The Origins of Halo

Halo or nimbus has had numerous symbolic meanings such as political power, moral power, and spirituality in the iconography of numerous cultures that are Christian, Egyptian, Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu art. It functions as a kind of crown that separates the person wearing the halo from the others through the use of light symbolism. So, where does this universal motif come from? The origins of halo go back to paganism.

madonna by Cimabue. origins of halo
The Madonna in Majesty by Cimabue (1285-86) from

Many scholars put forward the idea that it comes from the Greek sun god Helios whose golden crown emits light beams, and it originally symbolize power rather than divinity.

Scholars suggest Helios because he is a figure that has Indo-European origins, and he is the reflection of Ra in Egyptian mythology, the patron god Baal in Phoenician pantheon and also has a connection to Mithra.

helios, origins of halo
Helios fresco from Pompeii by

Persian miniature depicting Muhammad, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus

a persian miniature

Ra (before 1235 BC)

Ra, origins of halo

The Mughal Emperor Jahangir

mughal emperor jahangir

In the East, halo generally symbolizes physical and moral power as well as political and religious authority. As for the West, Romans kept on using halo after ancient Greek. For example, they depicted past emperors wearing halo on coins. It was also a way of propoganda by connecting the emperor to the sun god to provide royal lineage.

A Standing Budha from 1ts- 2nd Century AD

buddha, origins of halo

Ptolemy III who was the Egyptian pharaoh between 246-222 BC

ptolemy III coin

It became prevalent among Christians to use hale in the 6th century. At first, they were hesitant to use halo as a symbol of spirituality because it was a pagan element. Moreover, they depicted satan wearing a halo (generally black in color) in the early Byzantine art.

Mosaic of Justinian I in the Basilica of San Vitale

Julius I
Steven Zucker, Smarthistory

Over time, nimbus changed shape and size. The circular one is for god, apostles, and saints. Square is for the people who were alive at the time and worthy to become a saint after they died. There are also triangle halos for the holy Trinity. Although it is rare, hexagonal halos are also used in Italian art for allegorical figures.

triangle halo
triange halo
A frescoe in the Monastery of Vatopedi from
square halo
A mosaic in Santa Prassede in Rome by fede_bricchi