Vegder's Blog

November 25, 2012

Halo my baby, Halo my honey…

Eons ago a great man told me that the halo which is known in both the East and the West originated in ancient Persia. I’ve never tracked this down to see if he was right or not because he was generally correct in everything he told me. And, even if he wasn’t, he made such a good show of it that I still,  to this day, believe most of what he said. So… here I go. I am going to try and tackle the subject of halos as we now know them in what was once accepted as purely religious form, but is now called ART – along with a few sidetracks thrown in for good measure.

This could end up badly because I know next to nothing about this topic – other than what I have observed. I have never read up on the subject and have mainly taken for granted what I have seen so far. If I end up with egg on my face it won’t be for the first time. So try to bear with me on this one and I will try not to let you down. As usual I will start off with a few images as teasers, hors d’ouevres, if you like. Just to whet the appetite. Then in the next few weeks I will try to fill in the gaps – or, at least, some of them.

I think it is important to remember some of the first words of the Book of Genesis: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” Keep that in mind while reading the entries below and looking at the accompanying images. (I am not proselytizing here. I am simply telling you what I know based on years of indoctrination.)

Morgan_Library_When_the_Morning_Stars_Sang_Together_7This image by William Blake is from the collection of the Morgan Library. They entitle it as “When the Morning Stars Sang”. There is a similar piece in the National Gallery, in printed form, which is called “The Creation”. It dates from 1825.

NGA_Washington_Blake_The_Creation_1825_7   National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

The Hvarenō – If my mentor was right then we can probably trace the halo back to the hvarenō in the 2nd century A.D. when the Persian’s believed “…that the legitimate sovereign reigned by the grace of Ormazd, whose favour was made manifest by the sending of the Hvareno, a kind of celestial aureole of fire, resulted in the doctrine that the sun was the giver of the Hvareno. Mithras, identified with Sol Invictus at Rome, thus became the giver of authority and victory to the imperial house. From the time of Commodus, who participated in its mysteries, its supporters were to be found in all classes. Its importance at Rome may be judged from the abundance of monumental remains – more than 75 pieces of sculpture, 100 inscriptions, and ruins of temples and chapels in all parts of the city and suburbs.”

In a 1903 publication put out by the Musée Guimet, Revue de l’Histoire des Religions, volume 47, no less, it says that the origin of the hvarenō was traced back to the area of a lake in Atropatene (modern Azerbaijan/Iran) by the Danish scholar Edvard Lehmann (1862-1930). Supposedly a cult of fire grew up around this site because there was naturally burning naphthe coming out of the ground. It says in French: “…òu l’on avait les phénomène extraordinaires des flammes de naphte, ensuite «la gloire», «la majesté»,  signe de la royuaté…” (Of course, I chose to use the French source rather than the Danish one because my Danish is non-existent which puts my French at a slight advantage.)

Power vs. Righteousness – In the 1899 Encyclopedia Britannica it says that “…hvarenō, the halo of majesty… refused to be grasped by the Turanian Fraṅraçê, but attached itself to pious kings like Thraétaóna.”

In vol. 27 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica article on ancient Persia it says: “The Sassanid ruler is the representative of the ‘Kingly Majesty,’ derived from Ormuzd, which appears in the Avesta as the angel Kavaem Hvareno, ‘the royal,’  and according to legend, once beamed in the Iranian kings, unattainable to all but those of royal blood.”

To start with – The first example comes from the Victoria and Albert Museum, from the collection of Sir Aurel Stein (オーレル・スタイン: 1862-1934). It is a “…small round fragment of silk embroidery shows a Buddha head and halo in buff colour. Usnisa, eyes and eyebrows are worked in dark blue silk, while nose and outlines are red.” It was discovered in  a Mogao grotto (Ch:莫高窟) near Dunhuang on the Silk Road. It was made in the 8th century. Can you believe it? The 8th century! Amazing!

   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London [I just realized that this image is under copyright to the Government of India, but on loan to the V &A. If anyone knows if I need to remove this please let me know.]

Below is a photo of those grottoes where this fragment was found. It was posted at Flickr by Antoine Sipos.

The second example I have chosen is from a triptych by Kuniyoshi in which he parodies images of 15 of Buddha’s disciples with halos. [I think there are supposed to be 16, but I only count 15.] Here they have the faces of prominent member of the kabuki theater. But don’t be shocked – or too shocked – because Kuniyoshi did this kind of thing all of the time. If it wasn’t followers of Buddha he used it was the heads of turtle  or fish or whatever.  I think you get the idea.

