Southern Renaissance

Lavinia Fontana and the Female Self-Portrait

This month marks one year since my friend Hasan Niyazi, blogger from Three Pipe Problem, unexpectedly passed away. I have thought about Hasan a lot lately, particularly because I think he would enjoy some of the topics I am exploring with my students. I also miss the enthusiastic emails, comments, and tweets that he would write. I thought that this month I would post one or two of the guests posts that I wrote for Hasan’s blog. The following post first appeared on Three Pipe Problem in March 2011. Currently, the content of Hasan’s blog is no longer online, although I hope that will change in the near future. In the meantime, I would like to make this post I wrote available again, in Hasan’s memory.

Lavinia Fontana, "Self-Portrait at the Spinet," 1577

Lavinia Fontana, “Self-Portrait at the Spinet,” 1577

As an art historian who is interested in female artists, I am particularly intrigued by the way that Lavinia Fontana chose to depict herself in self-portraits. Since Renaissance women weren’t always in control of how they were portrayed in art (women were often depicted by male artists), I like to see how a female artist represented herself when she did have control over her image.

There are five self-portraits by Lavinia Fontana that are known: four paintings and one drawing. I would like to examine two of these self-portraits, including my own ideas with those that have been previously presented by Catherine King and Babette Bohn.1 I think these two portraits are quite revealing in terms of what Fontana felt was important to communicate about herself.

Fontana’s earliest self-portrait is quite unique, since it was created as a marriage portrait. This painting, Self-Portrait at the Spinet (also called Self-Portrait at the Keyboard) was made in 1577 for Fontana’s future father-in-law, Severo Zappi.2 I think Fontana felt some pressure at this time, since she was marrying into a family which held a higher social status than her own.3 One senses that Fontana felt a need to emphasize her wealth and status by observing various elements in her painting: her lavish clothing, jewels, and a servant in the background. Fontana also chooses to emphasize her accomplishments and abilities: she is playing an instrument and her easel is distinctly placed in the background. In addition, her knowledge and learning are emphasized by the fact that she includes a Latin inscription in the upper corner of the canvas.

I think this Latin inscription is rather interesting, since it is indicative of the social situation for female Renaissance artists. In translation, the inscription reads, “Lavinia virgin/maiden of Prospero Fontana has represented the likeness of her face from the mirror in the year 1577.” Isn’t it interesting that Fontana is emphasizing her virginity? Unsurprisingly, virginity was highly desired by prospective husbands at the time, but I think that Fontana mentions her virginity to fit further societal expectations. As Catherine King points out that in terms of self-portraiture, “the act of showing oneself to another was very different for a young woman than it was for a young man.”4 Hence, female artists needed to be careful in how they presented themselves in portraits. Fontana visually manifests this care by not only stressing her virginity, but by appearing in modest red dress that suggests marriage (red was the traditional color for wedding dresses in Bologna).5

Lavinia Fontana, "Self Portrait In a Tondo," 1579

Lavinia Fontana, “Self Portrait In a Tondo,” 1579

The self-portrait by Fontana that interests me the most was painted just two years after Fontana’s wedding portrait. This portrait is a tondo painted on copper (1579) and was created expressly for placement in a collection. On 17 October 1578, Dominican scholar Alfonso Ciacón wrote to Fontana and requested her portrait; Ciacón intended to publish an engraved gallery of 500 portraits of respected scholars, artists, and statesmen.6 No doubt Fontana felt honored to have her portrait be included in this engraved “gallery.” Fontana sent this portrait to Ciacón in 1579, but the book of engravings was never published.

Nonetheless, we can see that Fontana wanted to portray herself in a certain way, especially since she knew that her image was intended for display alongside portraits of other prominent individuals. As with the marriage portrait, Fontana opts to emphasize her learning and wealth. She manifests her scholarly pursuits (she’s not just a mere “craftswoman”) by showing herself among anatomical casts and classical statuettes. (A nineteenth century engraving of Fontana’s painting is helpful in seeing these details.) In addition, Fontana is interested in suggesting her wealth; she depicts herself in lavish clothing and she is sitting in an armchair (poor people owned only stools at this time).7

Once again, Fontana is careful in how she has presented herself (in order to meet societal expectations). Not only is she wearing modest clothing, but she further emphasizes her respectability by stating that she is married. The inscription in the right-hand corner of her portrait states: “Lavinia Fontana married into the Zappi family made this 1579.” In fact, this reference to her marriage was advantageous not only for purposes of societal decorum, but also a way to emphasize her social status, since the Zappi family held a comparatively high status in society.

