Category

Early Christian

History of the Halo in Art

Pope John VII, mosaic detail, 705-06 CE, Vatican Museums

Last year, in two different classes, I had students ask me about the history of the halo in art. It is an interesting topic to consider, especially since there isn’t a reference to Jesus having a halo in the Bible. I think that the closest reference to a halo in the Bible is a description of Moses being surrounded with a “crown of light” or “rays of light” (from when he came down off of Mt. Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 34:29). Interestingly, St. Jerome’s Vulgate had a translation of this verse as “horns of light,” and you sometimes see depictions of Moses with horns from the Middle Ages and onward. But that’s another story for another post, perhaps.

Detail of Helios from a red-figure vase, 5th century BC, British Museum

I thought I’d write down a bit about the early sources for the halo, in case I have more students ask the same question in the future. The halo may have come from several different sources, including classical culture. For example, the Greek god Helios is depicted with rays emanating from his head. There also are a few depictions of Apollo with halos. A Roman floor mosaic in Tunisia which has one such depiction. I’ve also heard discussions about how laurel wreaths (used to crown victors in classical societies) could be related to the halo.

In addition to classical sources, the sun disk found in Egyptian crowns may have been an early manifestation of a halo-like form.  There also are similar forms related to the halo (like the nimbus or aureola) found in non-Western art, too. Some think that the halo form traveled from West to East, ending up in Ghandara and influencing depictions of the Buddha (see one example from the Tokyo National Museum from the 1st-2nd centuries CE).1

Detail of vault mosaic in the Mausoleum M (Mausoleum of the Julii), from the necropolis under St. Peter's Basilica. Mid-3rd century CE. Image courtesy Wikipedia

Christians adopted the round halo from their contemporaries, using the circular shape to connote perfection, divinity, and holiness. I know of one early image, a ceiling mosaic from the necropolis underneath St. Peter’s (see above), which may depict Christ or Sol Invictus (the later sun god of the Roman empire). This image pre-dates the 4th century, and could be a very early example of the halo in a Christian context. After this point, halos were used for Christ and the Lamb of God, angels, the Virgin, and eventually saints.2

Some variants of the halo:

  • The mandorla (an almond-shaped aureole) usually is used for depictions of Christ and the Virgin. However, the earliest representation of a mandorla appears around an Old Testament figure, specifically one of the three angels who visit Abraham (in a 5th century scene at Santa Maria Maggiore).3 The mandorla continues to become more abstract and angularly defined in later art.
  • The cruciform halo is usually used for members the Trinity, especially Christ. This form of halo includes a cross within or extending beyond the circular area of the halo. An early example of the cruciform halo is found in the Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes mosaic of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna (c. 504). In Orthodox and Byzantine tradition, the cruciform also include the letters Ο Ν, which translate to mean “The Being” or “I Am,” serving as a testament to Christ’s divinity (see more information HERE).
  • The square halo was sometimes used to indicate that a person is still living when the work of art is created. From what I can tell, the earliest example of a square halo dates from about the early 8th century. The square, as an imperfect shape that represents the Earth, is used to draw a contrast with the perfect circle used for divine figures. (For an example, see mosaic of Pope John VII at the beginning of this post. Other examples of square halos are found at Santa Prassede in Rome, found in a mosaic of Pope Paschal I (c. 820) and a mosaic which includes a woman specified as “Theodora, Bishop”).
  • The trianglular halo is sometimes used to symbolize the Trinity (example: Antoniazzo Romano, detail of God the Father, from the Altarpiece of the Confraternity of the Annunciation, c. 1489-90, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome).
  • The hexagonal halo has been used in conjunction with allegorical figures (example: Alesso di Andrea, Hope, 1347. Pistoia Cathedral, Pistoia).
  • Dotted halos sometimes appear in Crusader art; they are considered one of the stylistic characteristics of this type of art (example: Saint Sergios with Female Donor icon, c. 1250s).4 The dotted halo also appears in other artistic traditions, too, including Ottonian art (example: Christ and the Apostles on the Sea of Galilee from the Hitda Codex, c. 1025-50).
  • The star halo sometimes appears in depictions of the Immaculate Conception. This type of halo refers to the to the description of the Virgin being crowned with twelve stars (Revelation 12:1). Several depictions of the Immaculate Conception appear in Counter-Reformation art, including Velasquez’s The Immaculate Conception c. 1619 and Francesco Pacheco’s Immaculate Conception with Miguel Cid, c. 1621 (Seville Cathedral).