Very few halos show up in Japanese woodblock prints – However, there are a few other prints by Kuniysohi where he has subtly used other objects as stand-ins for halos. Below are two examples from the British Museum. The first shows the Maid Take-jo (嬶竹女) from the series Biographies of Wise Women and Virtuous Wives (賢女烈婦傳). The one below that represents Princess Chujo (中将姫) from the series Biographies of Exceptional Persons of Loyalty and Honour (忠考名誉奇人傳). Notice not only the spinner’s wheel, but also the two-color rainbow – another motif that rarely occurs in print or any other form. *Note that halos do not appear in any of the other images from these two series that I can find – so far.

   © Trustees of the British Museum – on loan from Prof. Arthur R. Miller

   © Trustees of the British Museum – on loan from Prof. Arthur R. Miller

But don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of halos in Japan –  As early as 600 A.D. Buddhist sculptures were being created of figures with halos. It is said that the emperor Shōmu (701-756) commissioned an enormous bronze Buddha for a temple at Nara. “…it had taken more than twenty thousand Japanese pounds of the precious metal to cover with gold. It was surrounded by a halo on which three hundred gold statues were hung…”

Below is a hanging scroll in the British Museum showing Jizo (地蔵尊) Bosatsu, a savior for lost souls, especially children – even those still-born. It is color applied to black silk and is amazing.

    © Trustees of the British Museum

The Buddha of Infinite Light (阿弥陀如来立像) – This painting of the Amida Buddha attended by two bodhisattvas welcoming souls bound for the Western Paradise dates from the Kamakura period (1192-1333). Although it is difficult to see one of the bodhisattvas is holding a golden lotus meant to receive the soul of a deceased human who is allowed to travel to the paradisaical world where the almost endless cycle of birth-death and suffering will cease forever.

Freer_Amida_Buddha_of_Infinite_Light_7   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries

Alice Getty noted that the “Amida is looked upon as the One Original Buddha (Ichi-butsu), without beginning and without end, besides whom there is none other. He is the ‘Father of the World’, and all the Buddhas and Boddhisattvas are temporary manifestations of him.” Below is a wooden Buddha, lacquered and gilded from the mid-18th century. It is in the collection of the British Museum and is listed both as Amida and Sakyamuni. Made in Osaka for the Dairen-ji Temple it stands 38.58″ tall and exemplifies the glory of the Buddha of Infinite Light.


© Trustees of the British Museum

Serenity and beauty – There are so many wonderful examples to choose from. However, I have to limit myself and test your patience at the same time. Even though this next piece may seem a bit redundant to some of you, it doesn’t seem that way to me. Just take a look and then try to tell me I wasted your time. [That last sentence is rhetorical.]

BM_seated_Amida_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

A haloed Kannon – There is a remarkable painting by Kano Hogai (1828-88) in the Freer collection referred to as the Hibo Kannon. Kakuzō Okakura wrote in 1920: “The last masterpiece of Kano Hogai represents Kwannon, the Universal Mother, in her aspect of human maternity. She stands in mid-air, her triple halo lost in the sky of golden purity, and holds in her hand a crystal vase, out of which is dropping the water of creation. A single drop, as it falls, becomes a babe, which, wrapped in its birth-mantle like a nimbus, lifts unconscious eyes to her, as it is wafted downwards to the rugged snow-peaks of the earth rising from a mist of blue darkness far below.”

Freer_Hibo_Kannon_1883_Kano_Hogai_7b   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries

The power lies within – There is an ancient mirror-making technique which originated in China and was adopted by the Japanese. On the outside the mirror is a typical mirror, possibly with an inscription, but in certain light it shows a hidden image. Below is an another great example from the British Museum of just such an item. It dates from the Edo period. Below that is an x-ray image.

BM_Amida_Edo_mirror_outside_7b   © Trustees of the British MuseumBM_Amida_Edo_mirror_inside_7   © Trustees of the British Museum

Now back to Kuniyoshi

Even in the face of peril there is salvation – Especially where there is a halo present.


Kuniyoshi also produced a series of 16 prints pairing beauties with those of 16 followers of Buddha. The Japanese, a pun loving people, have at least two words which when sounded come out as ‘rikan’. Rikan can be understood audibly as either meaning ‘profit’ or as ‘arhat’, a disciple of Buddha. This series is meant to be witty. Notice the rikan with the halo in the hanging scroll holding a hobbyhorse, not a normal attribute.

MFA_Kuniyoshi_beauty_arhat_hobbyhorse_7b   MFA_Kuniyoshi_beauty_arhat_hobbyhorse_7b_dtail

For more information about Japanese prints and culture please visit our other web site at

Beware of the Internet – I know I am not telling you anything you don’t already know, but… While I was trying to come up with a catchy lead-in to the mirror images shown above I found a quote attributed to William Makepeace Thackeray supposedly to be found in Vanity Fair. The quote: “An evil person is like a dirty window, they never let the light shine through.” The problem, as best I can tell: This quote does NOT appear anywhere in Vanity Fair and Thackeray NEVER said it. Do a search with this quote at Google and put it in quotation marks. You will get 113,000 hits. That doesn’t make it right. It just means that it gets repeated over and over and over. Add “Thackeray” to your search and now you are down to just 24,200 repetitions. Add Vanity Fair in quotes and there are just 50 hits, but that still doesn’t make it right. Of course, my warning holds true for this web site too.