As I have been writing this post and thinking about Fontana, I’ve come to a realization as to why I am drawn to female self-portraits. For one thing, I’m an art historian who is a woman. Although I am hopeful that the job market for women in academia is ever-improving (and equalizing), I think many women still feel cautious in how they present themselves in the academic world (in order to keep a competitive edge against men). I certainly feel that way. Along these lines, as a female blogger, I sometimes find myself concerned with how I portray myself in writing. Although I don’t feel that I experience the same difficulties as women in the Renaissance period, I experience an element of self-awareness when I need to portray myself (either visually or in writing). I think blog posts are my equivalent for self-portraits, especially since I’m not an artist!

UPDATE: Since writing this initial post in 2011, I have written more about Lavinia Fontana’s “Self-Portrait” for the Ciacón collection elsewhere on my blog: “Lavinia Fontana’s ‘Self-Portrait’ and Gender.”

1 Catherine King, “Italian Artists in Search of Virtue, Fame, and Honour c. 1450-c.1650,” in The Changing Status of the Artist, eds. Emma Barker, Nick Webb, and Kim Woods (London: Yale University Press, 1999), 72-74. See also Babette Bohn, “Female Self-Portraiture in Early Modern Bologna,” in Renaissance Studies 18, no. 2 (2004): 251-256. If you are interested in seeing information about the remaining three self-portraits which are not discussed in this post, see article by Bohn.

2 Bohn, 253.

3 Ibid., 254.

4 King, p. 67. For an example of extreme modesty in portraiture, see Sophonisba Anguissola’s Self-Portrait from c. 1555, in which she modestly covers herself with a mirror (which she protectively places in front of her body like a shield).

5 Bohn, 254. The red knot that is placed on the instrument was a symbol of love and betrothal at the time, which can also tie into Fontana’s interest in maintaining social decorum. For more information, see Liana De Girolami Cheney, et. all, Self-Portraits of Women Painters (London: Ashgate/Scolar Press, 2000), p. 60 (revised. Washington: DC: New Academia, 2009). The red knot is also discussed in Caroline P. Murphy, Lavinia Fontana: A Painter and her Patrons in Sixteenth-century Bologna (New Haven and London, 2003), 41–3.

6 Name also appears in art history texts as Alonso Chaçon and Alfonso Chacon.

7 King, 73.


Book Review: “From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David”

Michelangelo, "David," 1501-1504. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Rico Heil.

Michelangelo, “David,” 1501-1504. Marble, 17′ tall. Image via Wikipedia, courtesy of Rico Heil

This summer I’ve found it more convenient to read eBooks for a variety of reasons, including convenience while I travel. I just finished reading a brand-new book From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David by A. Victor Coonin. I really enjoyed reading this book; it is written in a very engaging and approachable way. The book discusses the history of Michelangelo’s “David,” including the various locations where the sculpture either was intended to be placed or actually placed.

Additionally, the book discusses the famous sculpture’s impact on society and culture over the centuries. I especially liked the chapter which discussed the cultural impact which the David has had on artists, activist groups, and other types of people and communities. It was neat to read about ways in which the David has been recreated and also “cloned” in visual culture, including Banksy’s sculpture from the Banksy vs. the Bristol Museum exhibition in 2009.

I learned a lot of new things about Michelangelo’s “David” when reading this book. There are a lot of interesting tidbits and facts that have sparked my curiosity, and I intend to do a lot of follow-up research on the ideas that Coonin presented. For now, though, I want to highlight several things from this book that I found particularly interesting:

