CSFF Blog Tour: A Halo Around His Head

Yesterday I classed Shannon Dittemore’s depiction of angelic halos as “speculative”. It does not contradict the Bible, though it can hardly be possible.

The notion that angels have halos comes from medieval art, where they are so portrayed. I had thought that medieval art was the beginning of the halo, but a little digging swiftly proved me wrong.

Before the coming of Christ, Greek and Roman art gave halos to gods and emperors and heroes. In the Iliad, “Achilles dear to Jove arose” and Minerva “crowned his head with a halo of golden cloud from which she kindled a glow of gleaming fire.”* There are Roman mosaics – dated in the second century and still preserved – that show Apollos and Poseidon haloed.

And so the Christian church – first established and finally accepted in the Roman Empire – began, in the fourth century, to use halos in its icons. At first only Christ was portrayed with a halo, and then only when on a throne or “in an exalted and princely character”**. But by the end of the sixth century, the halo was given to Mary, saints and martyrs – and angels.

In the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore*** is a series of mosaics depicting the annunciation of Mary, the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and Herod’s command to slaughter the children. In these mosaics, the angels are haloed, the Christ-child is haloed, and Mary and Joseph are not. Herod, on the other hand, is wearing a halo – even in the mosaic where he is bidding his soldiers to kill the children. In this the artists followed the pagan practice of giving halos as symbols of royalty, and not necessarily goodness.

As time went on, the tradition of the halo grew more elaborate, more nuanced. Christ’s halo often had a cross within, or extending from, it; the Orthodox tradition sometimes added to this the Greek letters Ο Ω Ν, which – taken together and translated – read “The Existing One”. A triangle, or two triangles intersecting, became the given halo for God the Father, in symbolism of the Trinity.

In 600 Gregory the Great – not being dead – was painted with a square halo, “the sign for a living person”. From then on it was the standard, in all portraits of the living, that the halo be square. In 1625 Pope Urban VII actually issued a bull that forbade representing anyone with a halo who had not been beatified or canonized by the Catholic Church.

A revolution in art brought about the decline of the halo, with artists finding it hard to combine realism and perspective with halos. The Nazarene movement came alive in the early nineteenth century, drawing artists to look back to the Middle Ages. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld was one of those artists, and in 1835 he painted “The Three Marys at the Tomb”. But even he gave a halo only to the angel.

In the popular imagination, angels are still associated with halos. But once you know the origin and the history of the halo, you can’t believe that angels really wear them. After all, Achilles wore one first.

* Ever read the Iliad? Me, neither. Anyway, you can find the passage here.

** Quoted from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

*** The Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major, a church in Rome, Italy built during the fifth century. It just looks better in Italian.

6 thoughts on “CSFF Blog Tour: A Halo Around His Head

  1. All this time I thought artists were using the halo to identify their “sacred” subject. I had no idea they had become so rooted in the fabric of worship, and I certainly had no idea their origin was in pagan practice. Really an interesting article, Shannon. Thanks for adding to our understanding of the lore featured in the Angel Eyes Trilogy.


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