Crosses often appear with a circle or arc, and can be called a Halo Cross. If the cross is part of the halo itself, it may be referred to as Tri-radiant Nimbus (Latin: Corona tri radians).
Synonyms for Halo include Nimbus, Aureole, Glory and Gloriole.
perhaps the most widely recognised Halo Cross
The word 'halo' comes from the Greek halos, which means the ring of light shown around the sun.
The Sun Cross was probably an early representation of that oldest and most powerful god, Sun. No surprise therefore that the symbolism transferred into other religions such as Hellenistic Greek and Roman religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. And arguably the most prolific sacred art with haloes has been Christian art. Not only has the bright circle been adopted, but also the original term 'halo' has been retained.
As Thomas Inman (1820–1876) says in his Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism, a writer describing the attributes of a deity can use words such as supernatural, immortal, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and so on. A sculptor or painter, on the other hand, would find portraying the same more challenging, but craftily gets around the problem by simply adding a halo.
The photo on the right shows a halo around the depiction of Jesus Christ. When a cross is shown as part of the halo, as in this picture, the image is nearly always that of Jesus Christ. (Such crosses usually show three arms; hence, Tri-radiant Nimbus.) Without a cross, one can assume the image is of a saint, an angel, a prophet or some other holy person.
A circle or arc is much easier to draw or carve than an image of a holy person, therefore just the halo is sometimes shown on its own to represent a holy person. (See for example, the halo on the lamb in Angus Dei artwork.)
A Halo Cross is a generic term for many crosses with such shapes. The Celtic Cross (above, left) is perhaps the most common and a few more examples are shown here on the right.
The halo shape can be secondary to some other sacred entity. The Rainbow, for example reminds us of God's promise to mankind and also represents light – the rainbow after the storm of living in this world. The Ankh reminds us of the rebirth possible through Jesus' sacrifice; the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus when he was crucified; the Wreath made from leaves plucked from bushes and trees, sacrificed to make the wreath, conveniently in a halo shape; and the Enshrined cross, acknowledging the importance of the cross itself.
"The righteous shall shine forth as the Halo in the kingdom of their Father." (Matt. 13:43)
Halos in other religions
Halos are not restricted to Christianity; other religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism use halos in iconography.
The Buddhist statue on the left, seen in Tokyo, Japan, is shown with a kouhai or gokou (halo), holding a trident weapon to protect babies & young children.
It's easy to understand how ancient man would look at the sun as the most powerful god. Today, we are more enlightened and know that the sun is just an enormous ball of gas. We also now know that it's not unique – there are countless other stars visible to the naked eye, some of which are much brighter than our sun.
Conversely, where in the past man believed there were a countless number of gods, we now have the intelligence to reason that there is only one supreme God.
Thomas Inman writes: "The aureole was used in ancient days by Babylonian artists or sculptors, when they wished to represent a being, apparently human, as a god. The same plan has been adopted by the moderns, who have varied the symbol by representing it now as a golden disc, now as a terrestrial orb, again as a rayed sphere. A writer, when describing a god as a man, can say that the object he sketches is divine; but a painter thinks too much of his art to put on any of his designs, "this woman is a goddess," or "this creature is a god"; he therefore adds an aureole round the head of his subject, and thus converts a very ordinary man, woman, or child into a deity to be reverenced; modern artists thus proving themselves to be far more skilful in depicting the Almighty than the carpenters and goldsmiths of the time of Isaiah (40:18-19; 41:6-7; 44:9-19), who used no such contrivance."
Sean writes that as an attribute of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the triradiant halo is cruciform in shape. It is iconographically and artistically incorrect to use it for anyone other than a member of the Holy Trinity; most often to denote Jesus (although every so often it is mistakenly shown behind the head of one saint or another) and it is properly found behind the head of the Lamb of God or the Dove when it is a sign of the Holy Spirit.
For Jesus and the Holy Spirit the triradiant nimbus is properly encircled, while for God the Father the triradiance is enclosed by a triangle. There is a caveat to that rule, when encircling the creative Hand of God (Latin: Manus Dei) it is most often encircled.
The triradiant halo signifies that:
- God is Light (1 John 1:5)
- Through the Cross we are saved "For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified." (1 Cor. 2:2)
- God is Love (1 John 4:8,16) and that the love existing in time derives from the eternal love in which exists Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Sign of the Cross is, after all, a Trinitarian creedal statement.