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The Halo: A Further Enquiry into Its Origin

By: E. H. Ramsden



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Haloed Mary and Child flanked by Constantine and Justinian I from Hagia Sophia, Constantinople

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Representation of Fravahar [xvarənah],

from the tomb of Emperor Artaxerexes, Persepolis 


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Fig. 1. Carved Capital, Sasanian Taq-e Bostan

Image: CAIS Image Library

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Figure 2. Medallion of Constant I, Mid. 4th century A.D.

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Fig. 3. Antiochus I of Commagene and Mithras. Relief, Seleucid Period from Nimrud-Dagh, Asia Minor Mid. 1st c. B.C.

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FIg. 4. The Royal Investiture of Ardashir, ROck Carving, Sasanian Taq-e Bostan, late 4th c. A.D.

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Fig, 5. Coin of Kaniska Kushan, Late or Early 2nd c. A.D.

(Click to enlarge)


In view of the importance of the halo in art and considering the extensiveness of its use, it is curious to find so little agreement of opinion as to its origin and meaning, since it has been variously described as a ‘symbol of the fire-worshippers of the East’, as a decorative device, as a diadem, as a visible sign of the light and glory of God, as a protection from bird-droppings, as the disc of the sun and as the hvareno [xvarənah] of the Persians. What, then, is the evidence that may be deduced in support of any one of these ascriptions? Is there any possibility of a reconciliation between them and when and where is the halo or nimbus first extensively used? These are some of the questions that must be answered in order to reach a definite conclusion.


On purely epistemological grounds two of these possibilities may be discounted from the outset. It is unlikely in the first place that a symbol that is found in the fourth century as far east as India and as far west as Rome is nothing more than a decorative device, and it is even more unlikely in the second that the disc which was used to protect statues from bird-droppings would have been imitated in painting in which it would be meaningless. As to the fire-worshippers of the East, these may probably be described more precisely as Zoroastrians, in which case the symbol in question might reasonably be identified with the Persian Hvareno or glory. This would then reduce the possibilities to four between which there may have been some degree of fusion, distinct though the ideas themselves originally were. As far as the sun is concerned, however, it seems necessary to make a distinction between its representational and its symbolic use, the former being seen, for instance, on the tauroctone monuments of the Mithraic cult when the rayed head of the sun is shown on one side to counterbalance a head with the crescent moon on the other, and the latter when it is shown in the form of a disc, as on the Commagene sculpture erected by Antiochus I (69-34 B.C.) where Mithras is represented with both the disc and the radiate halo-a fact which in itself would seem to indicate a difference between the two [FIGURE 3]. But whether this is so or not, it seems essential, in order to clarify the issue, to disregard the vague and more doubtful examples of radiate figures, such as, and similar to, those on the Mohenjo-daro seals, and to concentrate attention on those which exhibit the halo in a clearly defined form, the radiate heads on the coins of the Roman Emperors who are portrayed with the crown and not the nimbus being likewise excluded.


Now, in view of the fact that the halo appears both in Buddhist and in Christian art, though having no particular significance in either, it seems reasonable to suppose that it was derived by both from a common source, from an intermediate region and, presumably, from some other powerful and influential cult. If this is the case, then it is in Persia that its origin must be sought, and in the widespread teaching of the Mazdian or, more specifically, of the Zoroastrian religion, which had its beginnings probably in Bactria at an early, but still undetermined, date, that its explanation must be found. What internal evidence exists, then, as to the origin of such a symbol? Apparently much that might be considered conclusive if the halo can be identified with the hvareno, as indeed it must if this theory is correct.  The word Hvareno itself is derived from the same root as the Persian word for sun, namely Hvare, from which it becomes apparent that the basis of the whole connection is light, the distinguishing characteristic of the Mazdian religion.  As to the precise meaning of the term, this is clearly set forth in the Introduction to the Vendidad, where it is said that "the Hvareno is properly the light of sovereignty, the glory from above, which makes the king an earthly god.  He who possesses it reigns. He who loses it falls." Now, according to the tenth Yast of the Zend-Avesta, "the god with whom the awful kingly glory proceeds is Mithra, the god of light, and it is he who 'confounds the nation that delights in havoc and takes away their glory.' "Yet despite his natural connection with the sun, it is evident from the early writings that Mithras was originally worshipped as a separate deity, though later on with the increase of his popularity in the West he came to be identified with the Sun as Sol Invictus, as Strabo has recorded in the passage where he says, "The Persians do not erect statues and altars, but offer sacrifices on a high place, regarding the Heavens as Zeus . . . they also worship Helios, whom they call Mithras."