Jan Van Eyck, detail of Virgin from the Ghent altarpiece, 1432

With the rise of realism in Renaissance art, the halo began to decrease (in terms of size and frequency of use). Giotto seems to have struggled with how to depict groups of figures with halos, while still giving a sense of three dimensional space, as seen in his Madonna and Child altarpiece. Masaccio tried to angle his halos to appear a little more realistic in three-dimensional space, as seen in his “Tribute Money” fresco in the Brancacci Chapel. Leonardo da Vinci only subly suggests a thin halo in many of his paintings, like Virgin of the Rocks at the National Gallery in London. In some Renaissance art, sometimes the halo was subtly incorporated into a scene, like the a firescreen (Follower of Robert Campin, Virgin and Child Before a Firescreen) or an architectural device (Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper). I like how Jan Van Eyck created thrones in the Ghent altarpiece with backs that give the suggestion of halos (see above). Beyond the Renaissance, some artists continued to suggest halos without creating a traditional halo, as seen in the drapery behind Christ in Coypel’s The Resurrection of Christ (1700).

What are your favorite depictions of halos? Why?

1 Sally Fisher, The Square Halo and Other Mysteries of Western Art: Images and the Stories that Inspired Them (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1995), 92.

2 Ibid.

3 “Mandorla,” Encyclopedia Brittanica. Available online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/361739/mandorla (accessed September 19, 2013).

4 Angeliki Lymberopoulou, “To the Holy Land and Back Again: The Art of the Crusades,” in Art and Visual Culture 1100-1600: Medieval to Renaissance, edited by Kim W. Woods (London: Tate Publishing, 2012), 134.

— 16 Comments

The Good Shepherd’s Disappearance

Christ the Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome, 3-4th century CE

Anyone with a basic knowledge of Early Christian art is probably familiar with depictions of Christ as the Good Shepherd. In this imagery, Christ appears as a beardless youth, often carrying a lamb on his shoulders. It’s common for art historians to draw connections between these depictions of Christ and Apollo, or even to point out how earlier classical statues (like the Moschophoros from the acropolis in Athens) may have served as prototypes for the Good Shepherd imagery.

However, it’s interesting to consider how the Good Shepherd iconography practically vanishes in the 5th century CE. Today I’ve been reading about this phenomenon in a short article, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art” by Boniface Ramsey.1 Ramsey explains that the Good Shepherd iconography was replaced (or perhaps “subsumed” is appropriate?) by imagery which often depicts Christ as a teacher. The shepherd/teacher transition isn’t too surprising, since Christ’s role as a Good Shepherd was viewed as didactic one: the shepherd held the responsibility to feed (or symbolically “teach”) his flock.2

The Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Callixtus, Rome, mid 3rd century

Ramsey put forth four reasons as to why the Good Shepherd disappeared from Early Christian art, which I thought that I would briefly outline here:

1) The Church no longer wanted to promote Christ as a humble shepherd. In response to Arianism, which questioned the relationship between Christ and the all-powerful God, it appears that the Catholic Church wanted to emphasize the majesty of Christ. The depiction of Christ in Galla Placidia (c. 425 CE, Ravenna) seems to be a transitional image in relation to this argument: Christ is tending his flock while dressed in a royal or imperial robe.3

2) As the speculation about Christ became more complex, Christians might have felt like the Good Shepherd image lacked sufficient dogmatic content. Images of Christ as a teacher or a king might have been more favorable, since those images could convey more about Christ’s human nature or divinity.4

3) As post-Constantinian Christians became less defensive about their place in society, they might have felt less attachment to or need for the Good Shepherd (who protectively guards or defense his flock).5

4) The post-Constantinian Church may have been aware of its authority and power. Depictions of a humble shepherd might have been a reproach to post-Constantinian Church leaders. Instead, they may have felt more comfortable with images that depicted Christ as a teacher or king.6

Ramsey wrote this short article almost thirty years ago, but I think that he has presented some valid ideas. Do you know of some other theories regarding the disappearance of the Good Shepherd iconography? What depictions of the Good Shepherd do you like best?

1 Boniface Ramsey, “A Note on the Disappearance of the Good Shepherd in Art,” The Harvard Theological Review 76, no. 3 (July 1983): 375-378.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 376.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid., 377.

— 7 Comments

Bacchus/Dionysus in Classical Art

I was recently asked a question something like, “If you had to choose a favorite god or goddess from ancient Greek/Roman mythology, who would it be?” I quickly answered Bacchus (Dionysus), the god of wine. It’s not because I’m into bacchanalian parties (I don’t even drink!) or Dionysiac cults, but Bacchus just seems like he’d be a really entertaining friend. I bet that guy can be funny-on-command.

Anyhow, I started to think of all of the depictions of Bacchus/Dionysus in art. Since my speciality is in 17th century art, it’s not surprising that I first thought of art created in the Renaissance/Baroque periods: Michelangelo’s Bacchus (1497), Caravaggio’s Bacchus (c. 1596), Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus (c. 1593), Velazquez’ The Triumph of Bacchus (c. 1629; see detail above), and Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne (1520-22). While researching for this post, I also came across a fun depiction of a hefty Bacchus (1638-40) by Rubens. I think it might be my new favorite Bacchus painting, partially because the god’s face and girth remind me of a physics teacher from my old high school.