Let’s stay in Asiahow about India? – Below is an image of Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It comes from Chola and dates from ca. 11th century, but its origins go back to the 5th century. It shows Shiva – the creator, preserver, destroyer – enclosed in a halo of fire which also symbolizes the never-ending cycle of time. He stands atop a small figure which represents apasmara purusha or the illusions which lead all men astray. This sculpture is made of copper alloy and stands 26 7/8″ high.

Even the Hindus – Agni is the Hindu god of fire. In fact, one of the Hindi words for fire is agni (अग्नि) and the flames erupting from the circle of fire seen in the Dance of Shiva above are called that. Below is a statue of Agni from the collection of the British Museum. It shows this god seated, surrounded by a flaming nimbus, with his foot near a goat, his vehicle. It is carved from basalt and dates to the 11th century.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

According to the ancient Vedas the sacred fire was the cause of male posterity.

You don’t have to be a god or a saint to have a halo – just blessed – Frequently rulers were endowed with divine powers, or so it was believed. They were blessed by the gods or God. Below is a gold coin from Gupta minted from 330-376 A.D. and shows Chandragupta I, with a halo, facing the goddess Kumāradevī, also haloed, while on the reverse side there is a seated goddess, haloed, of course, surrounded by a ring of dots – another halo?

   © Trustees of the British Museum

Since I know absolutely nothing about Chandragupta I I thought I should do a little digging. Of course, I have to read through a lot of gibberish – or is it scholarly writing that shows I am in this way over my head? – and in one of the first sources I found this quote: “Chandragupta-I was the first Hindu king who issued gold coins probably soon after assuming the imperial title.” In 308 he married Kumāradevī of the Licchavi tribe which controlled Bihar and possibly also Nepal. By the time of his death he was referred to as the ‘king of kings’.

1500 years later and little has changed – except now it is Shah Jahan (シャー・ジャハーン: 1592-1666) – everyone knows Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal – who is a Muslim with a halo. In volume 2 of the History of India by Percival Spear it says on page 36 “The last major achievement of Akbar [1542-1605] may be described as the re-creation of the imperial idea in India. The early Hindu emperors had surrounded themselves with an aura of sanctity, perhaps derived from ancient Persia and certainly in tune with Hindu ideas. The Muslim sultans were venerated by their followers no more than by their subjects; each dynasty was forgotten within a generation of its overthrow.  Akbar restored this concept of imperial sanctity, the symbol of success being the addition of the nimbus or halo to the imperial head in Mughal paintings from Akbar’s time onwards.”

One source says: “…from the seventeenth century onwards Mughal artists began to portray emperors wearing the halo which was supposed to symbolize the light of God.”

Later in the same volume, page 64, it says: “Jahangir [1569-1627] admired their pictures [i.e., those religious images imported by the Jesuits] and had them copied. The halo, taken by Europe from the Buddhists, was returned to India by the Portuguese.” Of course, this doesn’t agree with my premise entirely, but it comes close and who says I am right? Not I.

BM_Shah_Jahan_halo_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum   BM_Shah_Jahan_halo_7_dtl

There is another image of Jahangir in the Freer-Sackler collection in which he represents both the sun and the moor. It was painted by a court artist Bachitr and shows the monarch greeting a sufi master while sitting atop an hourglass being attended by two small angels. Jahangir’s halo is made up of three parts: a spiked radiance set against the sun as a golden disc and bordered by a crescent moon. This was too good not to include in this posting.

Freer_Bichitr_Jahangir_sun_moon_halo_7c   © The Smithsonian – Freer Sackler Galleries

I found it! I found it! Eureka! I found it! – At last I have found an earlier image of a halo on a gold coin from Kushan. It shows a standing Buddha with his head and body surrounded by two halos. It dates from ca. 127-150 A.D. NowAt last I have found a specific reference to this coin in a book that actually has something to say. [You can’t imagine the amount of crap I have to look through to find anything worthy of passing on.] “In order to accommodate one of their major trading partners,  the Romans, the Kushans based their coins on the aureus, a Roman gold coin. The Kushan gold, silver, and copper coins bore images of the Kushan kings and numerous deities, including the Sumerian goddess Nana, the Persian gods Oado and Atash, the Hindu gods Vasudeva and Siva, and, of course, the Buddha.” Inscriptions appeared in various ancient languages. Very sophisticated, indeed. “A coin found in a Buddhist stupa near Jalalabad in modern Pakistan illustrates Kushan cosmopolitanism. On the face of the coin is a likeness of King Kanishka and the inscription ‘Raonanorao Kanirki Korno’ in the Greek alphabet, representing words in the northwest dialect of Sanskrit that meant ‘King of Kings, Kanishka, of Kushan.’ On the reverse side of the coin is an image of the Buddha with a halo.  It is one of the earliest surviving images of the Buddha. He is wearing a knee-length robe similar to that worn by the king. Just like the king on the face of the coin, the Buddha stands with feet pointing outward, a typical posture of the steppe people who spent so much time on horseback. There is a Kushan royal emblem next to the Buddha’s left hand, and on his right there is an inscription in Greek letters meaning ‘the Buddha.’ ” This quote comes from The Silk Road in World History by Xinru Liu, 2010, pp. 47-48.