  • Before reading this book I knew that Michelangelo’s “David” originally was intended to adorn a spur above the tribune outside the Florence Cathedral, but I didn’t know that the original plan for the spurs included a whole sculptural program with twelve freestanding, life-sized figures of Old Testament prophets.1 (This is particularly interesting to me, given my own research on Aleijadinho’s twelve sculptures of Old Testament prophets outside Bom Jesus dos Matozinhos in Brazil.)
  • Four sculptures were created for the Florence Cathedral series of prophets before Michelangelo was born: Isaiah (1408) by Antonio and Nanni di Banco; David (1408-09) by Donatello; the gigantic multi-media sculpture Joshua (c. 1410) by Donatello; and a gigantic statue by Antonio di Duccio which probably depicted the prophet Daniel (1464-65). Donatello’s David sculpture may be lost, but some scholars think that it might be Donatello’s David in the Bargello Museum or perhaps another bearded prophet in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo collection.2  We We know Isaiah was placed a cathedral spur, but when Donatello’s David was completed, Isaiah was taken down and neither sculpture remained on the exterior. It could be that the life-size sculptures were too small to be seen when placed up high.
  • After Isaiah and Donatello’s David were made, an oversize sculpture (called the “giant” or “White Colossus”) of Joshua was made out of brick, clay and gesso (which was whitewashed to give the appearance of marble).3  This sculpture remained in place for several centuries, and we can get an idea of its original placement from a 17th century print by Israel Silvestre (see print detail). Several decades later, Agostino di Duccio created a similar giant (probably a figure of Daniel) out of terracotta in 1464-65 (which is now lost, but does appear on a view of the Cathedral printed in 1584).4
  • I knew that Michelangelo’s “David” was created from a discarded piece of marble (which was thought to be unable to be turned into a sculpture). However, before reading this book I didn’t know that the discarded marble actually was intended to be for the series of twelve Old Testament prophets, too. This marble was quarried in 1464 by Agostino di Duccio, and seems to have been roughly outlined into some anthropomorphic form before it ultimately was abandoned.5
  • In addition to the famous marble sculpture, Michelangelo also created a bronze David, but this sculpture was composed a bit differently. Although this sculpture no longer exists, we can get a semblance of Michelangelo’s working process for the sculpture from a study drawing. We also know more about the final appearance from a drawing of the sculpture by Rubens.
  • The art historian Heinrich Wölfflin really didn’t like Michelangelo’s David at all. He wrote, “What does Michelangelo put forth as his ideal of youthful beauty? A gigantic hobbledehoy, no longer a boy and not yet a man, at the age when the body stretches, which the size of the limbs does not appear to match the enormous hands and feet…Then we have the unpleasant attitude, hard and angular, and the hideous triangle between the legs. Not a single concession has been made to the line of beauty.”6
  • Michelangelo’s David was attacked in 1991 by Pietro Cannata, a mentally-instable visitor who came into the Galleria dell’Accademia. Cannata’s hammer (which had been hidden in his jacket) severed the second toe of the statue’s left foot.7
  • After New York City was attacked on September 11, 2001, the city of Florence offered to send a copy of the David to be placed at Ground Zero. This offer never materialized for some reason, but the gesture suggests how much the David has come to represent hope.8

My only main critique of this book is in the small size and low quality of the resolution for several of the images, which I realize may be an inevitable result of reading an eBook instead of a printed publication. Sometimes it was difficult to see what Coonin was trying to point out in the images because of their small size, and enlarging the images on my iPad made the pictures look very grainy and pixelated. But I did like that there were a lot of images and that they were in color. I assume (and would hope) that the images are more clear in the printed version of the text.

Overall, however, I highly recommend this book. From Marble to Flesh can appeal to all kinds of people, not just art historians. Coonin writes in an easy-to-read manner, but also takes time to define any art history term that is necessary for the reader to understand. I’m excited about all of the things that I learned in this book, and I think anyone interested in Renaissance art or cultural studies will be excited about this book, too.

Thank you to Alexandra Korey and The Florentine Press for providing a review copy of this book.

1 A. Victor Coonin, From Marble to Flesh: The Biography of Michelangelo’s David (Florence: Florentine Press, 2014), 26, ePub for iBooks (vertical orientation).

2 Ibid., 34-37.

3 Ibid., 38.

4 Ibid., 48-49.

5 Ibid., p. 63.

6 Heinrich Wölfflin, The Art of the Italian Renaissance: A Handbook for Students and Travelers (New York and London: 1903), 54-56.

7 Coonin, 16.

8 Ibid., 320.


Raphael’s Studio, Graffiti, and “Grotesques” at the Vatican

Note: The following post was written in honor of my friend, the late Hasan Niyazi, who was the blogger at Three Pipe Problem. Several times Hasan and I would write posts that were in response to or inspired by something that the other had written. When writing this post, I was reminded that Hasan had already paved the way for my own research: he posted brief information about Raphael and the Vatican Loggia in January 2010 and in April 2012.

