The Halo, Universal symbol of the Divine

The halo, also known as nimbus, aureole or gloriole, is a ring of light around the head, certain parts of the body, or the entire body, to indicate that a being is sacred.

This symbol is recognized in artistic expressions of the world’s main religions. The origin of the symbol is lies in the association of light with the divine, as many belief systems of various cultures and ethnicity accept light, -the sun, moon, stars and fire-, as sacred.

The halo probably originated in Asia. It is believed the halo was seen for the first time in the sculptures of the Gandhara school of art as haloes of different kinds adorned the head of the Gautama Buddha. It is popularly depicted as a circular disk, the sacred circle.  This image migrated across cultures, aided by adoption/adaptation by traders on the silk road, connecting Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Islam.

The disc halo is one of the earliest examples we have seen in religious art of ancient Iran (300sBC)   In Zoroastrianism in Persian art, we learn of Ahura Mazda (570 BC) the god of light, depicted with a disc halo.  From ancient Persia  the symbol spread to the east, to Buddhism (563-483 BC) on to the west to Christianity.

In Asian art, the halo is often imagined as consisting not just of light, but also of flames. In Hindu iconography we have Nataraja, a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as the divine cosmic dancer, represented by the arch of flames. Sometimes a thin line of flames rises up from the edges of a circular halo in Buddhist iconography. In the 4th century, the halo was incorporated into early Christian art with the earliest icon images of Christ. Here we see a cruciform halo, a halo with a cross within.

Halos are found in Islamic art from various places and periods, especially in Persian and Mughal miniatures as we can see from early 17th century paintings of which emperor Jahangir is depicted  with a prabhamandala (head halo) of unprecedented size. Also emperor Shah Jahan is seen on a miniature with a halo around his head where he rides to the wedding celebration of his favorite son Dara Shiko. An other miniature painting shows emperor Shah Jahan with a halo standing on a globe It is believed the Mughals took the motif from European religious art, though the halo also expresses the Persian idea of the God-given charisma of kingship, which as a concept is even older.

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