Since from this it appears that it was not the practice of the Persians to erect statues and altars, the unlikelihood of discovering any concrete proof of the use of the halo in Persia itself at once becomes evident, though it is not until after the establishment of Mithraism as an independent cult that it is used elsewhere as a recognisable symbol either on coins or in the plastic arts. It is certain, in any case, that no halo appears on the extant monuments of the Achaemenid dynasty (535-323 B.C.), though the winged disc of Ahura Mazda (a form probably derived from Egypt through the Hittites) is not uncommon. It is therefore significant that it first appears on the coins of the Scythian and Bactrian kings, in association with Iranian legends and types, as Sir Aurel Stein has shown, the earliest example being on an issue of Maues, who reigned east of the Indus during the first half of the first century B.C., to which period the Commagene sculpture, already mentioned, also belongs. I t was used in particular as a mark of distinction by the Kushan kings (A.D. 50-225),who depicted among their coin types both Mithras and the Buddha, the one being shown sometimes with the radiate and sometimes with the simple halo, the other with the disc halo and aureole.[1] The connection between Mithras and the halo is, moreover, further corroborated by the fact that the halo is extensively used in Gandharan sculpture, on which Mithraic figures in the Phrygian cap are a common decorative feature.


Again, the halo is common on the coinage of the Guptas (A.D.320-480) where it is found in conjunction with a Parthian motif of a much earlier date, namely, the offering or handing on of what appears to be the Persian diadem[2] (probably to be distinguished by its ribbands from an ordinary crown of victory), a motif which is not confined to the coinage, but is seen in the Gotarzes relief at Behistan (A.D. 42-51) and persists in Persian art as late as the Sassanian dynasty (A.D. 226-642). The most notable example of the handing on of this symbol which Rostovtzev describes as the Great Hvareno, the main symbol of royal power-an age-old motif of Iranian art, is seen in the rock carvings of Takt-i-Bostan. In this sculpture [FIGURE 4] Zoroaster is represented with a rayed halo, a form which A. V. W.Jackson describesas typical. In this connection it may be emphasised that the Persian kings, from the time of Darius onwards, claimed their sovereignty from Ormazd and that the Sassanians themselves were orthodox adherents of this ancient faith.


At this point the question arises as to whether there is not some connection between the halo and the diadem, in as much as the halos on the capitals at Takt-i-Bostan are shown with ribbands floating behind in a manner which suggests the tail-ends of the diadem [FIGURE 1] and recalls a curious example of a head in profile on a coin of Kaniska [A.D. 78-132][3], which is represented with a halo to which the diadem ribbands are clearly attached, an arrangement which is also seen on one or two other Indo-Scythian coins [FIGURE 5].


It is difficult, however, with only a few examples of this kind to draw any final conclusions, but it may be remarked that in works of reference the halo or nimbus is often referred to as a diadem, and that it was once popularly so conceived may be gathered from an Italian work of the eighteenth century,[4] in which it is expressly denied that the nimbus is the diadem of oriental kings. But in as much as the writer is solely concerned with disassociating Christianity from all pagan influences, regardless of historical evidence to the contrary, this contention proves nothing whatsoever. But even if he is minded to find within the scriptures authority for every Christian symbol, he would still be hard put to it to exclude from the post-exilic utterances of the Prophets all trace of Iranian influence ; for it is difficult not to suppose that some memory of Persian imagery remains in such a verse, for instance, as " Thou shalt be a royal diadem in the hand of thy God," and that some reference to the Hvareno may not be seen in the words " Arise, shine, for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee."  But whether this is so or not, the fact remains that there is a peculiar tradition of resplendence among the Persians, which finds expression in the illumination of the mother of Zoroaster before his birth, when " the glory resided in her " and she became transcendent in splendour,[5] and in such an utterance as that recorded by Plutarch in his Life of Alexander, when the eunuch said to Darius, " Neither my mistress Statia . . . nor your royal children missed anything of their former fortune except to behold the light of your countenance, which the great Ormasdes will again cause to shine with as much lustre as before."