Hasan had a particular love for Raphael, and the art history blogging community thought it appropriate to honor Hasan on April 6th, which is Raphael’s birthday. You can find a compilation of links and tributes for this event HERE. Hasan and I enjoyed corresponding about myths and historical misconceptions surrounding art history, and I think he would have appreciated my detective work to determine whether or not Raphael actually left a graffito in the Domus Aurea (especially since Hasan mentioned in a post from January 2010 that he had difficulty finding an image of any inscriptions left by Renaissance artists on the walls – an issue I have tried to remedy here).

On another note, too, I think there are some interesting parallels between Hasan’s written text and the graffiti left by Renaissance artists. Just as these artists left a mark of their physical presence after their discovery and interaction with ancient Roman paintings, Hasan left his own text (a virtual signature) on a wall (a digital screen) after making artistic discoveries of his own. 


Over the past several weeks, I have been listening to online lectures on ancient Roman architecture by Prof. Diana E. E. Kleiner of Yale University. Many of these lectures are found through Yale’s Open University website for the course. It has been fun and rewarding to listen to another professor teach about a subject with which I am familiar, although I know that there is always more to learn about the Romans.

I was particularly intrigued by one lecture that discusses some of the paintings that are located in Nero’s Domus Aurea (“Golden House”). This immense pleasure palace was never completed during the Roman period; it was left incomplete after the unpopular Nero was forced to commit suicide. Some sections of the palace and grounds were torn down afterward, while others were sealed and used as a foundation for the Forum of Trajan. These private apartments and other rooms were discovered during the Renaissance around 1480, when a man accidentally fell into one of the underground rooms.1

Plan of the Domus Aurea. Areas outlined in black date from the time of Nero. Walls on the south end (filled with diagonal slash lines) date from the time of Trajan. The rooms that are filled with dark gray were visited during the Renaissance period.

Due to their subterranean location, these rooms were called “grottoes,” and the decoration on the walls subsequently was called “grotesque.” (Later, the word “grotesque” took on other connotations.) Renaissance artists were stunned at this discovery, for the walls in the rooms were still painted, gilded, and stuccoed. In general, the Roman painting in the Domus Aurea can be interpreted as a transition between the Third Style into the Fourth Style of ancient Roman wall painting. The small fantasy-like vignettes and delicate, whimsical designs placed upon monochromatic backgrounds recall the Third Style, while other walls incorporate more elements from previous styles such as illusionistic vistas (an indication of the eclectic and inclusive Fourth Style, which combines elements from the First, Second, and/or Third Styles). One example of Third Style painting would be the cryptoporticus ceiling (image shown below). Perhaps the best extant example of Fourth Style painting from the Domus Aurea can be found in Room 78, although it should be noted that Renaissance artists did not visit this particular room.

Painter possibly Fabullus, Cryptoporticus (Room 70) wall painting, Domus Aurea, 1st century CE

Many Renaissance artists visited these grottoes, and many of them, paradoxically, left graffiti on the walls and defaced the paintings they so much admired. Some of the graffiti left in the Domus Aurea belong to students of Raphael, such as Pierino Fiorentino and Giovanni da Udine.2 Northern artists also visited the grottoes and left their names, including the artist and writer Karl Van Mander.3 Perhaps these artists felt like they could bridge some type of historical divide between them and the revered ancients through such markers.

Image of the graffito of Giovanni da Udine (signed as "ZVAN DA VDENE FIRLANO") from the cryptoporticus (room 70) in the Domus Aurea

Although I can find no evidence that Raphael left his own graffito on the walls, Vasari does record that Raphael visited the site with his assistant, Giovanni da Udine.4 The wall paintings definitely left an impression on the two painters. The influence of the walls of the Domus Aurea on the style of Raphael and his pupils are especially clear when viewing Raphael’s paintings in the Vatican Loggia of Pope Leo X as well as the Loggetta and Stufetta of Cardinal Bibbiena (an image of the Loggetta is shown below). Out of these three spaces, the Loggetta and the Stufetta were decorated in the antique style first. The Loggia, however, is probably the best well known and most influential, since it served as the prototype for modern grotesques.5

Studio of Raphael (particularly Giovanni da Udine, who was assigned the task by Raphael), The Loggetta of Cardinal Bibbiena, 1516-1516. Image courtesy the Web Gallery of Art

Studio of Raphael, detail of the ceiling of the Loggetta Bibbiena, 1516-1517. Vatican.