BM_Kushan_gold_coin_ca._127_150_A.D._Buddha_halo   © Trustees of the British Museum

I have forgotten more than I ever knew about Zoroaster – Did you know that like Jesus Zoroaster was born of virgin birth. His mother was said to have been just 15 years old at the time. However, he was born centuries before Jesus in ca. 628 B.C. In the Revue biblique, volume 15 of 1906 it says in a footnote on page 377: “Du moins les mères des Sauveurs à venir sont-elles fécondées par la semence miraculeusement conservée de Zoroastre. Pour Zoroastre: «A ray of divine Glory (Hvareno) enters the mother of Zoroaster, just as the Holy Ghost overshadows Mary

There aren’t a lot of images of Zoroaster to be found in the West, especially in the museum collections, but I did find one unusual one at the British Museum. It is a photograph taken by General Sir Percy Molesworth Sykes taken in 1900. It is of a lantern slide.

BM_General_Sykes_Zoroaster_lantern_slide_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

James Darmsteter (1849-94) wrote: “Zarathustra stands by Ahura. The fiends come rushing along from hell to kill him, and fly away terrified by the  hvarenô…”

The Avesta are the sacred writings of Zoroastrianism and the Yasna is part of its liturgy: “The Yasna, which consists of 72 chapters of text, can only be performed in the morning, when the sun is rising, since this is said to represent the fire of asha scattering light and heat over creation, dispelling the darkness of the Ahrimanic forces and instilling truth and righteousness over the world. It is an ‘inner’ ceremony, which only Zoroastrians may attend, and is only celebrated in the Iranian and Indian fire temples by suitably qualified and ritually purified priests.” Quoted from: Zoroastrianism: An Introduction to Ancient Faith by Peter Clark, p. 99.

Zoroaster even made it into the Vatican – One of the greatest paintings ever created is The School of Athens by Raphael. Over on the right holding an orb is Zoroaster with his bearded face showing. Below is the full painting taken from an image I found at commons.wikimedia. To the right of that is a detail of the man himself. And below that is an image of the Holy Ghost from Bernini’s window also in the Vatican. The glory of the light harkens to the message being delivered to the Virgin Mary.

Raphael_School_of_Athens_commons_7b   Raphael_School_of_Athens_Zoroaster_detail_commons_7


The Celestial Light and the bird – In a 1911 book that tried to trace the ancient sources for the Qur’ân it states that in one creation myth the first man was Yima, “the Brilliant”. “On Yima’s brow shone the Kavaem Hvareno or ‘Royal Brightness,’ an emanation from the Divine glory, until through sin he lost it.” The Avesta states that “…when he conceived in mind that false and worthless word, the visible brightness departed from him in the form of a bird…” A bird? “A fluttering bird.” Divine brightness? “Mithra took that brightness…” and Mithra had a cult in early Rome. Could this be a source for the Holy Ghost?

Yima and his progeny lost the ‘Royal Brightness’ more than once. Obviously the only way to keep the hvarenō was to remain pure in thought and deed – at least in the cause of what served the ruler’s subjects. Others he could kill or maim or whatever.

Carl Jung, in his Psychology of the Unconscious wrote in a footnote:

Not only was the light- or fire-substance ascribed to the divinity but also to the soul; as for example in the system of Mâni as well as
among the 
Greeks, where it was characterized as a fiery breath of air. The Holy Ghost of the New Testament appears in the form of flames
the heads of the Apostles, because the  πνεῦμα was understood to mean “fiery”…  Very similar is the Iranian conception of Hvarenô,
which is meant the “Grace of the Heaven” through which a monarch rules. By “Grace” is understood a sort of fire or shining glory
something very substantial… We come across conceptions allied in character in Kerner’s “Seherin von Prevorst and in the case published by me,
” Psychologie und Pathologie sogenannter occulter Phänomene.” Here not only the souls consist of a spiritual light-substance, but the entire world
is constructed of the white-black system of the Manichæans – and this by a fifteen-year-old girl!

