Where Did You Get That Halo?

Nov 17th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

There is a general presumption that the religious art seen in churches of the Apostolic Tradition inevitably leads one to idolatry. There are times when I still am overwhelmed by the beauty of the religious art which adorns the sanctuaries and naves of Catholic and Orthodox churches. But if icons and the like are truly “windows into heaven”, it is not surprising that some amount of emotion and awe is invoked.

At times (as mentioned in a previous blog post), I hear a voice that is not still and is not small–it actually calls to me from real people who still advocate Protestantism. It asks me-isn’t worship of the art itself conjured up? Don’t you focus on the saint instead of the Lord?

Well, not if we embrace the fullness of their messages.

For this post I’d like to consider one element that really shows that the Tradition shows our proper place as people.

I’d like to consider the notion of halos, as their unique artistic features really jumped out at me at liturgy this past Sunday.

As the photo above demonstrates, my home parish is full of icons. I’ve often remarked that if someone were on their proverbial death bed, and a humble Bible pastor were to ask this poor soul of their Scriptural knowledge, that if they were to speak of the things they had learned from these images that they would outweigh most “scholars”. But I digress.

While looking at these icons during the homily, a simple motif that must be obvious to the seasoned parishioner (and it’s obvious enough to be on Wikipedia, so I can say this with some measure of authority) really jumped out at me.

Look more closely at an icon of the two most venerated human beings in Christianity. Look close, and you will hear a message that flies in the face of most accusations about what is said about Our Lord and His Blessed Mother.

On many occasions I have had it pointed out that the Virgin Mary is pointing to her Son, which shows that her greatness is inseparable from Christ. But as I looked at their halos, and the scores of others in our nave, I realized that only Christ’s halo has rays. This emanation is intentional-it signifies that Christ shines light to the world.

Let’s look at another icon for reinforcement. You can read more about this icon at the parish that is its namesake here.

Every other apostles, martyr, saint, or whomever, as glorious as their halo may be, lacks this quality of emanation. They have halos which may make the person gazing at them feel inferior to them, but what’s wrong with feeling inferior if one knows that there is room to grow in faith, hope and love?

What makes us great, what “earns” a halo is not a matter of earning at all. It’s a matter of receiving, at the most fundamental core. We are all reflective in nature, having received the divine life by grace. If we have a halo, it is by receiving the true light, the heavenly Spirit. If only we would spend the time to think about what religious art says, we might approach this subject with more clarity.

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  1. Dr. Deane,

    The first time I worshipped at my parish Church (as a life long Protestant seeking one united truth), I could not stop the tears through the entire Mass.

    The ancient faith is so hard to grasp by many of us ethnocentric Americans. Old is 200 years ago and ancient is some place after that. No one seems to grasp the notion that long before there were bound leather Bibles, or people who could read them, there were Christians who needed the story told to them in pictures and images.

    NOT to worship a “graven image”, but to call to mind the truth of Our Lord through words and beauty. I think it’s sad that many people who prescribe to their notion of “graven images and worship” don’t have the slightest clue what the Jewish temple looked like adored with beautiful tapestry and carvings.

    I have no thought of worshipping the image of Christ on the Cross in my parish. But on my knees, praying for forgiveness of sins or thankfulness for His love for me, to imagine myself at the foot of His cross is nothing I ever experienced anywhere in any other church.

    Thank you for sharing this. It’s been one of those days that has seen too much anti-Catholicism and ugliness in the world. I needed to see beauty.

    In the peace of Christ,

  2. Dr. Deane,
    Nice work here. I really enjoyed the observation of how Christ’s halo differs aesthetically in Sacred Art. It is so true that in order for anyone to grasp the significance of Sacred Images, they must “embrace the fullness of their messages”. I think I will have to refer to these points in a paper I am writing… that is, if you wouldn’t mind :)

  3. I would also point out that the “rays” in Christ’s halo form a cross.

  4. Very good point! The Halo of Christ is a powerful iconic representation that teaches the very heart and soul of the Faith. It was fully developed in Christian art since at least the sixth century. The Halo of Christ takes the form of a tri-radiant nimbus that symbolically encapsulates the preaching of the Gospel in many ways:

    1) God is Light! (1 John 1:5) The rays inscribed in the Halo reminds us of this fundamental truth which opens the way to the storehouse of God’s knowledge. “It is God who said, ‘Let LIGHT SHINE out of darkness,’ that has shone into our hearts to enlighten them with the knowledge of God’s glory, the glory on the FACE of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)

    2) The radiance is cruciform. The Cross is the Center of the Christian Faith. “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. ” (1 Corinthians 2:2)

    3) The three rays also link to the Trinity. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) We find in Christian iconography the Hand of God (Manus Dei) encircled by the cruciform halo as a symbol of God the Father. The same goes for the Dove which is pictured with the same halo, as an image of the Holy Spirit. Therefore the three Persons of the Trinity are depicted with a surrounding tri-radiant nimbus. God is Love and God is Trinity – the Love that exists in Eternity within the Trinitarian Community was shared with us and the grandest display of this Love in Time took place when God Incarnate was nailed on a Cross for us.