Many of these paintings have decorative elements which recall the Third Style of Roman wall painting, such as the monochromatic white background and lyrical vegetal designs. I particularly appreciate the whimsical designs that include animals, and I think that the fantastic and whimsically illogical aspect of the Third Style is shown in many details with animals.6 For example, one detail of a pilaster in the Loggia depicts a fat rat and round squirrels resting on delicate acanthus leaves, while swans perch on spindly tendrils (see image below).

Studio of Raphael, detail of Pilaster IX, with acanthus foliage populated by animals, and flanking half-pilasters, 16th century

Scholars have debated the contribution which Raphael had in the decoration of these areas. Most recently, Nicole Dacos asserted that Raphael supplied the initial designs and sketches for the Loggia, although none of these sketches survive.7 After this point, studio assistants including Francesco Penni, Giulio Romano, Giovanni da Udine, and Perin del Vaga, and Polidoro da Caravaggio completed the decoration. Raphael is also thought to have provided the designs for the Loggetta and the Stuffetta, although he gave Giovanni da Udine “carte blanche” to paint with assistants in the Loggetta.8

I think it’s really neat to see a way in which Roman wall painting influenced Renaissance painters. During the Renaissance, artists often had to look toward ancient sculpture for artistic inspiration, since sculpture survived much more easily than painting.9 One can only imagine the excitement of Renaissance painters to discover ways in which the ancient Romans worked with color, utilized their imaginations to create fantastic imagery (which would have fit well with the Renaissance concept of ingegno, I think), and also explored modeling and illusionism.

It is unfortunate, then, that these paintings were so well loved that they were “gradually effaced by the grafitti and torch smoke of the very people who came to admire them. So great, indeed, was the prestige of the Domus Aurea paintings that their rapid deterioration gave rise to the story, which persisted into the late eighteenth century, that Michelangelo, Raphael, and other masters had intentionally destroyed the frescoes after copying them, so that no one would be able to identify the source of their great art.”10 Even in recent times, the Domus Aurea still has been under threat from a conservational standpoint: the building has been closed since 2006 due to risk of structural failure and collapse. Luckily, though, it was just announced that the structurally-sound portions of the building will reopen between July and September of this year. How exciting!

Do you know of any other ways in which Renaissance painters were directly influenced by specific Roman paintings? Please share!

1 Hetty Joyce, “Grasping at Shadows: Ancient Paintings in Renaissance and Baroque Rome” in The Art Bulletin 74, no. 2 (1992): 219.

2 Nicole Dacos, La Découverte de la Domus Aurea et La Formation des Grotesques a la Renaissance (London: The Warburg Institute, 1969), 148.

3 Ibid., 144, 152.

4 La Découverte de la Domus Aurea et La Formation des Grotesques a la Renaissance by Nicole Dacos includes an extensive appendix of the graffiti were left in the Domus Aurea during the Renaissance and afterward. An additional list in this appendix includes the list of graffiti that were mentioned in an earlier publication by Weege in 1913, which were no longer visible when Dacos published her book in 1969. Raphael’s signature is not specified in either of these lists. For information on Vasari’s account regarding Raphael’s visit to the site, see chapter on Giovanni da Udine.

5 Nicole Dacos, The Loggia of Raphael: A Vatican Art Treasure (New York: Abbeville Press, 2008), 7. The Loggia is found in the old Papal Palace; it is located on the second story of three superimposed stories. Raphael assumed the project of constructing the third floor and decorating the second floor of the galleries when Bramante, the original architect, died. In the sixteenth century the second story was known as “la loggia,” and the name that specifically refers to the second story has remained.

6 The Roman architect and historian Vitruvius decried the illogical aspects of Third Style painting, writing, “We now have fresco paintings of monstrosities, rather than truthful representations of definite things. For instance, reeds are put in the place of columns, fluted appendages with curly leaves and volutes, instead of pediments, candelabra supporting representations of shrines. . . . How is it possible that a reed should really support a roof, or a candelabrum a pediment with its ornaments, or that such a slender, flexible thing as a stalk should support a figure perched upon it. . . .?” See Vitruvius, De archaetectura VII, 5. Text available online here:

7 Ibid., p. 10.

8 Ibid., 34.

9 We can tell that ancient sculpture also served as a source of inspiration for the Loggia paintings, in fact. Nicole Dacos points out that a sculpture of Diana (Artemis) of Ephesus appears in one of the paintings of the Loggia, which may have been derived from a statue known at the time of Pope Leo X. Ibid.., 40-45.

