NIMBUS . The nimbus, or halo, usually pictured as a luminous figure around the head of a god or holy person, is clearly related in some instances to the sun and solar divinities. Among the native civilizations of Central America, agrarian gods are often pictured with golden crowns or nimbuses. The Inca deity Viracocha wears a tiara that is also the sun. Combining the natures of a sun god and a storm god, Viracocha participates in the character of the highest universal beings, such as Yahveh/El, Zeus, and the Buddha, who in some representations both wields a thunderbolt and wears a nimbus. The nimbus can also be traced, however, to the idea of an external expression of an internal supernatural force, and hence partakes of the full range of light symbolism from both Western and Eastern traditions; in particular, its light signifies intellect or mystical knowledge.
The Iranians pictured what the Avesta terms the khvarenah as a sort of supernatural fire, a nimbus, or an aureole, which is like the nimbus but encircles the whole person. It belonged primarily to the gods but could be given to royalty by the grace of the chief divinity, Ahura Mazdā. In Vajrayāna Buddhism in Tibet, the Vidyārajas represent the wrathful side of the absolute wisdom of Vairocana as the bodhisattvas represent the calm side. Encircling the supreme being, they wear aureoles of blazing flames and direct them against the darkness of avidyā (ignorance), which prevents aspirants from gaining emancipation.
More commonly, the nimbus expresses holiness or sacred character rather than action: two early texts of Mahāyāna Buddhism describe the bodhisattva as having a halo studded with five hundred Buddhas, each of which is, in turn, attended by numberless gods. As a way of picturing the wholly transcendent nature of the Buddha, some portraits show his head and halo as a wheel.
In Greece and Rome, the nimbus was often shown around the heads of gods and those in special relationships with them. It acquired fine distinctions in Christian art: the rectangular nimbus, for example, belonged to someone still living at the time the picture was made, whereas a nimbus with three rays or groups of rays was one of several forms that could be given only to the members of the Trinity, usually to the Son.
Between the sixth and twelfth centuries ce, the nimbus was depicted as luminous and transparent. Later representations were more stylized. Sometimes it was opaque, and between 1300 and 1500 the name or initials of a saint were often decoratively inscribed on the nimbus itself. During this same period, the nimbus sometimes appeared around animals when they symbolized divinities or holy persons. In depictions of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, the aureole was sometimes used.
Another, possibly related, version of the aureole occurs in Islamic representations of a person inside a pearl: here the pearl represents Paradise, where those who are blessed go after death.
The nimbus as a Christian symbol has been described in detail in many books on Christian symbolism in art. Typical of these is George W. Ferguson's Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (Oxford, 1954). Most of the time these discussions are general and have little or no explanation of deeper meanings. The Mahāyāna texts in which the nimbus of the bodhisattva is described are the Amitāyurdhyāna Sūtra and the Vajracchedika Sūtra.
Hagstrom, Aurelie A. "The Symbol of the Mandorla in Christian Art: Recovery of a Feminine Archetype." Arts 10 (1998): 25–29.
Elaine Magalis (1987)
nimbus (in art)
nimbus (nĬm´bəs), in art, the luminous disk or circle or other indication of light around the head of a sacred personage. It was used in Buddhist and other Asian art and by the early Greeks and Romans to designate gods and heroes and appeared in Christian art in the 5th cent. Although usually a circle or disk, the nimbus has various forms—triangular for God the Father; a circle with a cross for Jesus; a square for a living person; a disk or circle for a saint, with sometimes a band of small stars for the Virgin Mary. In stained glass Jesus and the Virgin were often represented surrounded by an ovoid light called a vesica piscis [Lat.,=fish bladder] (see iconography). The square form was symbolic of the material world; the circle symbolized spiritual perfection and eternal blessedness; and the triangle represented eternity and the Trinity. The nimbus is usually of gold and may have a clearly defined outline or the light may be diffused, radiating from the head in lines that melt into the picture. The term aureole may denote a crown or radiance around the head or it may be an oval used as a background for the whole body. When nimbus and aureole are combined for one figure, the illumination is called a glory. An almond-shaped glory is a mandorla. Halo is a nontechnical term to denote either a disk behind the head or a circle surrounding it.
nim·bus / ˈnimbəs/ • n. (pl. -bi / -ˌbī/ or -bus·es ) 1. a luminous cloud or a halo surrounding a supernatural being or a saint. ∎ a light, aura, color, etc., that surrounds someone or something. 2. a large gray rain cloud: [as adj.] nimbus clouds. ORIGIN: early 17th cent.: from Latin, literally ‘cloud, aureole.’
nimbus (in meteorology)
nimbus, in meteorology, low, dark, formless cloud covering the entire sky, from which rain or snow is steadily falling. The term is usually applied to any cloud from which rain descends. Modifications are cumulonimbus, fractonimbus (ragged, broken nimbus), and nimbostratus.