At Ṭāq-e Bostān in western Iran are rock carvings from the Sāsānid period (3rd to 7th centuries A.D.) where a radiant Mithra is shown standing next to Ahuramazda. The first mention of the Vedic ‘Mitra’, the Sanskrit name, dates back to 1400 B.C. When he acquired the rays is to be determined later. The image below was posted at commons.wikimedia by Philippe Chavin.


In Persian iconography, it is usually represented in the form of a halo that surrounds the bust of the ruler. This khwarrah or “glory” is god-given and is possessed only by the rightful ruler.” Quoted from: The Oxford Handbook of Iranian History edited by Touraj Daryaee, p. 200.

Where the Arabs got the halo – not the Persians, but the Arabs according to Anna Contadini: “The halo in Arab painting seems to derive ultimately from a secular Roman tradition, where the emperor had a halo, but more immediately from Byzantine art, where it had passed into religious iconography to mark Christ and saints. However, the way that we see it used in Islamic paintings is devoid of any religious connexion, and its distribution is variable: in some manuscripts all human figures have a halo, in others some, in yet others none.”

Gabriel Joseph Blochet (1870-1937) in his De l’influence de la religion mazdéenne sur les croyances des peuples turcs from 1898 may have been the first person to claim that the halo originated in ancient Iran.

From northern Pakistan – From Gandhara comes one of the finest and possibly the earliest example of Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha. Donated to the Met in 2003 it is made of bronze with traces of gold leaf and stands only 6 5/8″ high. Dating from the middle of the 1st century to the mid-2nd the features look more Roman than Asian and “…his unusual halo has serrations that indicate radiating light.” In my book, this is one of the world’s great masterpieces. Notice how similar this spiked aura is to the one seen on the lantern slide of Zoroaster shown above.

And China – The head shown below is from the collection of the British Museum and dates from the Song Dynasty 960-1279. It is in no way meant to represent the earliest example to be found in China, but it struck me as so astoundingly beautiful that I couldn’t leave it out. Beyond that there are two other fascinating aspects: 1) the iconography show 5 seated Buddhas in the halo and 2) it is not made of stone, but is cast out of iron. It stands about 21 17/64″.

    © Trustees of the British Museum

I have no idea how to categorize this one – There is a fascinating woven piece of tapestry in the Cleveland Museum of Art. It dates from the 4th to 5th century, comes from Egypt, but is classed as Byzantine. Unlike any of the other images I have posted it shows a nereid, a sea nymph, bare breasted, naked beauty, adorned with jewelry, holding up a glass cup as if toasting something and accompanied by a golden/yellow halo. Naked with a halo! Imagine.

   Cleveland Museum of Art

A Christian take on an Old Testament theme – In 1902 a cache of silver plates based on the David story in the First Book of Samuel was found in Cyprus. Several of these ended up in the collection of the Met in New York, a gift of J. Pierpont Morgan. Each plate was made from a single ingot of pure silver, the heaviest in Nicosia weighing 12 pounds, 10 ounces. They date from approximately 629-30 A.D. and may have been commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius who reigned from 610-41. “Indeed, this set may have been commissioned to celebrate Heraclius’ victory over the Sassanian Empire in 628-29, when his empire retook Byzantine territories including Jerusalem (the ancient city founded by King David)… During the war with the Sassanians, it is said that Heraclius fought the enemy general Razatis in single combat and beheaded him, an event that echoes David’s defeat of Goliath and undoubtedly reinforced emperor Heraclius’s claim to be a new David.” The image below shows David being presented to Saul.


As for the Christians

The Alpha and Omega – In the 4th century catacombs of Commodilla in Rome there is a head of Jesus with a halo. On both sides of that aura are the Greek letters alpha and omega because the Christ figures is meant to represent both the beginning and the end. The image shown below is from commons.wikimedia.


In a footnote in Early Christian Art and Architecture by Robert Milburn it says: “The halo, or nimbus, is derived from the ‘misty radiance’, or crown of rays, sometimes shown as a circular  plate of metal, which, in Hellenistic as in Roman art, bedecked the heads of gods and heroes. At first no more than a symbol of honour and dignity it comes to represent the effulgence of supernatural brightness.”

Below is a Christian image from ca. 1100 which knocks my socks off. It is considered one of the finest examples of its kind of Byzantine art.

