to use halos in art disappeared. Angels, saints and even animals (lambs, doves, fish) got halos.

However, certain halos still meant certain things.

Most obvious is the cruciform halo —with the cross in its middle. This usually identifies Christ, but may also surround any member of the Trinity. So the dove of the Spirit might have a cruciform halo — as may the hand of God.

A similar halo “only for the Trinity” is the triangle. It is often seen around an eye — depicting God the Father. In the 40-foot-high crucifixion scene in Green Bay’s St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, God the Father is shown with a triangle halo.

A halo can be a ring or plate-shape, or just a splash of golden light. However gold, silver or iridescent are not the only halo colors. Another is blue. This is sometimes seen in mosaics and depicts heaven (which was often thought of as in a higher realm, above us like the sky.)

‘He’s a square’

Halos are usually round — or almond-shaped. However, you might also see a square halo.  A square represents a living person.

The “Catholic Encyclopedia” says the person who started the tradition for this type of halo was St. Gregory the Great who allowed representations of himself as pope to sport a square halo.  The “Encyclopedia Britannica” notes that in fifth century art — about the time halos for saints were becoming common in art — square halos indicated “living persons of eminence.” Besides St. Gregory, the ninth-century Pope Gregory IV had himself shown with a square halo in the dome mosaic of the Church of St. Mark the Evangelist di Campidoglio.  Gregory IV had this church rebuilt in 833.

Why a square? Because the person depicted is on earth, which had four corners: north, south, east and west. It is also said that square halos spoke of the cardinal virtues — prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice — which living persons must practice.

Do saints really have halos? We have lived in a time of several saints — John Paul, John XXIII and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, to name a few. No photos of them show a halo, but many of their photos show “that special something” that marks them as in touch with the glory of God that surrounds — even if in a hidden way — those who accept Christ.

Just like the sun shining behind clouds of a November day.


Sources: The “Catholic Encyclopedia”;; the “Encyclopedia Britannica”; “Catholic Sourcebook”; “A Handbook of  symbols in Christian Art”; and “The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism”


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