Category

Greek and Roman

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

Trip to London: New Discoveries

My family and I just got back from a vacation to England. About three-and-a-half of those days were spent in London, and we were able to cram eight museum visits into those few days! We visited Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Tate Modern, the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Wallace Collection, the Design Museum, the National Gallery, the Tate Britain, and the British Museum. I especially loved the elegance of the Wallace Collection, the quirkiness of the Soane Museum, and the grandeur of the British Collection.

I got to see a lot of beloved works of art on this trip, including relief carvings of Ashurbanipal’s lion hunt, the Parthenon Marbles, the hunting scene from the Tomb of Nebamun, and Holbein’s The Ambassadors. I also was really glad that I saw the “Vermeer and Music” show at the National Gallery (even though it meant that I had to sacrifice seeing The Arnolfini Portrait in another section of the museum, due to time constraints!). I also became familiar with new artists and/or works of art during this trip, and I thought I would share them here.

Emilie Charmy, Woman in a Japanese Dressing Gown, 1907. Oil on canvas, 81 x 68 cm. Image from StudyBlue

This isn’t a work of art that I saw in London, but I was introduced to the work of Emilie Charmy on the plane ride to England. Several of her paintings (including Woman in a Japanese Dressing Gown, shown above) are included in Gender and Art, a book that I read while on my trip. In 1921, the critic Roland Dorgelés wrote that that Charmy “sees like a woman and paints like a man.”1 An online gallery of Charmy’s work can be found HERE.

Lee Ufan, "From Line," 1978. Oil paint and glue on canvas. Tate Modern.

Ufan’s From Line is one of the works of art that I saw in the Tate Modern. I love this painting for several reasons, partly because the aesthetic perfectly matches the things that my husband loves about Abstract Expressionism. Ufan wrote this about his method: “Load the brush and draw a line. At the beginning it will appear dark and thick, then it will get gradually thinner and finally disappear . . . A line must have a beginning and an end. Space appears within the passage of time, and when the process of creating space comes to an end, time also vanishes.”2

Fred Wilson, "Grey Area (Black Version)," 1993. Five painted plaster busts, five painted plaster wooden shelves.

I am mostly familiar with Fred Wilson’s interesting exhibition work in Mining the Museum, so I found his piece Grey Area (Black Version) to be a welcome surprise. Plus, I love the Egyptian bust of Nefertiti. Wilson’s piece draws attention to “the claims for Nefertiti, and ancient Egypt generally, as positive examplars of blackness within African American culture, but also on the debates around Nefertiti’s actual racial identity and obscured histories of African peoples, alluded to in the title ‘Grey Area.'”3

Carolingian Ceremonial Comb with Astrological Symbols, c. 875. Victoria and Albert Museum

I was excited to see this liturgical comb in the V&A, largely because my friend Shelley had piqued my interest in liturgical combs with her post earlier this summer. The museum text panel for this Carolingian comb explained, “Combs like this were used to part the hair of the priest before celebrating Mass, and in other ceremonies. This combing symbolically ordered the mind, as well as reducing the risk of falling hair contaminating the wine.”4 The museum website also explains (in a blurb about a 12th century comb) that liturgical combs symbolized “a concentration of thoughts toward the liturgy.”

Cast of the Hildesheim doors (center) in the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Plaster casts of Trajan's Column, from the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum

I was really looking forward to seeing the casts in the Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum. To my great disappointment, I found that the Cast Courts were closed, and only one of the courts could be seen by looking from a second-story balcony. I was most looking forward to seeing minute details in the casts of the Hildesheim Doors, but I had to try and be content with seeing those doors from a distance. I did feel like I had a new perspective though, on the sheer size of Trajan’s column after seeing the cast placed in an indoor space. Both my husband and I exclaimed in surprise when we stumbled upon the balcony which afforded a view of the column (so large that it is displayed in two pieces!). More information on the plaster casts of Trajan’s Column can be found HERE.

Fragonard's "The Swing" (second from right) and Boucher's "Cupid á Captive" (right) in the Wallace Collection

One of the Dutch Rooms in the Wallace Collection

I wanted to include two images of the Wallace Collection interior, since I felt like the setting for this museum was a work of art in-and-of-itself. If I had to choose, I think that this museum was my very favorite one that we visited on this trip. I wanted to visit this museum and the Soane Museum ever since I began to compile my Collection Museum list, and the Wallace Collection did not disappoint! It was also really fun to see Fragonard’s The Swing, since the first art history paper I ever wrote in college was on that painting. It was a lot smaller than I expected! I also thought it was neat that The Swing and Cupid á Captive hang side by side, since those are two popular works of art that often feature in art history survey courses.