The phoenix as a symbol of the Resurrection – In the Louvre these is a mosaic from the ancient town of Daphne, a suburb of Antioch. It shows a long-legged bird standing on a mount, surrounded by a field of flowers. “The phoenix, for instance, was held to ‘live for five hundred years and then to make its sepulchre of frankincense and myrrh and die whilst from the ashes of its body sprang a worm which, nourished by the corrupt remains of the dead bird, puts forth wings and flies off to Heliopolis, city of the Sun, in Egypt. Naturally enough, this suggested the Resurrection, particularly with the support of a verse from Psalm 92  — ‘the righteous shall flourish like a palm tree’ – which could in the Greek version be construed ‘the righteous shall flourish like a phoenix’. Literally use of the phoenix story was made in the Christian interest as early as the beginning of the second century and thus the phoenix came to be adopted in Church art as an emblem of peculiar significance and power. The noble pavement from Daphne, near Antioch, now in the Louvre, shows a phoenix, like a long-legged crane, standing alone in the glory of a five-rayed halo within a field studded by flower-buds…” This is quoted from Milburn’s Early Christian Art and Architecture. I found the image at Flickr posted by Antiquité Tardive.


The eagle and the halo – There is a page from the Beatus of Liébana Manuscript, Spanish, ca. 1180, in the Met at the Cloisters. It shows the 4th angel blasting his trumpet “…as the sun, moon, and stars darken; and an eagle who cries woe to the inhabitants of the earth.” The text of the King James Versions says:

 [12]And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon,
and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not
for a third part of it, and the night likewise.
[13] And I beheld, and heard an angel flying through the midst of heaven, saying with a loud voice, Woe, woe, woe,
to the inhabiters of the earth by reason of the other voices of the trumpet of the three angels, which are yet to sound!


The eagle as a stand-in for John the Evangelist – Below is an ivory plaque in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, but I found this image at commons.wikimedia posted by Johnbod. I liked it better than the official photo at the museum’s web site. The V & A say that it is Italian and dates from ca. 800.


Just for good measure and because I think it is so beautiful I am including a mosaic from Mont St. Odile in France. It may date from the early 12th century, but I don’t know for sure. It was posted at commons.wikimedia by Mattana. Notice not only the halo, but also the stars.


The lamb as a stand-in for Jesus – Below is an Italian brooch from ca. 1860 showing a haloed Lamb of God. It is almost as beautiful in its own way as the Byzantine cross of Jesus which started off this section.

   © Trustees of the British Museum

The Legend of Abgar – This was a popular myth spread during the Middle Ages. Abgar, the ruler of Edessa, was afflicted with an incurable disease. He had heard of the miracles of Jesus so he wrote to him asking him to come and do his magic. Jesus declined, but sent one of his 72 disciples, Thaddeus. “As soon as he entered, a mysterious halo about the apostle’s face was visible to Abgar alone, and the king, to the astonishment of all who stood by, bowed down before Thaddeus. The healing of Abgar, and of Abdu ben Abdu, a martyr to the gout, followed as a matter of course, as well as the preaching of Christianity by Thaddeus.”

The Mandylion – In another version of the Abgar story the king had sent his messenger Ananias, a painter, to deliver the letter to Jesus. Ananias was to have made an image of Jesus, but was so dazzled by his countenance that he was unable to perform this task. “Whereupon our Lord, having washed His face, dried it upon a linen cloth, on which was miraculously impressed the image of His features.” This was promptly taken back to Abgar who hung it over the city gate where formerly had hung an image of a Greek god. This was the Mandylion. Below is an image of this phenomenon – with halo – which I found at commons.wikimedia.


If this looks familiar to you, it should! It is almost exactly like the Veil of Veronica, also known as the Sudarium. Veronica, a bystander, took pity on Jesus as he was dragging the crucifix up to Calvary. She wiped his haggard face with her veil and miraculously his image appeared on the cloth. One of the most remarkable prints of all time was created by the little-known Claude Mellan. It shows the head of Christ wearing the crown of thorns on this cloth. Even though it is an intaglio printing, black ink on whitish paper, the thing that makes it so remarkable is the technique. It is basically drawn from a single line that starts in the center of the tip of the nose. It seems to be just as miraculous as that of the original myth.

MMA_Mellan_Sudarium_7b   MMA_Mellan_Sudarium_7_spiral_detail2

Christianity in Russia – Since I have gotten a second wind, I thought I would add a few more images I find particularly striking. Below is an icon made in Moscow in ca. 1838 showing The Mother of God of the Sign (‘Znamenie’).

   © Trustees of the British Museum

The English halo – Below is a striking piece of Jasper ware made by Wedgwood and Bentley between ca. 1774-1780. A curator’ at the British Museum noted that this medallion was both “…unusual and rare…” and was probably made for export to a foreign market – probably Mexico. Also, to give you a sense of scale, it is 3″ high. And don’t neglect noting the cruciform design of the next two halos.

    © Trustees of the British Museum

As I am sure you know, the Wedgwood-Bentley piece shown above has its precedents. One of the best I have found is from the Cleveland Museum of Art. It is a bust of Christ from the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio.

   Cleveland Museum of Art

I hope you will agree that this bust is exceptionally beautiful. Anyone who could produce such a piece was clearer a master of his skills. In fact there is a famous story about Verrocchio and one of his young students. Even though it probably isn’t true it is still worthy of being retold here. Vasari wrote:

Having been placed then in his boyhood, as I have said, at the instance of Ser Piero,
to learn art with Andrea del Verrocchio, who was making a picture on panel of St. John
baptizing Christ, Leonardo painted an angel who was holding some garments; and
although he was but a lad, Leonardo executed it in such a way that it was much better
than the figures of Andrea ; which was the reason that Andrea would never again touch
colour, disdaining that a child should know more than he.

Below is the head of the angel which was supposedly painted by the youthful Leonardo and which caused his master to put down his paint brushes forever. Notice the halo. How could you miss it? I found this image at commons.wikimedia.

A celestial halo of stars – Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770), one of the greatest artists of the 18th century, painted an Immaculate Conception which is now in the collection of the Prado. Above the Virgin he gave her a halo of stars. Above that is the Holy Spirit, the Dove, which carries the word of God. This painting was finished shortly before he died.

Prado_Tiepolo_Immaculate_Conception_7b   The Prado

Two centuries earlier another Venetian artist, Tintoretto (1518-94), was painting figures with halos made of stars. Below is his Bacchus and Ariadne. I found it at commons.wikimedia.


An Islamic take on a Christian theme – There is an Indian miniature in the British Museum showing a young, haloed Jesus kneeling in front of a haloed Virgin with lots of angels and several human observers about. “Jesus is identified by his halo and sceptre…” This piece gives a fascinating glimpse into how some Muslims conceived of this Holy pair.

BM_Islamic_miniature_Mary_Jesus_18th_c._Uttar_Pradesh_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

The iconoclasts and the halo – Iconoclasts hate halos and the statues/images that wear them. That is why so much great – and not so great – art was destroyed by these religious zealots during the Reformation. Of course it wasn’t the first time the idols were smashed. One Jewish tradition says that Abraham’s father was an idol maker and that Abraham destroyed them. In March 2001, nine months before the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Taliban destroyed the gigantic, 7th century Buddhist statues of Bamiyan. It has happened before and it will happen again. Below is a 1660 painting by Pieter Jansz. Saenredam  of the interior of Saint Bavo’s Church, Haarlem after the Protestants stripped it of its paintings, statuary, stained glass windows and halos. St. Bavo’s started life as a 13th century Catholic church. You can bet it was filled with colorful images until the reformers got their hands on it. See what it looked like in the middle of the 17th century. (I found this image at commons.wikimedia.)



Elsewhere – In the introduction to the The Myth of Quetzalcoatl by Enrique Florescano it says: “Years ago, when Joseph Campbell set out to document the different manifestations of the cultural hero, he discovered that there were a thousand of them…. One of his qualities is to be reborn during each period of history, but with a different face each time around. He always retains the halo of the ancestral aura but also possesses new meanings and a psychic charge that intermingles present yearnings with reverberations from the past.” While looking at the image posted below – it comes from a photo shown at commons.wikimedia – remember that Quetzalcoatl is also known as the Feathered Serpent. Are those feathers? Or are they his aura, his halo? Even his name is a combination of the native words for ‘precious green feather’ plus ‘serpent’.


A few odds and ends – In Zoroastrian Theology: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day it says: “An evil magnetic aura, or malign halo, believed to radiate from a woman during the time of menses, hence her isolation most essential. The orthodox had zealously maintained that woman during her periods carried with her spiritual contagion wherever she went. The theosophists came to the staunch followers of the ancient texts to show that this does happen. They say that the scriptures speak in express terms  of the Kingly and Aryan Glory, which scholars in general take  to mean the symbolic aggregate of the royal and national greatness of Iran. This glory, it is claimed, in the case of an individual, is his aura, and every human being is surrounded by it.  Any one who has developed his inherent clairvoyant powers can  see other people’s auras, and from their white or black hue, grey  or yellow colour, can discern where the individual stands in the  realm of spiritual progress. Every individual’s aura influences  those of all others with whom he comes in contact, and is in turn  affected through theirs. The aura of a woman in her menses,  according to such a view, is spiritually diseased, and a person  gifted with clairvoyant vision can detect evil intelligences clustered about her, equally ready to pounce upon those near her and  cause havoc to their spiritual growth. It was for this reason  that the elders had wisely legislated absolute quiet for isolating  woman during her menses, and it is the pious duty of every  faithful believer to observe the rules most scrupulously.”

In The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer refers to this as “…a woman in her courses…”, a phrase I had never heard before.

Thomas Walker Arnold, a prominent, early Orientalist who died in 1930 said in his book Painting in Islam… that he believed the flame-halo of the more modern Persians, as opposed to the ancient ones, was borrowed from the “…Chinese and Central Asian statues of Buddha.” I don’t think I agree.

A radiant beauty – We often use such terms as this. Or, “She has a glow about her.

The imperial gesture – In The Carolingians in Central Europe, Their History, Arts, and Architecture: Cultural History of Central Europe, 750-900 by Herbert Schultz on page 233 it says: “In Roman imperial iconography, the halo and the gesture with pointing index and middle fingers were reserved for the divine emperor. Both were adopted by Christians to portray in mosaics the majesty of Christ. Pose and gesture represent imperial dignity.”

Did you ever hear about Salman Rushdie? – Back on February 14, 1989 – Valentine’s Day? – the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa directed at Rushdie, the author of The Satanic Verses. Khomeini said: “I inform the proud Muslim people of the world that the author of the Satanic Verses book, which is against Islam, the Prophet and the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who are aware of its content are sentenced to death.” That was BIG news back then. Rushdie went into hiding – for years -, copies of the book were burned by religious zealots and it was banned in quite a few countries. But that is not my point.One of the main characters in this novel ‘develops’ a halo, or so it seems.

Hallucinogenic mushrooms – There is a fellow who believes such things as halos and miracles, etc., can be explained by the consumption of hallucinogens. I don’t buy it, but then again I don’t buy much of anything. Just saying…

Harry Houdini in his Miracle Mongers and Their Methods… from 1920 describes one conjurer, Dufour, a late 18th century fire-eater, who “…gave his best performances in the evening, as he could then show his hocus-pocus to best advantage. At these times he appeared with a halo of fire about his head.”

How St. Eligius lost his halo – In the Metropolitan Museum of Art there is a magnificent painting from the 15th century by Petrus Christus of Eligius, the sainted goldsmith  in his shop.  Often this saint is portrayed with a halo and that is how this painting was known for years. However, at some point this masterpiece was sent to conservation where it was discovered that the  saint’s halo was a later addition. So, it was removed and that is how it is displayed today.


Æsculapius – the ancient Greek god of medicine. “According to some, he was exposed by his mother, suckled by a goat, found by shepherds, and his divine nature recognised by a glittering halo round his head…” All of the myths say he is the son of Apollo, but the mother changes according to the version. And, of course, it makes sense that Æsculapius (アスクレピオス) would have a glow around his head because he did inherit the halo-producing genes that his father carried. How do I know? Because a lot of artists have portrayed Apollo as being absolutely radiant. Take, for example, the Tiepolo painting of Apollo pursuing Daphne from the Kress Foundation collection. It is now a part of the National Gallery in D.C. and it is ours to enjoy.

NGA_D.C._Tiepolo_Apollo_Daphne_7b   National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Now I get it. It’s φοῖβος! – It’s phoebus! Apollo (Ἀπόλλων) is sometimes referred to as Phoebus Apollo, the god of light and health and probably a bunch of other things. In time he came to be totally confused with Helios. Phoebus Apollo warms the fields and hence serves farmers and shepherds. He glows and brings health to us all. That explains the light. [I think I knew this at some point in my past, but had forgotten. Ask me to do a math problem. I have forgotten that too. And… and… and so much more. It’s astounding.]

φοῖβος can be translated as pure, bright or radiant. There is a line from the Satyricon by Petronius  written in the 1st c. A.D.: “Even Phoebus glowed with orb brighter than his wont, and set a burning halo of gold about his face.” For those who give a damn – the Latin: Ipse nitor Phoebi vulgato laetior orbe crevit et aurato praecinxit fulgure vultus.

There is a print by Jacopo de’ Barbari of Apollo and Daphne from ca. 1504-05 which brings home the concept that Apollo was truly radiant.

BM_Jacopo_de_Barbari_ca_1504_radiant_Apollo_7b   © Trustees of the British Museum

My best friend, whose birthday is tomorrow – Happy Birthday Chris! – said after reading this post “Why didn’t you mention crowns, diadems and wreaths?” or something like that. I told him that it had occurred to me, but I just hadn’t gotten to it yet. So now I will. Below is an ancient Greek coin with a Phoenician inscription created sometime after 409 B.C.. As you can see an angel-like creature is flying toward a charioteer driving his horses forward at full speed. The ‘angel’ is about to crown this champion with a halo-esque wreath.


As for a tiara, I was thinking diamonds when I found this unbelievable one made out of coral. It was produced by Phillips Brothers in London sometime around 1860-70. It is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum. I decided to use it because 1) it reminded me of the fiery nimbus found in so many early and exotic images and 2) coral is a rich subject worthy of a post in its own right – someday.

VAM_coral_tiara_Phillips_Brothers_1860_to_1870_7   ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London


For those of you who would like to see more information about Japanese art and culture please visit my other web site at

For a ton more information – scattered and diverse – visit my index/glossary pages. You will find links to numerous individual pages about half way down the home page. Just click on any of them and then brace yourself. Enjoy the ride! Thanks!

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