This view that the halo is the Hvareno of the Persians et Zoroastre and by Dhalla, the great authority on Zoroastrianism, who records the fact that "the Magi had established themselves during the Parthian period (248 B.C.-A.D. 222) in large numbers in eastern Asia Minor, Galatia, Phrygia, Lydia and even in Egypt and that the kings of Cappadocia, Pontus and Bactria honoured the 'Glory’.” That Iranian influence and beliefs were widely diffused over Asia Minor is borne out also by the fact that the Magi were established as far west as Ephesus at the beginning of the Hellenistic period; moreover, as Cumont has shown, the great trade routes were not only a means of communication between the East and the Mediterranean world, but were also the highway by which the worship of the gods of the Orient reached the great commercial settlements of Syria, whence it spread through the eastern Empire to Europe. Of these deities those of Persia were among the most powerful, as witness the popularity of Mithras during the first centuries of the Christian era. But before discussing the Mithraic mysteries, it might be convenient to consider the evidence of Persian influence as it has been revealed by the excavations at Duros Europas and Palmyra, the famous caravan cities which were successively in the hands of Parthia and Rome. For, despite the slender remains of Parthian art, Rostovtzev maintains that its influence was widespread and that the Arsacidae were Iranian both by tradition and by religion.  This, as he has shown, did not, however, prevent them from taking over the Babylonian gods, Bel, Yarhibol and Aglibol, when Babylon came a Parthian city, in the same way that Zeus was also worshipped in an Iranian form. That is to say, in such fragments of hybrid sculpture and painting as have been discovered and restored in Duros and Palmyra these gods are shown wearing Parthian dress and Parthian weapons. But the point that is of interest here is that in examples in both cities the halo is an important accessory. In the temple of Zeus Theos at Duros, for instance, he is shown in a painting of the second century A.D. in his Parthian aspect, with a well-defined halo, while in the fresco of Roman troops worshipping Baal-Zeus, Yarhibol and Aglibol, which belongs to A.D. 229, not only are the three gods shown with the halo, but also the tutelary deities of Palmyra and Duros, who were variously termed Fortuna, Tύχη Hvareno, though it has been denied, and probably with reason, that Hvareno was lever personified. It nevertheless remains significant that wherever the halo appears, it seems impossible to disassociate it from Persian influence.


It may, on the other hand, be contended that its appearance in painting and sculpture of this kind coincides with the rise of a solar henotheism that spread from the Near East throughout the Roman Empire.[6] Yet, even so, the sun-god par excellence at this time was Mithras, the Persian god "with whom proceeds the awful kingly glory," who became identified with Sol Invictus and whose cult was for three centuries the most powerful rival to Christianity. It is known also from various sources that Mithras was favoured by the Roman Emperors because of his function of dispensing the "glory," which was a mark of " true king," an idea which was probably fused with the conception of  the divinity of kings, a conception which had spread through the Hellenistic world after the Alexandrian conquests, until in time an actual identification was recognized. Thus it appears that, in emulation of Alexander, who assumed the diadem and modelled his court upon a Persian pattern, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings were worshipped before as well as after death, and that among the latter, Antiochus IV , Theos Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.) laid special stress on his divinity and "hence is crowned with rays”[7] though Bevan doubts whether this is more than a coincidence with the hvareno. It might, however, more plausibly be thought to be identical inasmuch as it was under the Seleucidsthat the cult of Fortuna, Tύχη and Hvareno arose and also because Syria belongs at once to Asia and to the Mediterranean world, a fact which bears upon the development of the art of the Early Church, in which the halo is likewise a predominant symbol.


As far as the representation of the Roman Emperors is concerned, the halo, apart from the radiate crown, is not common until the fourth century, but from the time of Constantine, who like the Seleucids, Ptolemies and Cappadocian kings, had assumed the diadem, the halo is a constant attribute, and it is interesting to notice the similarity of style which exists between contemporary representations of Christ and that, for instance, of the Emperor Constant I (A.D. 333-350), who is shown on a medallion with the nimbus and his hand raised in an attitude of blessing [FIGURE2].  From this time it also becomes a practice to distinguish Christ by means of the halo, one of the earliest examples of which is to be seen in the Constantine Bowl, which was found in Egypt and dates from the fourth century.[8]  It likewise makes its appearance at this time as an accepted form in the paintings in the Catacombs, so that during this century from Italy in the West to India in the East the halo is generally recognized as a symbol of royalty and divinity, with a curious uniformity considering its isolated appearances in earlier times.


