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Aureole (Nimbus)


Latin, aureolus (of gold, golden), one of a number of symbols or devices used in pagan and Christian art and archeology to suggest or represent divinity, holiness, or eminence in the person portrayed. Closely related are the halo, mandorla, and glory. Such symbols antedate the Christian era; in Greek and Roman art the heads of gods, heroes, and distinguished citizens were often portrayed with a circle of light or a rayed fillet about the head.

In Christian art the aureole is the symbol of divinity and has therefore been reserved for representing the Holy Trinity and Christ. It has been extended only to representations of the Virgin Mary. The aureole consists essentially in a radiant field of light that appears to surround the whole body of the person represented and to emerge from it. The rays of light may be attached directly to the body, or they may be separated from it. If the rays are not attached directly to the body, they give the impression of emerging from a central point, such as the head. The rays of light depicted in the aureole terminate in pointed flames, which may be white in color, or may be tinted with the colors of the rainbow. Early examples of the aureole are usually white, but in Renaissance art gold and blue are often used.

The Italian name for the aureole is mandorla, since the symbol was often enclosed in an almond-shaped framework. In some instances, instead of a framework, seven doves are used to frame the mandorla, denoting the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Other examples show a group of angels as a framework, although this form is less frequent. The mandorla is often used to depict certain mysteries of the life of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, such as the Last Judgment or the Assumption into heaven.

The distinction between an aureole and a halo is somewhat vague, but the word "halo" refers most often to the symbol of divinity or holiness, which is placed about the head of the one represented, and which is enclosed in a geometrical figure. The shape and the form of the halo differ according to the degree of divinity, holiness, or eminence of the person depicted. The type of geometrical figure used to enclose the halo suggests also the degree of eminence in the person for whom it is used. The triangle, for example, is used exclusively for representations of the Holy Trinity, and particularly for the Father, the three sides of the triangle suggesting the Trinity. The halo used to portray Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the saints is circular. The cross within the circle is used only for Christ, and suggests the redemption through the cross. To indicate her eminence among the saints, the halo of the Virgin is elaborately decorated, while those of the saints are less ornate.

The square halo is used to distinguish eminent persons from canonized saints, and often for persons who may still be living. Thus for example, a square halo may be used to depict a living person such as the founder of a religious order, or of a great monastery, or a great benefactor. Since the square is thought to be a less perfect geometrical figure than the circle, it suggests Earth, while the circle suggests heaven. Polygons are also used, the hexagon being preferred; the sides of the polygon suggest the virtues or have some other allegorical meaning. The glory is merely a luminous glow that combines the halo surrounding the head and the aureole surrounding the whole body. This combination is used to suggest the most exalted state of being, and therefore it is reserved for God as the lord of heaven, or for Christ as the judge of mankind, or for some other function associated closely with divinity.

See Also: halo.

Bibliography: j. h. emminghaus, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 195765) 7:100405, with bibliog. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq, and h. i. marrou, 15 v. (Paris 190753) 12.1:12721312, with list of illus. k. keyssner, Paulys Realenzyklopädie der klassischen Altertumswissenschaft, ed. g. wissowa et al. (Stuttgart 1893) 17.1 (1936) 591624. m. collinet-guÉrin, Histoire du nimbe (Paris 1961). l. rÉau, Iconographie de l'art chrétien, 6 v. (Paris 195559) 1:423425. k. kÜnstle, Ikonographie der christlichen Kunst, 2 v. (Freiburg 192628) 1:2529.

[e. e. malone]

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