A halo, also called a nimbus, is a geometric shape, usually in the form of a disk, circle, ring, or rayed structure. Traditionally, the halo represents a radiant light around or above the head of a divine or sacred person. Since halos are found nowhere in the Bible, what is their origin in Christianity?
Interestingly, the word “halo” comes from the Greek word for a threshing floor. It was on these floors that oxen moved round and round in a continuous circle on the ground, making a circular path in the shape we now associate with halos. Many ancient societies, including the Egyptians, Indians and Romans, used a circular sign to suggest supernatural forces, such as angels, at work.
In art, halos originally appeared as disks of gold sketched upon the head of a figure. This depicted a sphere of light radiating from the head of the person, suggesting that the subject was in a mystical state or sometimes just very smart. Because of its shape and color, the halo was also associated with the sun and resurrection. By the fourth century, the halo had become widely used in standard Christian art. Essentially, it was used to mark a figure as being in the kingdom of light. Most commonly, Jesus and the Virgin Mary are shown with halos, along with the angels. In fact, halos are found in art forms all over the world. Sometimes, especially in the East, crowns are used instead of halos, but the meaning is the same: holiness, innocence, and spiritual power.
With it not being found in the Bible, the halo is both pagan and non-Christian in its origin. Many centuries before Christ, natives decorated their heads with a crown of feathers to represent their relationship with the sun god. The halo of feathers upon their heads symbolized the circle of light that distinguished the shining divinity or god in the sky. As a result, these people came to believe that adopting such a nimbus or halo transformed them into a kind of divine being.
However, interestingly enough, before the time of Christ, this symbol had already been used by not only the Hellenistic Greeks in 300 B.C., but also by the Buddhists as early as the first century A.D. In Hellenistic and Roman art, the sun-god, Helios, and Roman emperors often appear with a crown of rays. Because of its pagan origin, the form was avoided in early Christian art, but a simple circular nimbus was adopted by Christian emperors for their official portraits.
From the middle of the fourth century, Christ was portrayed with this imperial attribute, and depictions of His symbol, the Lamb of God, also displayed halos. In the fifth century, halos were sometimes given to angels, but it was not until the sixth century that the halo became customary for the Virgin Mary and other saints. For a period during the fifth century, living persons of eminence were depicted with a square nimbus.
Then, throughout the Middle Ages, the halo was used regularly in representations of Christ, the angels, and the saints. Often, Christ’s halo is quartered by the lines of a cross or inscribed with three bands, interpreted to signify His position in the Trinity. Round halos are typically used to signify saints, meaning those people considered as spiritually gifted. A cross within a halo is most often used to represent Jesus. Triangular halos are used for representations of the Trinity. Square halos are used to depict unusually saintly living personages.
As we’ve stated at the outset, the halo was in use long before the Christian era. It was an invention of the Hellenists in 300 B.C. and is not found anywhere in the Scriptures. In fact, the Bible gives us no example for the bestowal of a halo upon anyone. If anything, the halo has been derived from the profane art forms of ancient secular art traditions.