10 Joyce, 220.


Raphael, Transfiguration, and Hasan from 3PP

Raphael (with Gulio Romano), "Transfiguration of Christ," 1516-1520. Oil on wood, 405 cm × 278 cm (159 in × 109 in). Vatican Collections

This afternoon I have had a line related to Vasari’s Lives of the Artists  go through my head repeatedly. This line comes from part of the biography on the Renaissance artist Raphael, in conjunction with Raphael’s painting The Transfiguration of Christ painting (see above):

“For Giulio Cardinal de’ Medici he painted the Transfiguration of Christ, and brought it to the greatest perfection, working at it continually with his own hand, and it seemed as if he put forth all his strength to show the power of art in the face of Christ; and having finished it, as the last thing he had to do, he laid aside his pencil, death overtaking him.”1

Despite what one may believe in relation to divine callings or destiny, I think we can all agree that Raphael’s early death, at the age of thirty-seven, was premature in relation to his talent and potential. The same should be said of my amazing friend, Hasan Niyazi of Three Pipe Problem, who just passed away unexpectedly. Hasan was passionate about Raphael, and committed himself to creating an open-access database, Open Raphael Online. This project was an enormous undertaking, and Hasan “work[ed] at it continually with his own hand,” much like how Raphael labored with his painting. Raphael did not live to see the completion of The Transfiguration of Christ, similar to how Hasan passed away before his own project was finished. Hasan died when he was barely thirty-eight years old; Raphael died when he was thirty-seven.

I think that theme of this painting is fitting as a tribute for Hasan in many ways, given that “transfigure” means to transform into something that is more beautiful and elevated. In this painting, Christ is transfigured into a beautiful, shining, divine figure, right in front of his apostles. Compositionally, the Transfiguration scene appears above an additional scene in the lower foreground, in which the apostles try to cast devils out of a boy (who medical experts have identified as one coming out of an epileptic seizure).2 In line with the themes of this painting, Hasan strove to elevate his own body and mind into something continually more refined and perfected. He was passionate about learning and had an excellent mind. Hasan was also committed to exercise and running, his work in the health profession, and his stalwart dedication in the art history online community. Although he was not formally trained in art history, Hasan applied his medical and scientific knowledge to learn about and analyze paintings from a technical perspective. He loved beautiful things, and continually sought to fill his mind and eyes with beautiful art, poetry, music, and ideas. He was very intelligent and talented in so many ways.

I am particularly grateful that Hasan sought to connect with art history individuals on a personal level. In many respects, he helped to hold the online art history community together. When I last wrote Hasan an email, I was sitting in an airport, waiting to board an international flight. I had just finished reading a passage on Raphael in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece, and I wanted to share it with Hasan right away. I quickly typed it into my phone before boarding my plane:

“[Raphael’s] great superiority is due to the instinctive sense which, in him, seems to desire to shatter form. Form is, in his figures, what it is in ourselves, an interpreter for the communication of ideas and sensations, an exhaustless source of poetic inspiration. Every figure is a world in itself, a portrait of which the original appeared in a sublime vision, in a flood of light, pointed to by an inward voice, laid bare by a divine finger which showed what the sources of expression had been in the whole past life of the subject.”3

Like Raphael, Hasan was also a source of inspiration and beautiful ideas. In a way, I think his dedication to digital humanities and accessible information across the globe has parallels with Raphael’s “desire to shatter form.” Hasan’s sincerity, kindness and thoughtfulness were quite unmatched. Unsurprisingly, he made friends all over the world. I feel very lucky to have known him. His death is truly a great loss to all of us.

1 Emma Louise Seeley, Stories of the Italian Artists from Vasari (New York: Scribner and Welford, 1885), p. 171. Available online HERE.

2 Gordon Bendersky, “Remarks on Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration,'” in Source: Notes on the History of Art 14 (no. 4), Summer 1995: 23.

3 Honoré Balzac, The Unknown Masterpiece, 1831. Available online HERE.


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: (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.


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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.