Caspar Netscher, The Lace-Maker, 1664

One of the paintings that was a very nice discovery in the Wallace Collection was Netscher’s The Lace Maker. I feel like this has a really strong composition, but also exhibits some interesting interest in texture (for example, with the intricate cap, the plastered wall, and the paper on the wall). This morning I have been thinking about how the turned body and red clothes of the figure remind me a little bit of the centrally-placed woman in Courbet’s The Wheat Sifters (1854) from the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes collection. In some ways, it’s interesting to compare these paintings and see how Courbet was heir of the Dutch genre painting tradition.

Detail from Peter de Hooch, "Woman Peeling Apples," c. 1663.

Another great painting in the Wallace Collection that is hung near The Lace Maker is Peter de Hooch’s Woman Peeling Apples (c. 1663). I use this painting when I lecture on 17th century Dutch art, but I never had seen this painting before in person. The light streaming through the windows is quite lovely, and I like a lot of things about the color and details of this whole painting.

Colossal scarab, perhaps 305-30 BC (possibly earlier)

A colossal scarab! Who knew that such a thing existed?!? This scarab was brought by Lord Elgin (of “Parthenon Marbles” fame) to Britain in the 19th century. I like this scarab for a couple of reasons, including that the scarab was found in Istanbul, although it probably decorated an Egyptian temple. I wonder why the scarab ended up in Istanbul. Scarabs are also interesting to me because of their symbolic associations with rebirth and the sun. Egyptians thought that the scarab was seemingly miraculously hatch out of the dung. In addition, the scarab pushes dung into small balls, much like the god Khepri pushes the sun through the sky.

I took lots of other photos of museums and works of art on this trip, but I think that these are the main “new” (for me, at least) works of art and spaces which will stick out to me the most. Even though we got to visit eight museums, there are still many more things that I wish I could have seen. I already feel the pull go to back, especially since it seems like Millais’s Ophelia is not currently on view at the Tate Britain! I couldn’t find it anywhere. Could that painting have been taken down (or sent off for travel) with the recent rehanging of the Tate’s permanent collection?

What are your favorite works of art and museums in London? Why?

1 Gill Perry, “The Parisian Avant-Garde and ‘Feminine’ Art in the Early Twentieth Century” in Gender and Art by Gill Perry, ed., (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 220.

2 Museum label for Lee Ufan, From Line, London, Tate Modern, August 11, 2013.

3 Museum label for Fred Wilson, Grey Area (Black Version), London, Tate Modern, August 11, 2013.

4 Museum label for Ceremonial Comb with Astrological Symbols, London, Victoria & Albert Museum, August 11, 2013.

— 8 Comments

A Timeline of Early Modern Censorship

Masaccio, The Expulsion of Adam and Eve, 1424-25. Image on right shows the fresco after its restoration in the 1980s, which removed the fig leaves that were added in the 17th century. Image courtesy Wikipedia

A few weeks ago I was contacted by an art magazine, specifically requesting information on nudity and censorship in the history of art (since I had previously written on this topic). It took me a few hours to compile the necessary information for this group. Unfortunately, I never received any response after sending a detailed email to my contact, so I assume that the information I sent will not be used in the final article or timeline about censorship. Instead, I have decided to publish my research here.

Although the following timeline is not complete by any means, I think that these are some of the most significant and interesting events which surround the issues of censorship and nudity for the Early Modern period in Western art.

Reconstruction of copper “skirt” which allegedly was placed on Michelangelo’s “David”