For this reason, it must be assumed that its origin is not to be sought within any one of the systems in which it was used, so that the only tenable view seems to be that it was derived from a more powerful, ancient and widespread religious cult, with which each had been in contact at some time or other.


With regard to Christianity, it is common knowledge that its recognition was seriously threatened during the period of its establishment by Mithraism, and that in order to compete with the popular celebrations of the sun-god on December 25th, that date was chosen to commemorate the birth of Christ, notwithstanding the fact that the traditional date was early in January.


Christianity has, in addition, many features in common with the Mithraic mysteries, in its use, for instance, of water, bread and wine, and it is therefore not unreason- able to suppose that it assimilated other features, such as "la gloire victorieuse (le hvarenah), symbole lumineux d e l'energie radiante."[9]  A similarity of types as between Mithraic and Christian art may also be seen in such examples as the Sylvanus mosaic (now in the Lateran Museum, but formerly in a Mithraeum) dating from the second or third century, in which the, god is depicted with a halo and might easily be mistaken for an early Christ,and in the silver dishes from Cyprus,[10] dating from the sixth century, now in the Pierpont Morgan Collection, which show David, who wears the halo, killing the lion and bear, in a style closely allied to the Mithras of the tauroctone monuments. Again, on the fourth century Sarcophagus of the exarch Isaiah,[11] Christ is shown with a halo and the Magi are portrayed in Phrygian caps, in a style that is distinctly Mithraic, while the sixth-century textile of the Annunciation from the Sancta Santorum, which shows an effective use of the halo, is purely Persian in style[12], recalls the fact that it is to Persia that Christianity owes the type of bearded Christ, which later prevailed over the more youthful Greek type.


Although the introduction of Mithraism into the Roman world is said to date from Pompey's capture of the Silesian pirates (67 B.C.), whence it may have exerted a certain influence upon Christian iconography, yet, as Sartiaux, Dalton and Diehl have shown, it was in Syria and in the Anatolian provinces under Persian and Hellenistic influences, that the great art of the Eastern Church had its inception, an art which later developed into the monumental forms of the Byzantine school. And, not only is the halo everywhere depicted in the paintings and mosaics of this school, but it is also shown throughout such works as the Rabula MSS., one of the most ancient records of Near Eastern Christianity, and in the Topographia of Cosmas Indicopleustes, both of which belong to the sixth century.  


But while, as a religious symbol, the halo has been retained until recent times in both Christian and Buddhist art, it is apparently only in Persian art, or in art such as the Mughal, which is directly derived from Persia, that it has persisted as a symbol of royalty, so that it appears in Persian and Mughal representations a t least as late as the seventeenth century, a fact which under the circumstances may be regarded as significant.


From all that has been said, it thus becomes evident that it would be difficult to overestimate the range and the importance of the diffusion of Iranian, or more specifically, of Mazdian ideas during the Hellenistic and early Christian periods, the influence of the Mithraic cult in particular being, as Cumont has shown, as far-reaching as it was effective. In view, therefore, of the evidence deduced above, and in the absence of any example of the halo that I have been able to discover, appearing at times or in places remote from all possible connection with Persian prototypes, it may be assumed with some confidence that the halo of Buddhist and Christian art is not a symbol of doubtful origin and meaningless value, but a specific attribute of kingly glory, bestowed by God, by Ahura Mazda, Lord of Wisdom.


[1] PERCYGARDNER:Coins of the Greek and Scythian Kinp of Bactria and India.

[2] J. DE MORGAN: Numismatique Orientak.

[3] Professor W. P. Yetts' dating.

[4] f G. MARANGON: Delle Cost Gmtillische e Profane [1744].

[5] A. V. W. JACKSON : Zorouster

[6] Incidentally, it may be noted that the Gnostics were strongly influenced by Magian doctrines and beliefs, that " the Abraxas gems confirm the explanation that he was identified with the sun-god" and that Mithraic and Abraxas amulets were often combined.

[7] E. R. BEVAN : The House of S e l m .

[8] Now in the British Museum.

[9] CHARLEAS UTRAN: Mithra et &omtre.

[10] O. M . DALTO: Byzantine Art and Archaeology, pp. 98-99, figs. 57-58.

[11] In S. Vitale, Ravenna.

[12] O. M . DALTO:N op. Cit., pp. 599, fig. 378.



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