    This all comes together in the Sign of the Cross, which simultaneously proclaims the Cross event and the baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit! It was typologically antecipated in the saving mark on the forehead prophesied by Ezekiel (9:4). The mark was called a tav, the name of the letter that completes and finishes the Hebrew Alphabet (cp. Lamentations 4:22; John 19:30). It corresponds to the Greek letter Tau, in the shape of a three-armed Cross. The Tau Cross is by the way a mark that identifies the Franciscans (http://www.ciofs.org/per/1997/lc97en22.htm).

    4) The man Jesus Christ is fully God. The Greek letters in the arms spell “Ho On”, the great Divine title that Christ claimed for Himself. (Exodus 3:14; John 8:32; Revelation 1:8) He is the Self-Existing One who was made flesh. Therefore the Hypostatic Union – the joining together of the human and divine natures of Crhist – is also taught in the picture of the Halo.

    5) The cruciform halo is isomorphic to the image of the Cross and Orb. (See for example Fra Angelico’s Christ the Judge at http://christ.church.montreal.music.googlepages.com/FraAngelicoChristtheJudgeDuomoOrviet.jpg) It reminds that the Message of the Cross should go to all the earth. “… If so ye continue in the faith, grounded and settled, and immoveable from the hope of the gospel which you have heard, which is preached in all the creation that is under heaven.” (Colossians 1:23)

    6) The threefold radiance also reminds of the three pairs of gates of Ezekiel’s escathological Temple. (e.g. http://www.sonstoglory.com/images/EzekielsTemplebyPaulJablonowski.jpg) All three pointed to the Altar of Sacrifice in the very center of the Temple, which of course is a type of the Cross! In fact, Christ Himself is the escathological Temple: “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ (…) But He was speaking of the temple of His body.” (John 2:19,21) It is amazing to find this convergence between historical Christian Art and inspired typological Architheture.

    7) The Circle is a symbol of Holiness and Wholeness (Sanctity and Completion), for it is the only two-dimensional geometric object that is infinitely symmetric. The holiness of the saints is but a small glimpse of the Glory of the Most Holy God. The three arms that surround the Persons of the Trinity thus serve as a reminder that only God is “Holy, Holy, Holy!”

    Of course there is a lot more than that. Iconography is a mighty way of proclaiming the Gospel. In a single simple image of the Halo we learn about the the Light of God, the Cross, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the worldwide Preaching of the Gospel, the Body of Jesus as Temple and the Holiness of God!

    Praise Him forever!

  5. I referenced a few links above that are not working because the parenthesis made its way into the URLs. Here they are again, plus a couple of comments:

    – The Tau Cross in the Franciscan Tradition: http://www.ciofs.org/per/1997/lc97en22.htm

    – Image of Christ the Judge, by Fra Angelico: http://christ.church.montreal.music.googlepages.com/FraAngelicoChristtheJudgeDuomoOrviet.jpg

    – 3D Model of the Temple described in Ezekiel 40-42: http://www.sonstoglory.com/images/EzekielsTemplebyPaulJablonowski.jpg

    Please note how the gates greatly stand out in relation to the overall plan of the Temple. There is an obvious isomorphism between the three rays in Christ’s Halo and these three pairs of gates.

    I should have supplied the translation of the Greek “Ho On”. There is a Greek letter in each ray: Omicron Omega Nu, forming “Ho On”. It is how the Septuagint renders the phrase I AM in Exodus 3:14.

    Exo 3:13 Then Moses said to God, “Behold, I am going to the sons of Israel, and I shall say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you.’ Now they may say to me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them?”
    Exo 3:14 And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM (EGO EIMI HO ON)”; and He said, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM (HO ON) has sent me to you.'”

    EGO EIMI is the Name of God that Christ uses to convey His identity in John. And Revelation 1:8 calls Him the “HO ON.”

  6. Victor (et al.),
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
    I wanted to keep this post focused on just one element, and that was on the topic of halos and the way in which those around Our Lord’s head emanate outwards whereas the others are there by grace and reflection.
    But surely it’s interesting to consider the name used. I also find it interesting that IC XC isn’t within the halo, whereas HO ON is. It’s as if that which is closest/most fundamental is the fact that God Is.


  7. I wonder if the reflective nature of us Christians is why the Blessed Mother is depicted as standing on the moon in Revelations 12. Even though that was before scientists determined that the Moon gained all of it’s luminosity from being reflected from the Sun, it’s source, it seems to me that that might be reflective (pardon the pun) of the Blessed Mother (and all of us) gaining all her light and grace from the source, her Divine Son. It probably didn’t originally mean that as this aspect of the moon’s luminosity didn’t come about until recent times, but it’s something I ponder about at times.

  8. The Ikon of the Holy Apostles was written by the hand of Nikolai Tsai, and Orthodox iconographer from San Francisco, CA. His work is extraordinary and absolutely invokes awe. His website is : http://www.nikolaitsai.us/ Visit the website of Holy Apostles Orthodox Mission to see the home of this beautiful Ikon: http://www.holyapostleschurch.org/ Many Thanks!

  9. So are the 3 stars in Christ’s Halo?
    Does a ring of Stars mean the Mother Mary?

  10. […] iconography, the halos of angels and Saints are typically filled with gold. In icons of Christ, however, there is also a […]

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