  • c. 1504: Objections arose regarding the nudity of Michelangelo’s “David” (to the point that people threw stones at the statue). It is reported that a skirt of copper leaves was created to cover the statue at one point, although we don’t have a mention of this skirt by Vasari (see some commentary on this problematic story HERE). If anyone knows of more historical accounts that discuss this skirt, please share in the comments below!
  • Around 1541: Cardinal Carafa and Monsignor Sernini (Ambassador of Mantua) work to have Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” censored, due to the nudity. This undertaking is known as the beginning of the “Fig Leaf Campaign.”
  • 1547: In Spain, the first edition of the Index of Prohibited Books (written in 1547, published in 1551) does not mention nudity specifically, but condemns “all pictures and figures disrespectful to religion” (my emphasis).
  • 1555-1559: Pope Paul IV undertakes censorship of nude works of art, which includes the castration of ancient statues.¹
  • 1563 (December 3-4): 25th session of the Council of Trent (as part of the Catholic Counter-Reformation) specifies that art should avoid lasciviousness, “in such wise that figures shall not be painted or adorned with a beauty exciting to lust.”
  • 1565: Daniele da Volterra (later known as “Il Braghettone” or “The Breeches Painter”) was hired to paint bits of drapery over the nude figures of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. These “breeches” by Volterra were the first; other bits of drapery were added to this fresco in the following centuries.
  • 1592 – Clement VII undertakes a personal inspection of Rome to ensure that revealing sculptures, including semi-nude depictions of Christ on the cross, are covered with drapery.
  • 1644 – 1655: Pope Innocent X had phalluses chiseled off of Roman sculptures in the Vatican. Metal fig leaves were placed on the figures instead.
  • About 1680: Fig leaves were added to the bodies of Masaccio’s Adam and Eve figures in the Brancacci Chapel (see image above). These were removed in the 1980s, when the frescoes were cleaned and restored.
  • 1758-1759: Pope Clement XIII covers more sculptures at the Vatican with fig leaves

Spanish stamp from 1930, based off of Goya’s painting “La Maja Desnuda,” c. 1797-1800. Image courtesty Wikipedia

  • About 1797-1800: Goya paints “La Maja Desnuda” (sometimes called “The Naked Maja”) which is among one of the first works of Western art to depict a woman with visible pubic hair. In 1815, Goya was summoned before the Spanish Inquisition to discuss this painting. “La Maja Desnuda” was turned into a stamp in the 1930s by the Spanish government, but the US Postal service would not deliver incoming letters that were marked with this stamp. One source reports that the US Postal service ruling was reversed as late as 1996!
  • About 1803: Goya paints “La Maja Vestida” (“The Clothed Maja”), which is a painting of the same woman who posed for “La Maja Desnuda.” It could be that this painting was created in order to be more acceptable than the previous version.
  • 1846-1878: Pope Pius IX places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 1878-1903: Leo XIII places fig leaves on more statues at the Vatican.
  • 19th century: Modifications were made to Bronzino’s “Allegory of Venus and Cupid” (discussed in detail HERE).

Large fig leaf covering the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” in the Victoria and Albert Museum

  • About 1857: Large fig leaf is created for the plaster cast of Michelangelo’s “David” which is located at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
  • 1865 – Victor Lagye creates copies of Adam and Eve for the Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, with the figures clothed. These copies were placed in the altarpiece.
  • Between 1981-1994: Some (but not all) of the “breeches” of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco are removed during restoration and cleaning of the chapel. Others are not removed because the painting could have been damaged in the process.

Censorship in regards to nudity really begins to end in the late 19th century. The early twentieth century sees a lot of nude sculptures that are also more provocative and sexual in nature.

Can you think of any other significant dates in regards to nudity and censorship? I stuck with the Early Modern period in my timeline, but we could also go back to ancient period (I’m reminded of when Early Christians destroyed nude sculptures of the Parthenon in the 5th century CE.)

If you are interested in learning more about censorship and nudity, I would recommend watching this documentary: “Fig Leaf: The Biggest Cover Up in History.”

1 Art historian Leo Steinberg explained that we don’t know a lot about the specific censorship actions taken by Pope Paul IV. He writes, “But we are not well informed about the chronology of these practices. Montaigne (Essays, III, 5) cites ‘many beautiful and antique statues’  which were being ‘castrated’ in Rome during his youth by order of ‘that good man,’ meaning Pope Paul IV (1555-1559).”  See Leo Steinberg, The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014) p. 186. This book is a reprint of Steinberg’s original 1983 publication. Citation online HERE.

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Damage = Ancient “Cropping”

Aphrodite Torso (after Praxiteles), 2nd century BC. Seattle Art Museum

I just had an ancient art student leave my office. She is writing a paper on how a sculpture of Aphrodite seems like a sexual object to the modern viewer, especially because of the damage which the piece has incurred over time.

I think that this is an interesting argument, and I couldn’t help but think about Laura Mulvey’s discussion of how women in film have been sexualized (and turned into fetishes) by “cropping” women with the film camera. (I’ve written more on this subject HERE.) In this case of the Aphrodite torso, I think one could argue that that damage is an ancient version of the “cropping” which takes place in film. Because the face and limbs are missing, one is forced to look at (and arguably fetishize) the reproductive organs which remain. This is no longer a representation of a woman, but an object.

