The popular mental picture of an angel that most people have in modern American society
almost invariably includes a circle of some sort floating just above the head of
that angel—whether the angel looks like a pretty lady, a “cherubic” baby, or even
an angelic duck. Usually the circle is a metallic golden ring, but in recent years,
popular alternatives, especially for angel costumes, are circlets of tinsel or marabou
feathers (connected by a thin wire to a headband to hold it on the head of the pseudo-angel.)
Did this concept of the floating halo being part of the “outfit” of an angel come
from the Bible? If not, how and when did it become so pervasive in society?
The Bible says nothing about floating circles over the heads of any being. And thus
we have to look elsewhere for the origin of this symbolism. That search takes us
back to ancient pre-Christian art, and a pictorial symbol known as the nimbus.
Nimbus: Latin, rainstorm, cloud; probably akin to Latin nebula cloud
1 a: a luminous vapor, cloud, or atmosphere about a god or goddess when on earth
b: a cloud or atmosphere (as of romance) about a person or thing 2: an indication
(as a circle) of radiant light or glory about the head of a drawn or sculptured divinity,
saint, or sovereign
In the plastic arts (painting and sculpture) the symbolism of the nimbus was early
in use among the pagans who determined its form. In the monuments of Hellenic and
Roman art, the heads of the gods, heroes, and other distinguished persons are often
found with a disc-shaped halo, a circle of light, or a rayed-fillet. They are, therefore,
associated especially with gods and creatures of light such as the Phoenix.
The disc of light is likewise used in the Pompeian wall paintings to typify gods
and demigods only, but later, in profane art it was extended to cherubs or even simple
personifications, and is simply a reminder that the figures so depicted are not human.
In the miniatures of the oldest Virgil manuscript all the great personages wear a
nimbus. The custom of the Egyptian and Syrian kings of having themselves represented
with a rayed crown to indicate the status of demigods, spread throughout the East
and the West.
In Rome the halo was first used only for deceased emperors as a sign of celestial
bliss, but afterwards living rulers also were given the rayed crown, and after the
third century, although not first by Constantine, the simple rayed nimbus.
Under Constantine the rayed crown appears only in exceptional cases on the coin,
and was first adopted emblematically by Julian the Apostate. Henceforth the nimbus
appears without rays, as the emperors now wished themselves considered worthy of
great honour, but no longer as divine beings.
In early Christian art, the rayed nimbus as well as the rayless disc were adopted
in accordance with tradition. The sun and the Phoenix received, as in pagan art,
a wreath or a rayed crown, also the simple halo. The latter was reserved not only
for emperors but for men of genius and personifications of all kinds, although both
in ecclesiastical and profane art, this emblem was usually omitted in ideal figures.
In other cases the influence of ancient art tradition must not be denied.
…The nimbus of early Christian art manifests only in a few particular drawings, its
relationship with that of late antiquity. In the first half of the fourth century,
Christ received a nimbus only when portrayed seated upon a throne or in an exalted
and princely character, but it had already been used since Constantine, in pictures
of the emperors, and was emblematic, not so much of divine as of human dignity and
In other scenes however, Christ at that time was represented without this emblem.
The "exaltation" of Christ as indicated by the nimbus, refers to His dignity as a
teacher and king rather than to His Godhead.
Before long the nimbus became a fixed symbol of Christ and later (in the fourth century),
of an angel or a lamb when used as the type of Christ. The number of personages who
were given a halo increased rapidly, until towards the end of the sixth century the
use of symbols in the Christian Church became as general as it had formerly been
in pagan art.
Thus the nimbus was not really used by artists as a depiction of an actual glow that
the artist believed would have necessarily have been visible “in person” to the human
eye out in the real world. It was part of the history of iconography.
Iconography: …the traditional or conventional images or symbols associated with a
subject and especially a religious or legendary subject …the imagery or symbolism
of a work of art, an artist, or a body of art
In other words, you might say that iconography is the use of standardized symbolic
elements of pictures to impart information. When looking at a painting, the nimbus
around some heads would be a clue to you that the individual was someone significant.
The particular significance would depend on the culture and the period of the painting.
The iconographic symbol of the nimbus eventually became interchangeable with the
Halo: Latin halos, from Greek halOs threshing floor, disk, halo
1: a circle of light appearing to surround the sun or moon and resulting from refraction
or reflection of light by ice particles in the atmosphere
2: something resembling a halo: as a: nimbus b: a region of space surrounding
a galaxy that is sparsely populated with luminous objects (as globular clusters)
but is believed to contain a great deal of dark matter c: a differentiated zone
surrounding a central zone or object
3:the aura of glory, veneration, or sentiment surrounding an idealized person or
By the time the Italian artist Giotto painted this scene in 1305, the use of the
nimbus or halo around the heads of personages in Christian art work had indeed greatly
increased. Here there are haloes around the heads of Jesus, His mother, Mary, other
women and men disciples, and the angels in the sky.
But these haloes are not hovering above the heads of all of these figures. In fact,
they appear almost as if they are circular golden plates placed behind each head.
How did the halo get from this to the hovering little golden tube common today?
The first step to this change may have been when some artists began to realize how
incongruous paintings of the backs of people who had a nimbus looked! In this painting
of the Last Supper, also by Giotto around the same time, the apostles who have their
backs to the viewer almost look like their noses are pressed into big golden dinner
plates, rather than that their heads are surrounded by a glow. (The figure in yellow
without a halo is Judas.)
In addition, early medieval paintings had very little “perspective” in the scenes.
A flat plate behind the head of someone didn’t look too out of place, as everything
in the picture was basically flattened also. But by the 1400s, artists were perfecting
techniques that made scenes much more three dimensional and lifelike. This left the
traditional nimbus around heads giving an even stronger sense of a flat plate in
the picture, an element decidedly even more out of place.
This painting (artist not identified) represents an early attempt to solve this problem.
The painter literally approached the nimbus as if it were a circular plate, and tipped
it on its side, foreshortening it to give the illusion of depth, and moving it to
a spot above the head of the figure.
And here is an elaborate use of this “floating disk” effect, by Mossacio in 1424.
Another solution, arrived at by Raphael in this 1500 AD painting was to leave the
nimbus behind the head, but remove all but the rim of it, leaving a hollow circle
through which the background of the scene could be seen, maintaining the illusion
of depth in that way.
And by combining these two techniques, it is easy to see how some artists eventually
ended up with the circle floating above the head.
Eventually, some painters began dispensing with the halo altogether. The closer
one gets to modern times, and the more realistic the environment and figures in the
painting, the more common this approach became.
But the “great artworks” of Western Civilization from the thousand-year era from
the fifth century to the fifteenth century have been so influential that they have
dominated throughout history many of the subconscious assumptions of the average
man of what angels look like—at least until the rise of the “New Age Angel” fad that
now permeates American society.
Although it appears that the vast majority of artists in the 20th and 21st centuries
have abandoned the iconic device of the nimbus or halo when depicting angels and
other religious personages, it still thrives in particular in Eastern Orthodox and
Roman Catholic settings.
It is a Greek Orthodox tradition for artists to continue to create icons … pictorial
representations of Christ, angels, and saints … for inspirational and worship use.
The design and stylized features of such icons currently made by artists vary little
from those of a thousand years ago, and continue to use the nimbus.
And a significant proportion of modern Roman Catholic art, such as this work by Arizona
artist Enrique de la Vega, continues to include the nimbus, even though there is
not the same level of rigid custom dictating this as there is in Orthodox art.
No, biblical angels wouldn’t have a “halo” around their head if you could see them.