Thursday, 17 November 2011

Halos in Art: A Brief Historical Note

Having been to a funeral today, I was reflecting on the way that the stained glass windows always depict saints in haloes around their head, and though I'd do a little research and write up a short note on the subject....We tend to associate haloes with Saints, but that's not in fact how they started, and they also occur in Eastern religions.

Haloes in Art

Haloes are a form of iconography, or stylised art. Historically, the art of the halo comes from Egypt.

It was the custom of the Egyptian and Syrian kings to have themselves represented with a rayed crown to indicate the status of demigods; this spread throughout the East and the West.

In Rome the halo was first used only for deceased emperors as a sign of celestial bliss, but afterwards living rulers also were given the rayed crown, and after the third century, although not first by Constantine, the simple rayed halo that we know today in religious art. Then it came to depict holiness.

Buddhism also has haloes, which are used in the stylised representations of its art, but in fact these are borrowings from Greek/Roman culture, and quite a late development. It was during the first century AD, the school Gandhara art gave form to Buddha for the very first time. The style is Graeco-Roman and the Buddhist iconography has no antecedence. There is no evidence of the halo in Indian art prior to Gandhara art. It was used to depict enlightenment.

Muslim culture in its very sparse use of art also uses the halo for kings or sultans, but in a much more discrete and subdues form. The 16th century "Institutes of Akbar" comment that the halo is "a light emanating from God, and a ray from the sun, the illuminator of the universe. It is communicated by God to kings without the intermediate assistance of anyone".

Internet References

Gandhara school of art

Cultural synthesis in the Buddhist art of China

The Contribution of Buddhism to the World of Art

Christian iconography

Artworld, Imaginary journeys, Islam


Alane Wallace said...

Wow! Great article, Tony. I never saw this information laid out so nicely before.

Tom Gruchy said...

There is a portrait of former Bailiff Bailhache in the Royal Court showing a huge halo around his head. In fact it's more a sun-burst than a mere halo.
Can you explain this?