But what about ancient art? What about depictions of Bacchus/Dionysus by the Greeks and Romans themselves? I had a hard time thinking of many examples, which is partially because it’s outside my realm of expertise. I did think of three examples, though. Praxiteles’ Hermes and the Infant Dionysus (marble copy after an original of 340 BC, shown right) would have been fun to see in its pre-damaged state, since Hermes was originally dangling a bunch of grapes to tease the infant god of the vine. I also thought of the Dionysiac Mystery Frieze (Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Italy, ca. 60-50 BC) and figure from the Parthenon which might be Dionysus (ca. 438-432 BC). These depictions are are a little disappointing though, since they are both damaged. (P.S. Can anyone identify the head with the bulging eyeballs on the left of the Dionysiac wall? I can’t figure it out.)

With only those few examples in mind, I began a quest to familiarize myself with depictions of Bacchus/Dionysus in classical art. I ended up finding a couple of fun examples that I thought I’d share:

Dionysus (2nd century AD; Roman copy after Hellenistic model, Louvre, Paris)

Dionysus (460 BCE; Louvre, Paris)
This is thought to be one of the earliest depictions of Dionysus as a young man (see here)

Exekias, Dionysus in a Ship, Sailing among Dolphins (Attic black-figure kylix; ca. 530 BC; Vulci)
I actually remember seeing this vase in a course on ancient Greek art. It’s a good example of how early Christians picked up on the reclining figure of Dionysus and reused that imagery in the figure of Jonah (see bottom scene from the ceiling painting in the Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, Italy, early 4th century)

Bacchus, (3rd century, Roman mosaic, El Jem Museum, Tunisia)

The Birth of Dionysus (ca. 405-385 BC, Greek, National Archeological Museum in Taranto, Italy)
According to mythology, Dionysus was born out of Zeus’ thigh. I love this vase painting – check out Dionysus’ cute lil’ postnatal wreath!

There are a lot more depictions of Bacchus/Dionysus than the few I’ve shown here. Do you have a favorite depiction of the god of wine? If you had to pick a favorite god or goddess from classical mythology, who would it be?
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St. Paul: His Remains and a Catacomb Painting

I just read this post which informed me that a new catacomb painting of St. Paul has been found in Rome. This is the oldest extant fresco of St. Paul, which dates to the 4th century AD. Plus, this discovery is also exciting because of all of the images of St. Paul from the Early Christian period, this one is in the best condition.

This fresco was discovered in the Catacomb of St. Thekla. The catacomb is near the place where Paul was reportedly buried (the Basilica of St Paul’s Outside-the-Walls in Rome). This fresco was instantly recognized as St. Paul since the thin face and dark beard were typical iconographic features for the saint in the 4th century.

You can read more about the fresco’s discovery in yesterday’s Telegraph article. Along these same lines, today’s Telegraph article discusses test results which confirm that the remains located in St. Paul’s Outside-the-Walls belong to St. Paul. (Well, probably. The remains have been confirmed to date from the first or second century.) It appears that the finding of this fresco prompted officials to test the remains inside the sarcophagus.

Pretty cool stuff. I think it’s especially interesting that this fresco was restored using a laser. Technology is helping archaeologists and restorers do some amazing stuff. If lasers were never invented, do you think this fresco would have been lost forever?

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The Immortal Peacock

According to ancient legend, the flesh of the peacock is incapable of decay. Yep, that’s right. It was thought that a peacock’s body would never rot. It would be really cool if this was true, but it isn’t. This myth was propagated by early writers (see here for an interesting example in Augustine’s City of God).1 As a result of this myth, the peacock has been associated with immortality in Christian art. Furthermore, because male peacocks shed and regrow their plumage each year, the peacock also is associated with resurrection.

Peacocks have appeared in Christian art for centuries. Some of the earthen lamps used by early Christians were decorated with peacocks.2 One of the earliest paintings of a”Christian” peacock decorates the ceiling painting in the catacomb of Priscilla* (3rd century AD, Rome, Italy; the peacock is located in the lunette above the “Life of Priscilla” scene). Since catacombs were the tombs for early Christians, it is appropriate that a depiction of a peacock be included here, due to this assocation with resurrection and immortality. I think it is especially interesting that the peacock is located near a depiction of Christ, since Christ is also associated with resurrection and immortality (Christ is shown as the Good Shepherd in the central, circular frame).

Thousands of years later, in the Renaissance, Fra Angelio and Fra Filippo Lippi still included the peacock in their religious art (this is a detail from the Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460). Perched on the stable above the Christ child, the peacock watches the wise men bring gifts to the baby. As a complement to the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the peacock symbolizes the gift of immortality that is offered by Christianity.3

I know that peacocks have both positive and negative associations in other contexts and cultures. In America, it could be argued that peacocks are most commonly associated with vanity. I think it’s fun to look at peacocks in a different light, as a symbol of immortality.

1 To see some other examples of early writings (and a great image of a peacock from a medieval bestiary, see here).

2 “Roman Catacombs,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (2009), accessed 18 May 2009. Found online here.

3 A complete view of the painting (and more information about it) can be found here.

*Catacomb of Priscilla image courtesy batigolix on Flickr.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.