Can you think of other damaged works of art which “crop” – and therefore further sexualize – the female form? I’m sure that there are lots of them which exist.

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The Farnese Bull and Messy Art History

Apollonios of Tralleis and Tauriscus, The Farnese Bull, 2nd century BC or 3rd century CE

Although I’m not a specialist in Hellenistic or Roman sculpture, I like to feel like I am pretty savvy regarding the major works of art from these periods. Up until earlier this year, however, I was not familiar with the “Farnese Bull” (shown above). This sculpture, which was excavated in 1545, was soon placed in the Palazzo Farnese as part of the collection of Pope Paul III (formerly Cardinal Alessandro Farnese).

At almost 12 feet (3.7 m) in height, this sculpture has a dominating presence. In fact, the complex composition and large scale made me wonder why I hadn’t seen this work of art in more art history textbooks. Although I have since learned of a few sources which discuss this book (including a great entry in Haskell and Penny’s Taste of the Antique), I still think that this work is underrepresented in art history textbooks geared for college students. And, after doing some research, I think I have figured out why this book isn’t discussed in more: the subject matter, history, and historical reception of this piece are really complex and messy. Taking my cues from Haskell and Penny’s entry, I thought I would outline a few things to prove my point:

  • Subject matter: It is hard to concretely say what is being represented in this piece. The Farnese inventory (of 1568) describes this piece as “the mountain with the Bull, and four statues around it.” Vasari tried to take things further and described this piece as a Labor of Hercules. Others believe that this sculpture represents the story of Dirce, the wife of Licus. Dirce hated her niece Antiope and tried to have her killed. However, Antiope’s sons intervened and tied Dirce to a wild bull as punishment.
  • Ancient history: It is hard to date this piece. Scholars still debate whether this piece, which was excavated at the Baths of Caracalla, is a Roman copy or an original Hellenistic copy. Some scholars argue that this sculpture was specifically made for Caracalla’s baths (as a Roman copy). Scholars also disagree as to whether this was the work of art that was described by Pliny the Elder: the statue doesn’t quite match the descriptions of a statue which was brought to Rome during the time of Augustus.

Anonymous Artist "CL", The Farnesian Bull, 1633. Etching.

  • Renaissance and Baroque history: It is clear that the Farnese Bull underwent some restorations after excavation, and they may have been completed by Michelangelo and his students (similar to the restorations of the “Farnese Hercules”). The “Farnese Bull” became very well-known in the Renaissance and afterward, popularized in part by prints (see etching above). Federico Zuccaro said that this was “the most remarkable and marvelous work of the chisel of the ancients” In fact, the ostentatious Louis XIV tried to acquire the piece in 1665!
  • Criticisms of the work: Despite the original praise for this piece, the “Farnese Bull” began to receive criticism in the 17th and 18th centuries for its lack of quality. Bernini noted that the sculpture was only well-known because it was carved from a single piece of stone and created on a large scale. Other criticisms were more pinpointed. The Richardsons noted, for example, that the rope was of “poor quality.” Edward Wright felt like Dirce’s face was “quite without Passion.” Although Winckelmann was also dismissive of the work, although he did note that the extensive restorations have affected the many opinions regarding the piece.1

So, despite the high praise that this work of art experienced in the Renaissance period, it doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of attention today from art history textbooks. Is it too difficult for textbooks to introduce “messy” situations to undergraduate students? Perhaps it is tricky at times, but I also think that students are bright enough and capable enough to grasp the complexity of art history. In fact, I think it’s good for them to realize how art history is a compilation of various opinions that have built up over time. (It seems like the omission of this sculpture in art history books is an indication of what is and is not valued today in art history.) I also think that it is a good idea to introduce issues of “quality” to students, so they can think about how the concept of quality is a construct.

Has anyone seen the “Farnese Bull” or one of its copies? What was your opinion of the piece? Also, has anyone seen the “Farnese Bull” treated at length in a traditional (and relatively recent) art history textbook for college students?2 I’d be interested to see how this sculpture is treated in such a text, if it exists. Haskell and Penny’s catalog is great as a scholarly resource, but I’m not sure if it is very practical as a textbook for a college course.

1 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500-1900 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982), 165-167. Citation available online HERE.

2 I did find one online academic source which discusses the Farnese Bull at length, but quotes an art history textbook by Gisela M. A. Richter which was written in 1930!

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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.