What's a halo, really?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Monday 11, April 2016 | Category:   Church History,Doctrines & Beliefs
Virgen de Gudalupe

Technically, it's a visible depiction of an otherwise intangible characteristic: glory. In biblical stories, glory describes the "shine" of God, an emanation of light so powerful, it "afflicts" Moses, who's the one human being routinely standing close to God in the Old Testament. When Moses enters the Tent of the Presence, he comes out with an unbearable brightness in his face that requires him to veil himself. Either Moses is protecting the vestige of God's glory from being viewed by profane onlookers, or protecting the unprepared onlooker from a potentially dangerous contact with divinity's afterglow. As we know from other stories, unworthy contact with holy things can kill you. The tribe of Levi was dedicated to God as the only Israelites allowed to touch, tend, or transport utensils and objects used in ritual sacrifices for this reason. They made a living out of keeping themselves pure enough to perform their duties.

The Greeks also imagined sunbursts emanating from Helios, their sun god. Pharaohs of Egypt wear a crown of light in some depictions. It makes sense that Christians would employ the halo when portraying Christ, later extending the usage to angels and finally to saints. Jesus and Mary alone are honored with full body haloes, called aureoles—the most familiar of which surrounds the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Most saints are portrayed with round haloes in the West, which can be thin circlets of gold or full discs of yellow. The circle is a perfect form, which hints at heavenly perfection. Some artistic renderings utilized a square halo when depicting a still living person who is revered: the square is an earthly, less perfect geometric form recalling the four elements, winds, or directions. A triangular halo is reserved for the less common depiction of God the Father, to recall the Triune nature of the divine. Very occasionally, Jesus will wear the triangular halo for the same reason. Jesus is the only icon who is permitted to be defined by the cruciform halo.

Sometimes anthropomorphic images of the Virtues—theological virtues like Faith, Hope, and Love, or the cardinal virtues Justice, Prudence, Fortitude and Temperance—will wear hexagonal haloes, to remind us they are attributes of God. So altogether, we conclude that the "shine" on a person or thing speaks to us of their nearness to God or their out-and-out resemblance to the divine. We should all be working on our shine!

Scriptures: Exodus 33:7-23; 34:27-35; Numbers 1:49-54; 1 Samuel chs. 4—6; 2    Samuel 6:1-19; 1 Kings 8:10-11; 1 Chronicles 23:25-32

Books: The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art - Sally Fisher (New York: Harry N. Abrahms, Inc., 1995).

Saints and the Symbols: Recognizing Saints in Art and in Popular Images -Fernando and Giolia Lanzi (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004).

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