It's a bird; it's a sacred plain; No, it's a blue halo
In sacred art, halos shed light on religious themes
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
This weekend, we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord. When you see a picture depicting this event, how can you tell which bird represents the Holy Spirit?
It's the dove with the halo.
A halo -- whether around an animal or the head of an angel -- immediately tells us things about the picture:
It depicts an important, if not divine, person;
Some important, supernatural event is depicted;
It tells us something about deeply held, religious beliefs.
We're used to seeing halos as Christian religious symbols. Religious symbols work like stop signs -- they tell us to pay attention to something important. Biblical scholar Phyllis Tribble explains a symbol as "a finger pointing at the moon.... It is a way to see the light that shines in darkness, a way to participate in transcendent truth and to embrace reality."
However, placing rings around the heads of people or objects was not something Christians invented. Ancient religions often represented deities or sovereigns this way. For example, Egyptian art shows gods crowned with sun disks. In fact, the word "halo" derives from the Greek word, "halos" (disk of the sun) which came from the name of the all-seeing sun god, Helios.
To the ancients, the sun was the center of the universe -- it gave warmth, caused grain to grow, brought light to darkness and -- as spring and the planting season approached -- brought life to what had seemed dead. The sun ruled the heavens -- greater than the moon, stars and planets. To depict the sun was to depict power and authority. To show kings and gods with halos told of similar importance.
So it's not surprising -- with these ties to other religions -- that early depictions of Christ do not show him with a halo. However, since the symbolism was so well known, the artistic embellishment of halos began to appear in Christian art by the third century. The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism says, "Christians began to associate this image (of the halo) with God's grace mediated through Jesus Christ."
Even so, early halos were used for Jesus only when he was shown enthroned, exalted as the Christ. Only later was the halo used in representations of his earthly life.
By the fifth century, once Christianity had become accepted as the religion of the Roman Empire, halos became acceptable in religious art. Not only Jesus, but Mary, angels, saints and various animals (lambs, doves, fish) began to wear halos.
This adoption of halos from ancient art shows a shift in theological emphasis. Non-Christian art had used halos to signify majesty and power. Christian art began to use halos to show the presence of God's grace.
But as halos began to be used not only for Christ, but also saints and angels, the question arose of how to signify differences in what these halos represented. For example, while Jesus is divine, Mary is not.
Thus, different halos -- besides the familiar round or ring-shaped ones -- developed to represent different things:
Triangular -- used only to represent a member of the Trinity.
Aureole -- a glow surrounding the entire body, first used only to represent the Divine, it was later extended to Mary to represent her special relationship with God.
Rainbow aureole -- The Catholic Encyclopedia says this reflects the glory that surrounds God's throne as noted in Rv. 4:3. It has most often been used only for God, the Spirit and Jesus, when his divinity is being emphasized.
Fish-shaped -- a more solid shape surrounding the body such as seen in the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is sometimes called the mandorla from the Italian word for almond. Its resemblance to a fish bladder -- it is also called vesica piseis -- is a reminder of one of the earliest symbols of Christ: the fish. This halo serves to represent the complete bond of the saint to Christ.
Shield -- depicts the presence of God protecting the person's (usually a saint) life.
Square -- represents a living person. The Catholic Encyclopedia says the person to set the Christian tradition for this type of halo was St. Gregory the Great who allowed representations of himself as pope to show a square halo.
Cruciform halo -- a cross in the center of a halo usually represents Christ, but can also represent any member of the Trinity. (So the dove shone in pictures of Jesus' baptism might have a triangular or cruciform halo.)
Blue halos -- the color represent Heaven, another link to God.
So did Jesus have a halo in real life?
If you mean, did he glow like a light bulb in a dark room -- no. But if you mean to ask if his followers perceived something special -- a certain divine aura -- surrounding Jesus, perhaps. Certainly that is what later artistic followers of Christ want us to remember: God's glory surrounds -- even if in a hidden way -- Christ and all those who accept Christ.
(Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; American Catholic magazine; Catholic Sourcebook; A Handbook of symbols in Christian Art; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism)