Greek ἅλως in Christian art a symbol of the moral excellence of the person whom it adorns. It is usually a circle of gold surrounding the head, though at times it is shaped as a triangle or square. Gold is ordinarily employed as most expressive of effulgence. When triangular, the halo designates the Holy Trinity or God the Father; when circular, a saint or (with cross superimposed) Our Lord; when square, a living person. This latter form is not now in common usage, though in ancient iconography it frequently was placed behind the head of the donor portrayed in a fresco or painting. The square was used because in symbolism it represents the earth and temporal things and is inferior to the circle, which expresses eternity and heaven. The triangular, or Trinitarian, halo is often composed of three broad rays of light issuing from the head. The halos of the Blessed Virgin are often elaborately decorated, whereas those of the saints are usually simple gold bands. The blessed, those beatified but not yet canonized, are depicted with a halo less explicit, formed by shafts of light radiating from behind the head.
See Also: aureole (nimbus).
Bibliography: h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, 15 v. (Paris 1907–53) 12.1:1272–1312. g. ferguson, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (New York 1959). w. lowrie, Arts in the Early Church (New York 1947), profusely illustrated.
[c. j. corcoran]
The halo is used in Hellenistic representations of gods and goddesses and those associated with them. Similarly, in Christianity, halos around the head of a figure mark it as divine or saintly. In the third and fourth centuries, the halo or nimbus (Latin: ‘cloud’ or ‘mist’) was used only for Christ and the lamb. In the fifth century and after, it was extended to the Virgin Mary, angels, and saints. By the eighth century, square halos were used to designate donors, bishops, and popes.
When used for human figures, the halo represents holiness or sanctity, and its iconography is developed to mark important distinctions between the figures represented. Square zones of light behind the head are used to show that the person was living at the time the painting was made. The square is inferior to the circle and is associated with the earth. Trinitarian figures often have three rays of light emanating from the head. The Virgin Mary always appears with a circular halo. A cross within the circle of light is used to signify Christ. Halos also appear around the heads of animals who symbolize a saintly or divine figure. A lamb with a circular halo within which the cross appears, for example, is a common figure for Christ.
Collinet-Guérin, M. (1961). Histoire du nimbus des origines au temps modernes. Nouvelles Editions Latines, Paris.
ha·lo / ˈhālō/ • n. (pl. -loes or -los) a disk or circle of light shown surrounding or above the head of a saint or holy person to represent their holiness. ∎ fig. the glory associated with an idealized person or thing: he has long since lost his halo for many ordinary Russians. ∎ a circle or ring of something resembling a halo: their frizzy haloes of hair. ∎ a circle of white or colored light around the sun, moon, or other luminous body caused by refraction through ice crystals in the atmosphere. ∎ Astron. a tenuous sphere of hot gas and old stars surrounding a spiral galaxy. • v. (-loes, -loed) [tr.] (usu. be haloed) surround with or as if with a halo. ORIGIN: mid 16th cent. (denoting a circle of light around the sun, etc.): from medieval Latin, from Latin halos, from Greek halōs ‘disk of the sun or moon.’
halo (in meteorology)
halo, in meteorology, short-lived circles or arcs, and less commonly spikes and crosses, of colored or whitish light surrounding the moon or sun or in clouds as seen from above. A halo occurs when the light from the sun or the moon is refracted and reflected by ice crystals in the atmosphere, usually in a thin layer of high cirrostratus clouds. Under certain circumstances a second, or outer, halo appears, which is fainter than the inner one. At times white or colored luminous arcs are also seen lying somewhat parallel to the horizon and passing through the source of light, called mock suns, parhelia, or sun dogs for the sun, and paraselenae for the moon. A single mock sun, the anthelion, directly opposite the sun, may be added. In general a white halo results from the reflection of light by ice crystals, while one which appears as colored rings results from the refraction of light by ice crystals. Halos are more brilliant and complex near the poles than in other parts of the world. The theory attributing their formation to the presence of ice crystals was first suggested by the 17th cent. French philosopher Descartes. Similar to a halo and sometimes confused with it is the sun's corona. In X-ray electron diffraction, the term halos refers to the broad rings that appear on a photographic film as a result of the diffraction of a monoenergetic beam of X rays or electrons from a crystalline powder located at the center of the camera.